Signing Day: A Broader Perspective
Western philosophy is shot through with seemingly irresolvable questions first broached millennia ago. Essentialism vs. nominalism. Induction vs. deduction. Ginger vs. Mary Ann. Maybe the most famous of these debates is that of hereditability vs. environment, or, if you will, nature vs. nurture. Socrates -- speaking through Plato's quill in The Republic -- wisely presupposes a mixture of influences; children raised in Plato's utopia are understood to have innate characteristics from birth, but those characteristics are cultivated or neutered as appropriate. A surprising number of philosophers thereafter, though, took hardline positions on one side or another. Aristotle suggests in De Anima that our minds are entirely blank slates upon which knowledge is impressed (indeed, it is from Aristotle that we have received the metaphor of the "blank slate"). John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, men of vastly different temperaments and at opposite ends of the Enlightenment era, each endorsed the concept of the blank slate also. The opposing view, that our minds are imprinted from before birth and largely unmalleable, was at first religious, fronted tentatively by early Catholics like St. Augustine and later taken by John Calvin to the logical conclusion of predestination. Nowadays, we have sophisticated science-y ways of figuring out just how much of a given trait comes from genetics and how much comes from environment; basically, we look at identical twins who were separated at birth and see in what ways and how much they differ. The answer is that everything interesting about us is something like 50 percent genes and 50 percent other stuff.
Right, you came for recruiting talk. I'm getting there.
Recruiting is the DNA of a college football program. The guys you sign are the guys you have. That 5'9" wide receiver probably isn't going to sprout to 6'2". Scoff at "stars" if you will, but the best teams sign the best athletes. Alabama is a violent death star of a football program, and they have the highest-rated recruiting classes year after year. These facts are not unrelated.
But, of course, there's more to it than that. Navy isn't a recruiting dynamo, and yet they seem to be doing alright. Ditto Wisconsin, and Utah, and Kansas State, and a number of other outlier programs that always seem to punch above their weight. That must be the nurture side of things: taking the raw material harvested from the recruiting fields and developing it into something useful. The better the raw material, the more useful the product, but a few handy coaches can MacGyver a bowl team out of used chewing gum, some pieces of string, and a handful of 2-star athletes no one else wanted.
You get the idea by now. Recruiting is important. That feeling you experience three or four weekends each fall where the guys not in orange and blue are substantially larger and faster than the guys in orange and blue -- that feeling is recruiting. As an Illinois fan, I want that feeling to go away. I also want our guys to be as well coached as possible, but today, signing day, we concentrate on the nature end of things. Spring practice will be here for nurturing soon enough.
Robert is going to discuss this year's recruiting class in depth on a player- by-player basis. My goal here is to put our recruiting class into broader context -- within our division, our conference as a whole, and nationally.
BIG TEN WEST
At a first level of approximation, the Big Ten West recruiting classes break down into three tiers: (1) Nebraska; (2) Everyone Else (Except Purdue); and (3) Purdue. Illinois, being neither Nebraska nor Purdue, is in the second tier.
Before continuing, a note: I'm going to use the 247sports.com composite team rankings and player ratings as my landmark for this post, not because I think 247 is necessarily best, but because their composite scores are an average of the four major recruiting websites (247, Scout, Rivals, and ESPN) and are therefore ecumenical. I don't think the analysis changes drastically if you use a different service as your lodestar.
Nebraska is the clear-cut class of the Big Ten West this year. No team in the division has signed more four star or better talent; in fact, Nebraska will almost certainly sign more four star or better athletes than the rest of the division combined. To the extent that recruiting is destiny, Nebraska is poised to become the dominant team in the division over the years to come, and the point is not worth belaboring. That said, it seems as though we've been waiting for Nebraska, Godot-like, for quite a while now.
At the other end of the spectrum is Purdue. Poor, hapless Purdue. As of the night before signing day, over half of Purdue's recruits do not have an offer from another Power 5 school. This is a coach-em- up group, to be polite.
I think you could make an argument that any of the remaining five schools in the Big Ten West could stake a claim to second best in the division, although some are more plausible than others. Minnesota gets into the zip code of the remaining group with 27 (and counting) commits, the most in the Big Ten West. There are a few decent finds among the group, but as with Purdue, about half of these kids lack other Power 5 offers (nearly a third of the class came over from Western Michigan with P.J. Fleck), and at least a couple of the better-rated kids are longshots to qualify academically. It's a sign of just how terrible Tracy Claeys was that this is substantial improvement over where Minnesota was sitting in late December.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Wisconsin with a solid-quality-but-low-quantity class of 16, likely to grow to 17 by signing day. You would think that a team coming off an 11-win season and Cotton Bowl victory would be doing a bit better than a small class of mostly high-to-mid- three-star type recruits, but this is the Wisconsin way, and that way should be respected until it stops working.
Everyone else falls somewhere between those two extremes. Northwestern looks quite a bit like Wisconsin, with slightly bigger overall numbers (19 commits as of this writing, not expected to change) and somewhat lower average quality. The perfidious scholars of the north did most of their recruiting work early, which means that they've seen their rankings fall dramatically over the previous months, but in all honesty this is a solid class of the kind Pat Fitzgerald has been bringing in for a while. If history is any guide, they'll miss two bowls over their careers and have some fluke-y ten win season and that ends with a 47-3 loss to Georgia in the Citrus Bowl.
Iowa has landed the single best recruit in the division in defensive end A.J. Epenesa, a kid who frankly might be considered a top ten recruit nationally if he played high school football in Miami instead of Edwardsville (as things stand he is "only" 29th). But after Epenesa things fall apart quickly, and Iowa has taken to scouring the MAC for loose change over the past few weeks -- not a position you'd expect for a team that's gone 20-4 over the past two regular seasons. Remove Epenesa from the class -- an unfair caveat, I acknowledge -- and Iowa's class would fall from around 35th to 55th nationally. That's a lot of pressure on one player to prop up an entire recruiting class, but there's no question that Epenesa is as good as they get.
How you rank these five teams depends mostly on what you choose to emphasize. Wisconsin's players are, on average, the best on paper, but a class of 17 doesn't leave much room for error, and the difference in average quality compared to Illinois et al. isn't daunting, only noticeable. Minnesota has lots of wiggle room because the class is so large -- a few errors in evaluation hardly matter -- but it could be that few of these kids at all are Big Ten caliber players. Iowa has one probable superstar at a premium position and a whole lot of meh (again, on paper). You get the idea.
These six schools make up half of our regular-season schedule from now through the foreseeable future. That you can have this debate about teams 2-6 means that the talent gap is closing between Illinois and others. And not a moment too soon.
BIG TEN CONFERENCE
Fortunately for Illinois, the Big Ten West is the bunny hill division. That dominant Nebraska recruiting class I describe above would rank 5th in the Big Ten East, behind Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and somehow Maryland. Even Rutgers, who is Rutgers, has a decent enough group coming in, a class with more four-star talent than everyone in the Big Ten West sans Nebraska. Trailing the field by 27 lengths is Indiana, which will soon revert to being the Indiana football of our ancestors.
As of the time of writing this, Illinois has the 43rd-best recruiting class in the country. That figures to drop slightly after the dust of signing day settles, but probably only to 45th or so. There are 67 Power 5 conference teams (including Notre Dame and BYU), and no mid-major team is ranked above Illinois, so things break down rather neatly: Illinois outrecruited about a third of its Power 5 conference peers and all of its non-peers.
This might sound mildly disappointing at first; being in the 33rd percentile is hard to get too excited about. But consider that this is the highest ranked class for Illinois since 2011 (a class whose ranking was inflated by Dondi Kirby, who never stepped foot on campus after signing day and was widely known at the time not to be likely to do so). Or consider that many well-established Power 5 teams, including Northwestern, Mizzou, North Carolina State, and West Virginia, will finish behind us, not to mention the usual Kansases and Purdues of the world. The teams in front of us are about what you'd expect, with the occasional Rutgers notwithstanding. And remember that for as important as recruiting is, there's still the nurture end of things. Every team hopes their guys can get the most out of the players. In Lovie Smith, Illinois has a coach where that's actually a realistic possibility for once.