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How did each C-USA program perform in 2020 relative to their recruiting success?

What takeaways can we learn from after comparing programs’ on-field success to their past recruiting performance?

NCAA Football: Louisville at Western Kentucky Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program. But a top recruiting class doesn’t always translate to on-field success, especially at the Group of Five level.

The reasons why are endless. A previous coach could have pulled in a killer class that just doesn’t fit the scheme for the next coach. Injuries and attrition can wipe out an entire class. Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, the recruiting services just don’t do a great job of evaluating G5 classes. Teams with more three star athletes tend to win more games, but complete misses are more common at the G5 level where there are less analysts keeping an eye on each program’s commitments.

In the following article, I attempt to answer a simple question with a lot of complex explanations — which Conference USA programs over and under performed in 2020 relative to their previous recruiting success, or lack thereof?

Some programs clearly were able to find some diamonds in the rough that the recruiting services missed. Others weren’t able to capitalize on the promise of an infusion of talent due to poor coaching or pandemic opt outs.

Before we break down each program, let’s discuss my methodology for the rankings.

First off, I collected the 247 Composite ranking for each C-USA program over the past four recruiting class (2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020). I then calculated the four year rolling average for each program’s recruiting efforts and ranked them from 1-14.

Next, I grabbed the SP+ national ranking for each C-USA program, then ranked each C-USA program against their peers, ranked 1-13 as Old Dominion didn’t play last season.

Lastly, I took the difference between each program’s recruiting rank and their 2020 SP+ rank and again ranked each team from 1-13. Tiebreakers were decided by the team with more wins getting the edge.

NCAA Football: Alabama-Birmingham at Marshall
Bill Clark continues to prove his worth as an elite talent developer and evaluator.
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

#1: UAB Blazers

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 10th

SP+ 2020 rank: 1st

The Blazers have drastically outpaced the rest of the conference in surpassing their recruiting success, or at least the way 24/7 and Rivals have viewed the Blazers’ classes. When you look at UAB’s roster and see names like Spencer Brown, Austin Watkins, Jordan Smith, and Kris Moll it’s a bit startling to see them near the bottom of the conference in recruiting rankings. Obviously Bill Clark is a fantastic talent developer, but the recruiting services obviously missed on their evaluations for most of the Blazers’ roster.

#2: Marshall Thundering Herd

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 7th

SP+ 2020 rank: 2nd

This result is an interesting one, especially under the scope of Doc Holliday’s dismissal in Huntington. Marshall’s recruiting ranking does feel a little bit low, and their SP+ ranking feels a little high as they finished the season ranked at #56 in the country. Their on-field performance at the end of the season looked a lot more like their recruiting ranking than their SP+ ranking which I think is a great reminder of how little depth even the best G5 programs have along the offensive line. Once the Herd started losing starters along the offensive line the offense fell off a cliff.

#3: WKU Hilltoppers

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 8th

SP+ 2020 rank: 3rd

WKU was definitely my biggest surprise when compiling this data. To my eyes, WKU certainly did not look like the third best team in the conference last year but at the end of the day they were one of the few teams in the country to meet the five win mark in an abbreviated season. I think the takeaway here is that Mike Sanford Jr. left the cupboard extremely bare, but Tyson Helton seems to be on the right track in turning the program around.

#4: Rice Owls

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 11th(T)

SP+ 2020 rank: 7th

It would be interesting to see where the Owls would have ended up in SP+ had they been able to play a full season, but their placement here pretty much confirms what one would expect. Rice is slowly chugging along towards becoming a competitive program again but the Owls haven’t fully arrived just yet. They made a big jump in recruiting with their 2020 class, so if the Owls continue to outperform their recruiting then they’re going to be very tough in the coming years.

#5: Charlotte 49ers

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 11th(T)

SP+ 2020 rank: 8th

While Charlotte saw a bit of a step backwards in 2020, the 49er are still in the building phase under Will Healy. Keep in mind the 49ers were ranked in the bottom 10% of programs in SP+ since joining C-USA so a #109 finish in 2020 is actually well above the program’s recent success precedence. Charlotte is still punching well above their weight when looking at their historical recruiting level.

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at BYU
The emergence of players like Trevor Harmanson helped UTSA realize the potential their recruiting success sowed.

#6: UTSA Roadrunners

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 5th

SP+ 2020 rank: 4th

Jeff Traylor’s Roadrunners were one of Conference USA’s surprises in 2020, but their newfound success was highly predictable thanks to previous head coach Frank Wilson’s success on the recruiting trail. If Traylor is able to perform in accord with the Roadrunners’ recruiting success then UTSA will stay competitive for C-USA championships going forward.

#7: UTEP Miners

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 14th

SP+ 2020 rank: 13th

The Miners were last in recruiting average, and they’re still last in SP+ rank. Can’t underperform when the bar is at the literal floor.

#8: USM Golden Eagles

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 4th

SP+ 2020 rank: 6th

Credit to the Golden Eagles for staying competitive in such a tumultuous season. I think USM’s ranking here is a great reminder of how strong, steady recruiting over multiple years can stymie things like coaching changes, transfers, and opt outs. The Golden Eagles had second and third string players that were able to step in and hold their own, preventing a total bottoming-out for the program.

#9: UNT Mean Green

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 6th

SP+ 2020 rank: 9th

Seth Littrell’s shine continues to wear off as the one-time Power 5 candidate significantly under-performed relative to the Mean Green’s talent level in 2020. It’s interesting that UNT’s average recruit rating has increased each year, while the Mean Green have regressed on the field through Littrell’s time in Denton. Even with Littrell’s classes getting stronger and stronger each year, Littrell may not be able to capitalize on the infusion of talent.

UNT 24/7 Composite Recruiting Average over Time
UNT SP+ over Time

#10: MTSU Blue Raiders

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 9th

SP+ 2020 rank: 12th

The Blue Raiders looked like a mess on the gridiron in 2020 and a low recruiting average ensured that the program’s floor wasn’t as high as other programs like USM who also had.... turbulent... seasons. Hopefully a shake up of the offensive staff will spark a turnaround in Murfreesboro.

#11: FAU Owls

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 1st

SP+ 2020 rank: 5th

The Owls still had a pretty solid season, finishing 5th in the conference with a new head coach taking over. But high recruiting success leads to high expectations and Willie Taggart wasn’t able to hit the mark in year one as the Owls struggled to settle on a quarterback.

#12: Louisiana Tech Bulldogs

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 3rd

SP+ 2020 rank: 11th

In my eyes Louisiana Tech’s talent on the field did not match their recruiting ranking. You’d think the 3rd best program in C-USA as far as recruiting is concerned would have a few future NFL players on their roster. The Bulldogs placed just one player on the offensive all-conference first team, and two on the defensive all-conference first team. I was most impressed by Louisiana Tech’s younger stars like Smoke Harris and Tyler Grubbs though, so there are pieces to build around going forward.

#13: FIU Panthers

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 2nd

SP+ 2020 rank: 10th

I’m still trying to figure out what happened to FIU last year. Whatever it was, it was ugly. It’s hard to go winless when you have the second-most talent rich roster in the conference. Butch Davis clearly has a ton of work to do but with a bunch of impressive athletes on the roster the Panthers could bounce back quickly once the pandemic ends.

N/A: ODU Monarchs

Four year rolling recruiting average rank: 13th

SP+ 2020 rank: N/A

While the Monarchs didn’t take the field in 2020, they would have only needed to be better than four programs in the country to outperform their previous recruiting efforts.