When a coach stands up on National Signing Day and says he doesn't care where Rivals.com or Scout.com ranked his recruiting class, he's probably lying. Coaches across the country are obsessed with these rankings. Heck, some assistants -- Maryland's Mike Locksley, for example -- even have monetary bonuses tied to how well their teams perform in rankings most head coaches will publicly decry as meaningless.
Recruiting rankings mean something, and at the top, they're fairly accurate. They tend to become less accurate near the bottom because of the business model that drives the industry. Teams with large, passionate fan bases sell more subscriptions, and sites that cover popular teams employ more recruiting writers. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, players who sign with popular schools tend to get ranked higher. But even that may be changing. Stanford finished No. 5 in the 2012 Rivals.com team rankings. A few years ago, the Cardinal wouldn't have cracked the top 15, but a team that beats out USC, Michigan and Notre Dame for players will earn a high ranking.
Every year, Yahoo! blogger Matt Hinton does a fascinating study on the accuracy of individual player rankings. Team rankings are less consistent. I have re-ranked three-year-old classes every year since 2009, and the average number of teams that appeared in the top 10 of the original Rivals.com ranking and the top 10 of the re-rank is 4.25. I realize the re-rank is solely based on my opinion, but since my opinion is based on actual on-field production, few of my choices are controversial.
That said, it's difficult enough to predict how a 17-year-old will perform at 20. It's nearly impossible to predict how a group of 17-year-olds will perform at 20. So while only five of Rivals.com's 2009 classes made the top 10 of my 2009 re-rank, the accuracy at the top of the rankings is stunning. The top two teams (Alabama and LSU) in the Rivals 2009 rankings played for the BCS title, and the No. 4 team (USC) might have won the Pac-12 title if not for NCAA sanctions.
That accuracy makes up for Tennessee at No. 10. Lane Kiffin's only class in Knoxville made a lot of headlines during the recruiting process, but it has done next to nothing on the field. At the moment, only nine of 22 signees remain on Tennessee's roster. Of those, five (safety Eric Gordon, defensive tackle Daniel Hood, receiver Zach Rogers, cornerback Marsalis Teague and defensive tackle Marlon Walls) have made significant contributions, and none has become a star.
But that's easy for me to say now. Hindsight makes everything simpler.
Original Rivals rank: 1Record since 2009: 36-4BCS bowl appearances: 2Conference titles: 1National titles: 2
2011 starters: OT D.J. Fluker, LB Nico Johnson, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, QB AJ McCarron, RB Trent Richardson, OG Anthony Steen, OG Chance Warmack
This class included a Heisman Trophy finalist (Richardson), the player who made the biggest difference in the BCS title game (McCarron), three members of college football's best offensive line (Fluker, Steen, Warmack), an elite cornerback (Kirkpatrick) and a playmaking linebacker (Johnson). It also included a role-playing receiver who made a huge catch in the Superdome (Kevin Norwood) and a JUCO transfer offensive tackle who started for the 2009 national title team (James Carpenter).
Original Rivals rank: 2Record since 2009: 33-7BCS bowl appearances: 1Conference titles: 1
2011 starters: DT Michael Brockers, CB Morris Claiborne, Chris Faulk, RB Michael Ford, DT Bennie Logan, DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, WR Reuben Randle, WR Russell Shepard, OG Josh Williford
Had LSU not gotten crushed by Alabama in the BCS title game, the Tigers would rank No. 1 and the Crimson Tide would rank No. 2 because of the sheer volume of LSU contributors this class produced. But this exercise is based on results, and one Trent Richardson equals two major contributors by himself. That said, this was a stunning haul for the Tigers, and it underscores just how terrifying that defensive line was this season. A line of Mingo, Logan, Brockers and Montgomery would start for almost any team in the country, but it speaks to LSU's depth that Logan and Mingo are sometimes used as backups. (They're listed as starters here because in LSU's defensive line rotation, the backups can play as many snaps as the starters.)
Original Rivals rank: 20Record since 2009: 31-8BCS bowl appearances: 2Conference titles: 0
2011 starters: CB Terrence Brown, TE Zach Ertz, RB Tyler Gaffney, DE Ben Gardner, LB Shayne Skov, DT Terrence Stephens, RB Stepfan Taylor, TE Levine Toilolo
The Cardinal were on the verge of something special when this group signed. The 2008 class, which featured quarterback Andrew Luck, will be remembered as the catalyst for this era of Stanford football, but the 2009 class provided some important pieces. Gaffney and Taylor give the Cardinal two bruising runners, and Ertz and Toilolo teamed with Coby Fleener to produce a jumbo package that steamrolled most of the Pac-12 (just not Oregon). Skov suffered a season-ending knee injury against Arizona on Sept. 17, but he was the soul of the defense. He'll be healthy in 2012.
Original Rivals rank: 4Record since 2009: 27-11BCS bowl appearances: 0Conference titles: 0
2011 starters: QB Matt Barkley, OT Kevin Graf, CB Torin Harris, DE Devon Kennard, OG John Martinez, S T.J. McDonald, S Jawanza Starling
Barkley and McDonald alone would have put this class into the top 10, but two quality offensive linemen and a pass rusher (Kennard) who could be a breakout star next season make this group even better. Let's also not forget that this class included the guy who might be the nation's best returning defensive player in 2012. Unfortunately for USC, linebacker Jarvis Jones now plays for Georgia. Jones left USC in 2010 after a disagreement with the team's medical staff about whether a neck injury was career-threatening. It's tough to fault USC doctors for erring on the side of caution.
Original Rivals rank: 6Record since 2009: 24-16BCS bowl appearances: 0Conference titles: 0
2011 starters: WR Marlon Brown, TE Orson Charles, LB Mike Gilliard, DE Abry Jones, OG Dallas Lee, QB Aaron Murray, CB Branden Smith, S Shawn Williams
In 2011, this group helped yank the Bulldogs out of a two-year tailspin. Murray is one of the nation's best quarterbacks heading into 2012, and Smith is a two-way threat. Charles had a nice career before heading off to the NFL. Jones, Williams and Smith all could have made the same decision. They all probably would have been drafted, but they elected to spend one more season in Athens.
Original Rivals rank: 8Record since 2009: 22-15BCS bowl appearances: 1Conference titles: 0
2011 starters: K Brendan Gibbons, WR Jeremy Gallon, S Thomas Gordon, OT Taylor Lewan, QB Denard Robinson, DE Craig Roh, RB Fitzgerald Toussaint
Rich Rodriguez didn't do everything wrong in Ann Arbor. After all, he signed this group, which provided much of the leadership for a team that went 11-2 and won the Sugar Bowl. Obviously, Robinson is the crown jewel of the class, and it appears coach Brady Hoke has figured out how to take advantage of Robinson's speed and playmaking without relying on Robinson so much that the quarterback gets maimed.
Original Rivals rank: 12Record since 2009: 27-13BCS bowl appearances: 0Conference titles: 0
2011 starters: TE Justice Cunningham, DT Aldrick Fordham, CB Stephon Gilmore, S DeVonte Holloman, WR Alshon Jeffery, S D.J. Swearinger, OG Rokevious Watkins
In 2011, the Gamecocks won 11 games for the first time in school history. While defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney and tailback Marcus Lattimore deserve their share of credit, Jeffery was South Carolina's best receiver, and Gilmore was the Gamecocks' best corner. Even more importantly, Palmetto State natives Jeffery and Gilmore blazed a trail for the in-state recruits who came after them by refusing to cross the border. Jeffery was the closest, first committing to USC and then almost choosing Tennessee before the "pumping gas" tempest in a teapot. The acquisition of Jeffery and Gilmore launched a period of in-state dominance for the Gamecocks. Lattimore, from Duncan, S.C., signed with South Carolina in 2010. Clowney, a one-time high school teammate of Gilmore's in Rock Hill and the nation's No. 1 recruit, signed with the Gamecocks in 2011.
Original Rivals rank: 27Record since 2009: 28-11BCS bowl appearances: 1Conference titles: 1
2011 starters: WR Tavon Austin, WR Steadman Bailey, DE Will Clarke, S Darwin Cooke, OT Pat Eger, S Terence Garvin, CB Pat Miller, QB Geno Smith
The first full recruiting cycle for coach Bill Stewart provided a nice core for a team that would win the Big East in 2011 and will lead West Virginia into the Big 12 in 2012. Smith was the centerpiece of the class. Before he took his official visit to West Virginia, Smith took an official visit to Alabama. The Crimson Tide already had McCarron committed, but John Parker Wilson had graduated, and Alabama coaches didn't yet know that Greg McElroy would grab the starting job and lead Alabama to a national title. Seeing an opportunity to play sooner at West Virginia, Smith went to Morgantown. He apprenticed behind Jarrett Brown for a season before taking over the offense.
Original Rivals rank: 37Record since 2009: 25-16BCS bowl appearances: 1Conference titles: 1
2011 starters: QB Tajh Boyd, LB Quandon Christian, DE Malliciah Goodman, LB Corico Hawkins, S Jonathan Meeks, OG Brandon Thomas
This class earns extra points for having the highest batting average. The firing of Tommy Bowden on Oct. 13, 2008 wreaked havoc on this class. Dabo Swinney, the interim coach after Bowden's firing, got the job on a permanent basis in early December, but that didn't stop several players -- including future Gamecock Holloman -- from bailing on the Tigers. Swinney, saving his scholarships for the 2010 recruiting cycle, signed only 12 players. Six of those players wound up starting on the team that won the ACC title in 2011. Try to find another class in which 50 percent of the signees wound up starting for a good team. You'll be looking for a long time. Boyd, the best player in the class, could have been at West Virginia instead of Smith. But Boyd decommitted from the Mountaineers and committed to Tennessee days before the firing of Phillip Fulmer. Kiffin didn't want Boyd, so Boyd wound up choosing Clemson instead of Oregon.
Original Rivals rank: 43Record since 2009: 32-8BCS bowl appearances: 2Conference titles: 2
2011 starters: RB Montee Ball, LB Chris Borland, Travis Fredrick, DE David Gilbert
This class didn't produce many starters, but it did produce a Heisman Trophy finalist (Ball) and the Badgers' best defensive player (Borland). Ball set a Big Ten record in 2011 with 38 touchdowns, and he'll be back for more in 2012 after receiving a laughably low NFL draft grade. Borland, meanwhile, won a starting job as a true freshman, redshirted 2010 after a shoulder injury and racked up 143 tackles and 19 tackles for loss in 2011.