By now you know the recruiting pundits don't think much of Jerry Kill's first recruiting class as the head coach of the Minnesota Gophers. Not that they blame him- everyone admits it's tough to recruit when you come in late and try to piece together a class. Kill's group of 2011 recruits was ranked 50th in the country and 9th in the Big Ten by Rivals and 70th nationally/11th BT by Scout.
I'm not as discouraged as some by these results. Am I drinking the Kill Koolaid? Mmmmmmm you betcha. Grape flavored today (I need to talk to Coach Kill about a "blue powerade" flavor because blue powerade is more addictive than crack. I love that stuff). I ran a couple of posts recently about how recruiting rankings for individual players don't necessarily translate to on-field success. The first referenced Adam Rittenberg's piece about recruiting rankings for the 2010 All-Big Ten selections, and how 11 of those guys were ranked as two-star prospects or lower coming out of high school. The second was a quick look back at Gopher recruiting classes since 2002, and that also showed plenty of two and three star players who turned into not just contributors, but starters and impact players (it also showed just how awful Glen Mason's last few recruiting classes were. I'm still trying to wash my eyes out from the pain and torture of witnessing some of those).
What I was trying to show was that you don't necessarily need top 20 recruiting classes to have success on the football field. What you need is a coaching staff who can find the right players to fit their system and execute it really well. Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern are three examples of this in the Big Ten, and I think are good gauges for us to go off of. Those are three programs that face similar recruiting challenges that we find at the U, but have all turned lesser-known recruits into BCS-bowl teams, and in Wisconsin and Iowa's cases, have been doing it for a long time. Are their recruiting classes better than what Minnesota has been getting? Generally yes, but they're not battling it out with the SEC or Texas or USC for top 10 or 15 or even 20 nationally ranked classes. They are, however, teams who are consistently ranked in the top 25 at the end of each season in the rankings that truely matter- the one's that measure a team's performance on the field (when I say "consistently" I mean in years where Iowa isn't expected to do much. When they are, like 2010...well you know. The Hawkeyes then fall out of the top 25 and lose to us. No matter what the expectations, they lose to Northwestern. Hey remember when Minnesota beat Iowa last year and took back the Pig? Really, really good times. Thanks again, Jeff Horton).
While the recruiting rankings don't look great, Gopher fans should be excited that we have a staff in place who have proven at every stop that they have a system, they coach it very, very well, and they're very good at finding players to fit into it. All of that has led to winning everywhere Coach Kill and his staff have been, and I'm optimistic it will continue here at Minnesota.
However, that's not to say we should just throw the recruiting rankings out...
That's not it at all. How much they truly matter is debatable, but without a doubt, they DO matter. Stewart Mandel of SI.com has a recruiting wrapup that's up to his usual standards of goodness. If you're looking for a national focus on the day that was NLI Day 2011, it's a good read. But I point you there for two articles he links to from Matt Hinton's Dr. Saturday blog: one that shows a very direct correlation between a team's perceived recruiting success and its actual on-field achievement. The other that shows the higher a player is ranked, the better the chance he has of panning out. The 11 BCS conference schools considered "5 star recruiters" between 2006-2010 who had the highest ranked classes (the usual suspects of Bama, Florida, FSU, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and Southern Cal) had a .632 winning percentage over that span. "Two Star" BCS schools like Minnesota had a winning percentage of just .389.
According to Rivals' data used by Doc Saturday, 5 star prospects have a 1-13 chance of being an All-American, 4 stars are 1-53, 3-star 1-172, and 2 star 1-744. Pretty substantial change in percentages there, and shows why the Big Boys who keep getting those four and five star recruits have a much better chance of winning games than the school's pulling in two and three star recruits.
So it certainly matters...but do you expect the Gopher to ever be one of those "5 star" recruiters? I love Coach Kill, and believe in what he's doing, but no matter how good he gets, Minnesota's not going to be a perenial top 10 or top 15 recruiter. Heck I think pushing the top 20 nationally would be quite a feat. Here again is where some Gopher fans may differ with me but I see Minnesota, at its peak, competing on a level annually with Wisconsin and Iowa, not Ohio State or Nebraska. OSU and the Huskers, at their peak, are "5 star" schools. I think the best Minnesota could ever dream of would be a "4 star" and even that is a stretch larger than Jeff Wills' waist line. To put it in perspective, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Northwestern have had better records than ours over the past five years, and yet Sconnie rates as a "3 star", Iowa a "2", and Northwestern a lowly "1".
So while it'd be great to see Minnesota get more three and four star kids, I'm not worried about us ever needing to become a recruiting national power to be successful in the Big Ten. Until proven otherwise, I trust Coach Kill knows what he's doing and that regardless of star ratings, he's recruiting the right players for his system so that Minnesota can be successful. Yeah I would have liked more high profile guys in this first class, but I think in the time he had (which wasn't much) Coach Kill has laid a good foundation and already has the program going back in the right direction.