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College Football Player Development Part Two: What Does It Mean?

The UpUpDownDown post on which teams and conferences excel at player development has been examined and reexamined by the best of the college football blogosphere and, well, not the best.  The numbers have been examined by every Rivals message board with a pulse and, aside from that Nebraska guy who wanted to count Johnny Rodgers and Jerry Tagge, there have been remarkably few criticisms of the methodology.  So well done, UUDD.

Once the process was examined and accepted, the next inevitable question began springing up: What does it all mean?  Why is it that USC, Ohio State, and Iowa do such a good job of turning their players into pros (inevitable "because at USC and OSU they already are pros" jokes notwithstanding) while the division formerly known as the Big XII North is so terrible?  The theories:

The "System" Theory (via UpUpDownDown)

From the author himself, the System Theory is relatively simple: The "smashmouth" pro style offenses of the Big Ten (and, to a lesser extent, the Pac-10) prepare players for NFL schemes where they will be called upon to do nearly the same thing:

First, while the Big 12 does an acceptable, albeit subpar, job of developing offensive prospects, the league is brutal when it comes to developing defenders and linemen. This seems like strong evidence for the play-style hypothesis, since those are exactly the areas one would expect to suffer under a passing-emphasis style. The Big Ten's development profile also reflects its reputation, but in a good way. The Big Ten does not struggle in any area of player development, but it truly shines at bringing along defenders and the men in the trenches. Smash-mouth football is alive and well in the Big Ten, and tangibly benefiting its players. I'm sure that Big Ten and Big 12 programs go head to head for more than a few prospects each year, and defenders in particular should heed these numbers - choosing the Big 12 means you are accepting a big hit to any NFL aspirations.

The response from Big XII country (a/k/a Texas and the former Indian Territories) was that Texas and OU routinely land picks at the top of the draft, thereby showing that it's not a question of talent.  What the UT/OU contingent doesn't realize is that their argument only solidifies the System Theory.  At the top of the draft, teams are drafting in large part on athletic potential.  The home run, 4.3 40, 35 rep combine animals at the top of the first round are being chosen for precisely those numbers.  Even quarterbacks, which generally undergo a completely different set of physical tests of arm strength, height, etc., are examined primarily on measurable physical attributes.  But later in the draft, where teams like Iowa really land their players, it's no longer a sprinting contest.  The margins between second- and third-day players are minimal, so teams look instead at the ability of a pick to fill a spot and immediately contribute.  That requires technique and football intelligence, and that's where the Big Ten seems to excel.

Still, I don't believe style of play explains everything.  While between-the-tackles football might better prepare a lineman for the NFL, it still doesn't change the fact that virtually every player in the draft will have to learn a completely new system upon their selection.  "Pro-style" schemes in college still aren't pro schemes; Bill Callahan showed what happens when that is attempted.  A player from a "smashmouth" football conference may have a technique edge, but that would likely be the extent of the benefit.

Further, and possibly most importantly, the perception of the Big Ten as a three-yards-and-cloud-of-dust conference is, at this point, virtually untrue.  The study examined 2002-present; during that time, Purdue, Northwestern, and Indiana have run spread schemes almost exclusively.  Illinois ran spread schemes with Juice Williams.  Minnesota tried it for a year or three.  Michigan spent three years with RichRod.  Ohio State has experimented with pistol and other spread concepts.  Even Joe Paterno has used the spread (in high definition!) for a significant chunk of time.  In fact, the only teams to completely resist have been Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan State; we'll get to the significance of that later.  Needless to say, though, when more than half your conference is running non-traditional offenses, you're no more "pro-style" than the SEC.

The "Rivals Is Shit" Theory (via MGoBlog)

The counterpoint, and I think a valid one, comes from Brian (of course).  In it, he states the obvious: Linemen are more difficult to scout, linemen are where the Big Ten butters its bread, and Rivals is too profit-oriented or lazy to spend too much time figuring out which linemen are good:

I think there may another element at work: scouting services overrating certain sections of the country and underrating others, particularly the Midwest. Rivals (the source of the rankings used) doesn't even have a Midwest analyst. Meanwhile, OL rankings are particularly inaccurate since many high school kids need to put on 50 pounds before they can play in college. The flipside—skill position players more easily projectable—sees a much, much lower spread amongst conferences. The worst-performing conference is the ACC at 94% of expectation; the best is the Big East at 108%. That's a much lower spread than you see in the D and OL numbers, one that looks like an even distribution distorted by a little randomness.

If there was a regional bias in recruiting rankings, hard-to-evaluate OL would be the place it would show up most prominently. I think there is. Your ratings are just wrong when Wisconsin has two four-star linemen in the last five years, as they do on Rivals. They are not evaluating linemen correctly. I'm not sure what Big 12's hole of suck on defense represents but I'd be more convinced it was a playstyle thing if they were running 3-3-5s or something. Going up against Blaine Gabbert and a bunch of other passing spreads doesn't make much difference to anyone but a few linebackers, it seems.

This appears extremely plausible, especially given the success of programs like Iowa, built on a parade of 2- and 3-star rated recruits some part-time scout watched once.  It's how Chad Greenway falls through the cracks by playing 8-man football in South Dakota.  It's also how Rivals finds the time to rank the top 90 recruits in Georgia while providing top 25 lists in Michigan.

The problem with this theory lies in the Ohio State and Michigan conundrum, though.  If players are underrated by the scouting services and yet the Big Two continue to stock classes full of four- and five-star recruits from the upper Midwest, either those players are all such sure things that even the most southern-fried Rivals scout can pick them out or they're actually deserving of, like, eight stars.  The performance of blue chips at both those schools (and, let's face it, Iowa) proves otherwise.

Where I think Brian is right is in the evaluation of linemen.  It's hard enough to evaluate line play at the D-I level; it's got to be damn near impossible against the wide variety of suck that usually lines up across from a top high school offensive lineman.  Throw in the dramatic physical changes that occur during the typical freshman offensive line prospect's inevitable redshirt season and projecting them to a college junior is reduced to rolling a 21-sided die.  The list of five-star washout linemen is long and distinguished for precisely that reason.  So when the Big Ten, where linemen (especially guards and centers) are bred from birth, keeps putting linemen in the NFL as the numbers indicate, it's because they do a better job of identifying line talent than Rivals can.

The "ESS EEE SEE" Theory (via EDSBS)

We now turn to Spencer Hall, who gets all realpolitik in his analysis:

The gap between the B1G and the SEC is probably best illustrated by the BCS probability numbers in the chart; the SEC is currently a set of programs engineered to get to the BCS, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 have this curious idea that you should just sign a maximum number of recruits and not get rid of them.

So in short: If you want a program to commit completely to you and your development, the Big Ten is a better deal, and if you want to win BCS games, you should go to the SEC, and if you don't want to go to BCS games because you like the first week of January off but STILL go to the NFL, the ACC is your best choice. (Hey, um, the ACC actually sounds like the best deal here for the "economical" (i.e. lazy like ourselves) student. Well done, ACCers.)

When your statistical model includes players recruited, the theory goes, the blatant oversigning/cutting/medical redshirting/giggitying of the SEC is placed at an inherent disadvantage.  When you recruit 47 four-star recruits for your 18 open spots, you're always going to have a bigger denominator in the Development Ratio than a comparable Big Ten or Pac-10 school and no way of increasing the numerator above those 18 scholarships.  This is unquestionably true, and it explains much of the SEC's lackluster performance in the first study.  It does not, however, explain Duke or Kansas State or Iowa State, who could have three open scholarships between them and not fill the class without making a trip to the MAC castoff pile.  This, while correct, is a half-solution.

The "Repeats and Retreads" Theory

Here's where we get to the new ideas.  Take a look at the list of the top 14 player development programs again:

Ranking School Recruits Drafted BCS Expectation Development Ratio
1 USC 48 26.0 184%
2 Ohio St. 36 19.7 183%
3 Iowa 22 13.0 169%
4 California 24 15.1 158%
5 Wake Forest 10 6.8 146%
6 Clemson 23 16.1 142%
7 Cincinnati 10 7.1 140%
8 Virginia Tech 21 15.5 135%
9 Connecticut 11 8.4 131%
10 Pittsburgh 18 13.7 131%
11 Georgia 30 22.8 131%
12 Texas 29 22.5 128%
13 Penn St. 20 15.6 128%
14 Wisconsin 16 12.6 126%


Now, remember what we are evaluating: The ability of coaches and programs to get players to the NFL.  The coaches and programs at the top of that list have to excel at two things in particular: Identifying high school talent and maximizing the 3-5 years they get with that talent.  Now remember that the period of the study is essentially 2002-2008, and think about the coaches at the top programs.  At Southern Cal, Pete Carroll was as secure as any coach in America throughout the period.  Ditto Tressel at OSU, Ferentz at Iowa, Tedford at Cal, Jim Grobe at Wake Forest, Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, Randy Edsall at UConn, Mark Richt at Georgia, Mack Brown at Texas, and Joe Paterno at Penn State.  Of the top 14 programs, only 4 changed coaches in the six years studied.  And, of those four, two stayed in-house.  While Clemson changed coaches over that period of time, they hired wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney and avoided a mass exodus.  The same holds for Wisconsin, which appointed Bret Bielema as the heir to Barry Alvarez's throne two years before he actually took over, ensuring a seamless transition.  

When there is no turmoil, no threat that the coach won't be there tomorrow, players stay in the program.  They finish their 3-5 years, and they develop, and they become pros.  But stability doesn't just give a team a leg up in developing the guys they have.  It also gives the program time to develop the recruiting connections necessary to find the diamonds in the rough, to ignore Rivals ratings and keep an ear to the ground.  It's how you get Chad Greenway or Bob Sanders or Shonn Greene, all players largely ignored by scouting services.  When you can find guys who are untouched by everyone else, who have a desire to play, and who carry that chip on their shoulder from being ignored, your work in "developing" that player is half done.

On the other hand, in the cauldron of the SEC and Big XII, where coaches are discarded constantly and with little more cause than one bad season, there is no continuity.  The top programs still do fine in recruiting, due in no small part to the reasons espoused by Mr. Cook, but they still produce NFL players at or near the rate expected by the development ratio.  The have-nots, with the same coach-killing fan bases and none of the recruiting cache, cycle through coaches at an ever-quickening rate, only ensuring more players leave via transfer.  At places like Kansas State, Texas Tech, Kansas, and West Virginia, where meddling athletic directors dismiss coaches for any reason they can find, the results are underwhelming (even when programs like Tech and WVU win more than they should with the talent at their disposal).

This brings us to the outliers, of sorts: Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.  Cinci is certainly an odd lot here: It lost a coach to Michigan State, and brought in an heir apparent of such high caliber that he eventually went to Notre Dame.  Their results can be chalked up to two excellent hires.  Pitt, on the other hand, replaced the mediocre Walt Harris with the equally mediocre Dave Wannstedt.  And yet, despite his mediocrity, Wannstedt put players in the League.  Which brings us to the second thread linking these coaches: NFL retreads.  Three of the top ten -- Wannstedt (former Bears and Dolphins head coach/coordinator), Pete Carroll (former Patriots HC; now Seahawks HC), and Kirk Ferentz (Ravens offensive line coach) -- have NFL ties and know how to use them.  You hear year-in, year-out how Ferentz works to get his players to the NFL, talking with personnel people throughout the league; given his ties to Bill Belichick and the Baltimore front office, it's no surprise his players often end up in New England, Baltimore, and Kansas City (led by former Patriots front office guy and Ferentz confidant Scott Pioli).  These guys have connections from their past NFL stints that, when combined with their superior high school scouting and sales pitch, work best to put players in the professional ranks.  It's no surprise these guys so thoroughly outperform expectations.  

It's not even a chicken-and-egg issue, because coaches aren't paid to develop players as much as win games (and, as Wannstedt and Ron Zook -- whose track record for landing guys in the pros while simultaneously wallowing in mediocrity at Florida and Illinois is truly impressive -- show, the two are not necessarily correlated).  The coaches who win a sufficient number of games and have that track record have an ace in the hole, a better recruiting pitch, which in turn leads to even more wins and more players in the NFL.  The players keep the coach employed, and the coach in turn makes sure the players get paid on graduation.  It's symbiotic, and it's one big reason (if not the only reason) why the teams at the top of the development list are where they are.