Tracking Northwestern’s improved recruiting

For this post we turn to our new recruiting analyst, Ben Weiss. Ben, take it away…. 

Here’s a complaint I’ve often heard from Northwestern fans regarding recruiting rankings:  our recruiting class should be ranked higher, but we get dinged because the quality of our recruiting class is minimized by its often small size.  Just take a look at the 247 Composite Recruiting Rankings, and you’ll see Northwestern’s 2014 recruiting class of 13 commits, which ranks 35 overall, sandwiched between Boston College (22 commits) and Texas Tech (18 commits).  Neither the Eagles nor Red Raiders have a 4-star recruit, whereas Northwestern has three.  Recruiting rankings take into effect the size of a class, along with its quality when placing teams, and thus Northwestern’s smaller class often lags behind larger but less talented recruiting classes.

I was looking for a way to judge Northwestern’s recruiting class in a way that wouldn’t give size such a sizeable advantage.  I settled on a method that I’m going to refer to as the Average Top Ten Rating (ATTR).  Here’s the gist: 247 Sports does this really cool thing where they compile the rankings and ratings from all the major recruiting services (Scout, Rivals, ESPN, and 247), to provide what they say is “the industry’s most comprehensive and unbiased” prospect rankings.  In simple terms, they use all information from all recruiting sites to rank every prospect in the nation.  To form the ATTR, I took the rankings of the top ten members of every Big Ten class and averaged them together.  The ATTR takes class size entirely out of the equation.  It simply compares Northwestern’s top ten recruits to everyone else’s top ten recruits.

You should look at ATTR numbers like golf scores – the lower the number, the better.  A low ATTR means the school is recruiting highly rated players.  So if a team lands the #1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 players in the country, it’s ATTR would be 5.5, etc.  Conversely, a high ATTR indicates that the school is recruiting on a mediocre level.  Below is a chart in which I ranked the Big Ten based on the ATTR formula.  I also included the class size and the average star rating of those top ten players.  In parentheses you can see the team’s actual class rank according to the normal 247 Composite.  (Notes: Yes, I did include Rutgers and Maryland – I’m not happy about it either. Also, Juco players were not counted because they are ranked in a separate category in the 247 composite).



Northwestern’s class ranked sixth in the normal 247 Composite, and had the sixth highest Average Top Ten Rating.  To my displeasure, this methodology did not magically boost Northwestern’s recruiting class to the top of the Big Ten. . . or anywhere at all, really.  Here is what I noticed:

  1. Surprisingly, Northwestern has an average amount of recruits for this point in the recruiting cycle. I took it for granted that while Northwestern has pretty much wrapped up its recruiting, most other Big Ten schools (save Michigan, Ohio State and Rutgers) still use these last five months to fill up their classes.
  2. This method helped Minnesota and Purdue out the most, who have managed a meager six and eight recruits, respectively. You’re welcome Gopher and Boilermaker folks, because I just made your recruiting classes look awesome.
  3. There are three clear tiers. Tier 1 is comprised of Ohio State and Michigan, the clear top dogs of Big Ten recruiting. Tier 2 is the middle group, and contains those ranked 3-9 (with Minnesota being the obvious outlier). The final tier, from Iowa on down, is struggling on the recruiting trail.

Even though this ATTR did not muster anything groundbreaking just yet, I was not going to give up. I compiled the ATTR for every Big Ten team for the 2011-2014 recruiting classes to graph recruiting progression.

Here’s where it gets considerably cooler and really interesting:

Recruiting3YearGraph091013 The only line sloping considerably downwards is the one that charts Northwestern’s recruiting progress!

As you can see, the average overall rank of Northwestern’s top 10 recruits in 2011 was roughly 850 (856.5 to be exact).  That decreased to 797.1, 646.7, and finally 579.6.  Because this is graph is crammed with 14 teams, I have decided to pick it apart section by section.  (Note: I did my best to choose colors that reflect those of the teams, but man, there are just too many red and white teams in the B1G.)

Ohio State, Michigan, and Northwestern


 Northwestern has a ways to go before it is in the same league as these big dogs.  Here is what stands out to me:

  1. Sanctions did not effect Ohio State’s recruiting at all, and if anything Meyer has recruited better under sanctions than Tressel did without them.
  2. 2011 was the RichRod/Hoke transition class.  Since then, Hoke has proved that he is one helluva recruiter.
  3. Just let this simmer: the TOP 10 prospects in Michigan and Ohio State’s 2013 recruiting classes had an average rank below 100.  Northwestern’s top ranked 2013 recruit, Matt Alviti, was ranked 222 overall.

Penn State, Rutgers, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Northwestern


 Currently, this is the crop that Northwestern fits best with.  Here is what I see.

  1. Northwestern was not even near the same recruiting league as these teams in 2011.  In fact, Northwestern’s Average Top Ten Rating was roughly 400 points behind all four of these teams.
  2. Northwestern passed Wisconsin this year but remains 150-200 points short of Rutgers, Michigan State, and Penn State.
  3. Penn State’s 2012 recruiting class was during the Sandusky/JoePa scandal.  Bill O’Brien has done an amazing job righting the ship, and has returned Penn State’s recruiting classes to the pre-scandal (2011) level.  Sanctions shmanctions.
  4. Rutgers 2013 recruiting class dip is due to the loss of head coach Greg Schiano to the NFL.  Kyle Flood’s first recruiting class indicates there won’t be much of a recruiting letdown at Rutgers.
  5. Michigan State has been the most consistent team in the Big Ten these last four years recruiting-wise.  Slight dip since 2011 can probably be blamed by Hoke snatching some of the better players in the state of Michigan from the Spartans.
  6. Wisconsin’s graph looks like a heart monitor.  Uptick in the 2014 class will probably last until new head coach Gary Andersen can prove himself/gain his footing.

Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Northwestern


These are the guys that Northwestern has leapfrogged. Their ATTR is climbing while Northwestern’s falls. Some obvious and some not obvious climbers here.  My thoughts:

  1. First off, in 2011 Northwestern’s Average Top Ten Rating was 200, 400, and 600 points behind each of the teams, respectively. Now NU has passed them all. Say “WHHAATTT!”
  2. The average rank of Iowa’s top 10 prospects has increased as the Iowa records decrease.  8-5/370.  7-6/510.  4-8/690.  Kirk Ferentz probably getting fired/1000.
  3. Ron Zook, for all his flaws, was a pretty stellar recruiter. The 2013 Northwestern and Illinois classes had pretty even Average Overall Ratings.  ILOLinois and Beckman are struggling to put together a 2014 class – but in their defense they have a few stellar Juco guys that I could not tally.
  4. Errm, Nebraska?  Huh?  They have been winning, but their recruiting has faltered. The best thing I can think of is the move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten really hurt their recruiting prowess. Prior to their move to the Big Ten, Nebraska recruited Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and other states out in Big 12 country really well. Now that their audience has shifted to Big Ten country, they have lost the appeal they once had to kids in the Southwest, and now have to gain that appeal to Midwestern recruits. That is my theory, anyway.

Purdue, Maryland, Indiana, and Northwestern


 These are the guys NU used to be lumped with in terms of recruiting prowess. It is like the Wildcats magically just got popular in high school got a new, cool group of friends (note: My apologies for not even trying to get the Maryland, Minnesota, and Indiana colors remotely right).

Here is what jumps out at me:

  1. These guys are the butt of the Big Ten for a reason — the average rank of their top 10 commits are -and have been – roughly 1,000.
  2. On the bright side, all four teams have relatively new coaches, and their prospects are looking up (ok…maybe not for you Purdue)


 Closing Thoughts

Northwestern is now recruiting in the top half of the Big Ten, something that could not be said even last year.  While we still have a ways to go to catch Michigan and Ohio State in the upper tier, things are looking brighter for Northwestern’s recruiting than that of practically any other program in the Big Ten.  The recruiting elevation in these past four years is incredible, and Fitz and staff deserve all the credit.  Remember, these graphs and numbers are fluid until February, so things can definitely change – but with Northwestern still in the running for some top prospects, expect their ATTR to fall as much, if not more than the rest of the B1G.

  • Mark

    Thanks! Great analysis and data.

  • Noah

    Good work pairing numbers with the impact!

    The only caveat is seeing guys like Kyle Prater. Fitz loves to say rankings dont matter. I dont agree with him completely, but it is important to note that past results don’t always predict future success.

    • willycat

      Noah, I think Prater may still make you eat those words. I thought that I had read that Rivals evaluates the classes using only the top 12 or 15 recruits, True?

  • NYC Dave

    Very nice analysis.

  • Broadcasting Wisdom

    Great stuff. If we can continue to recruit similar talent to the 3-6 teams in the Big Ten, I really like our chances at some Rose Bowls in the next 5 years because we seem to develop talent better, have less attrition, and play smarter than other Big Ten teams. We’ve been able to compete for the past 4 years with inferior talent, can’t wait to see how this snowballs in the next 5 years (if Fitz shuns USC/Texas – man I hate hearing those rumors!)

  • Scott Feeney

    Great stuff. Any explanation for why other schools seem to consistently have such larger recruiting classes? Is it that they have more kids jumping to the NFL before graduation or more kids dropping out?

    • Ben

      Yeah! Northwestern red shirts pretty much all of it’s freshmen. So the 85 allotted scholarships are spread out over 5 classes, rather than the typical 4. Most other schools play more freshman than NU, so they cycle through their players in 4 years.

      • Scott Feeney

        Thanks Ben!

  • wcgrad

    Ben, loved the article.
    1)I’m not sure we rank in that second tier *just* yet. Our ATTR is static, since our class is more or less complete. and some of the other teams’ rankings could improve. Also, there seem to be at least 3 major gaps in recruiting numbers: between mich / PSU between MSU/NU and between neb/ Purdue.

    2) Have you thought of any uncertainty analysis for the ATTR? Maybe something like a leave-one-out scheme to see whether the numbers are skewed by one or two good prospects. Also, showing the average year-to-year decrease of ATTR makes your point clearly.

    • Siren

      That’s a good idea. I’m also curious about how graphing the median ranking would compare.

    • Ben

      Definitely, thanks for the idea. I might make an update post when things are finalized in February and include that!

  • LTP

    Data, charts and graphs always help. This topic is one NU fans talk to me a lot about. The recruiting rankings are way too skewed on quantity over quality.

  • MMSSer

    As an MMSS alum I love this stuff. Another interesting analysis would be to figure out a way to quantify outcomes… what programs take subjective high school talent and produce wins. Obviously it would be self serving as our program would crush everyone else looking back over the past few year, but it would be interesting to explore programs that failed on the field (e.g. Illinois). As a recruiting tool, it could be powerful… statistical evidence to a recruit that the NU program on average gets the best out of you. And by the way, you get a pretty a good education along the way.

  • Gray Ghost

    I would be curious to know how our recruits’ academic performance has changed as our recruiting rankings have increased. You hear Shapiro say that the tail won’t wag the dog at NU. I want to believe that’s true and Fitz is finding top recruits who value the education that NU offers.

    As a season ticket holder and booster, I sometimes wonder if I’m feeding the beast and am part of the problem in college athletics. As much as I love NU sports I hope the fan base keeps things in perspective. Do we ever want to be rated in the same recruiting echelon as OSU or UM.? Do we need Underwater Basketweaving majors at NU? I’d love another trip to Pasadena but 6-6 done the right way will always be better than 12-0 done the Meyer/Saban/Miles/ETC way.

    That said, it’s great to see the improvements we’ve made.

  • tomepats

    our current ATTR: 579.6
    if we got brandon lee: ~503.5
    if we got garrett dickerson: ~497.2
    if we got parrker westphal: ~486.6
    if we got all 3: ~370.1

    • AZBlue

      This goes both ways however..M and OSU both are in one several top recruits that will change their numbers as well. i.e. Hand (top 5), and McDowell (top 50) for Michigan.
      I do love to see NW improving in recruiting – particularly with you moving to the other division next year. Please make sure Westphal stays away from East Lansing!

  • Hank

    People spend a lot of time rating recruits and ranking recruiting classes but I’d really be interested to know how often highly touted recruits translate into impact players on the field. Over a longer time period you could compare recruit rankings to 4 year “on-field” performance to see how many recruits end up being lemons. If you’re looking for an additional metric to consider when evaluating recruiting classes, you could use the “lemon %” as a factor to gauge how consistency players actually live up to expectations for their respective teams.

  • Webster

    Good work! It would be interesting to see the ATTR of the Big Ten compared to other conferences.

  • NUCatTX

    Please chart rank of recruiting class vs. Big ten finish… then reverse transform to produce the recruiting algorithm / equation…