On Wednesday, Western Michigan did something no one expected it could actually do: Dominate the Mid-American Conference on National Signing Day coming off a miserable 1-11 season. The Broncos signed 27 players in what is being called the greatest recruiting class in the history of the MAC.
It is a truly impressive class. The scouting services all have it as the clear cut leader in a year of MAC recruiting that feels rather strong. But, as pleased as some of us may be about the state of MAC recruiting in 2014, is there evidence to support those feelings? Has the MAC's recruiting actually improved? Are MAC schools really bringing in better talent than ever before?
There's no denying the MAC has reached new levels of national exposure in recent years. Back-to-back Top-10 Heisman finishes by Jordan Lynch, a BCS bowl appearance, the No. 1 player taken in the 2013 NFL Draft, and a shot at repeating again in 2014 have all helped raise the conference to a new stage. But, after two straight disappointing bowl-seasons, including an 0-5 debacle to end the 2013 season, it begs the question: Is all this attention paying off for the MAC, or is it publicity for publicity's sake?
One way we judge things such at this is by looking at recruiting classes. Successful programs have better luck recruiting. It's why schools such as Alabama and Ohio State, perennial Top 10 teams, always seem to have Top 10 recruiting classes. But success, is only one part of the recipe. You can win 10 games a year, but if no one know you're going it, it's unlikely those wins will have a substantial effect on your recruiting. This is where the national exposure, such as that provided by the MAC's weeknight football games, as well as the formerly listed achievements, comes in. Winning factored with attention, keeps programs on the minds of recruits, and can be the deciding factor in a player's decision for college. After all, everyone loves the spotlight, and when it comes to non-AQ football, the spotlight doesn't get much brighter than it is on the MAC.
But, even with P.J. Fleck signing the best class this conference has ever seen, there were still some head-scratching classes. Bowling Green, coming off a MAC Championship, was more towards the middle of the pack than the top. Northern Illinois, coming off it's fourth consecutive MAC Championship appearance, once again fell short of putting together the conference's top class. Schools such as Ohio and Akron, which feature great facilities and legendary coaches with past BCS-level success, still aren't separating themselves from the majority of the conference, which unfortunately featured four of the nation's worst teams this past season.
So, despite what feels like a great success on the recruiting trail, if we actually look at the national recruiting class rankings we can see that more than half of the MAC's teams finished with classes ranked an average of 100, or worse. In fact, the Conference champs have an average recruiting class ranking of 102nd in the country. Northern Illinois, the darlings of Mid-America, did just slightly better, with an average score of the 94st best class in 2014. Both of those teams featured some dynamic players, one of which had more than 40 standing Division I (FBS) offers. Even Western Michigan's amazing class failed to make it into the Top 50 in any service's rankings, finishing with an average ranking of 61.
Northern Illinois didn't even come close to matching the classes assembled by fellow Illinois schools Northwestern and Illinois, despite being the best program in the state for more than a decade running. It makes one wonder then, while we like to think the MAC is on the come up as a football conference, and we may have felt it was the second best Non-AQ conference in college football, is it recruiting like such? The answer is no, which might also shed some light on why the conference has been embarrassed in two straight post-seasons. For all the success, and attention that the MAC has had over the past two seasons, it's still recruiting near the bottom of the FBS conferences.
|Scout 2014 Conference Recruiting Rankings|
|Rnk||Conf.||Avg Commits||Leader||Top 100||5-Star||4-Star||3-Star||HS||JC||Avg|
|2||Big 12||24.8||13. Oklahoma||7||4||38||158||196||52||2.99|
|4||ACC||23.4||3. Florida State||17||8||46||208||319||8||2.96|
|5||Big Ten||21.9||5. Ohio State||17||3||53||183||286||20||2.96|
|6||Indep||34.5||6. Notre Dame||4||1||16||25||136||2||2.43|
|7||AAC||23.8||46. South Florida||1||0||2||85||240||22||2.32|
|8||MWC||24||66. Boise State||1||0||1||58||232||56||2.19|
|9||Conf USA||24||65. Marshall||0||0||1||43||262||50||2.14|
|10||MAC||20.3||56. Western Michigan||0||0||0||53||251||13||2.2|
|11||Sun Belt||23||89. Louisiana||0||0||0||16||189||64||2.05|
Only the Sun Belt ranked lower in recruiting as a Conference, than the MAC (according to Scout's conference recruiting rankings). Despite having an individual team finish with a higher rated class than the Mountain West and Conference-USA, the MAC still finished below both. The MAC's recruits typically ranked higher on Scout, averaging a score of 2.2 compared to the MWC's 2.19 and C-USA's 2.14, but as you can tell by looking at the average national rankings chart above, Scout was the more favorable service towards MAC schools in general. I couldn't find any conference vs. conference rankings on Rivals or 247Sports, but I'm willing to bet that if I could the MAC would have finished even further below the MWC and C-USA in both services. Actually, if you look at Scouts' ratings for previous years, the MAC took a step back in 2014, finishing one spot below where it finished in 2013's class rankings.
**Part of the problem with the MAC recruiting classes this season, at least for the worst classes, was that even of the 3-star talent those classes signed, there were few players that were actually highly regarded by other schools. Central Michigan, for example, only signed two players with competing FBS offers, and each only carried one other FBS offer. EMU, Kent State and Miami and Ohio all carried similar trends: less than 40 percent of their signees carried another offer according to 247Sports. This includes FCS offers. Western Michigan's class bucks the overall trend of the MAC in this regard, with 77 percent of the signings carrying competing offers, all from the FBS level and plenty from BCS schools, but the Broncos' class is clearly the statistical outlier in terms of MAC recruiting. It's not even close to representing any sort of a trend or average for the Conference at large.
|Team||Total Recruits||Qty with other offers||% with other offers||Additional Offers||FBS||FCS||(BCS)||(MAC)|
(h/t to 121Merrimac for this data)
Sure, the MAC's greatest players ever have almost all been 2-stars or lower. This is a fact that cannot be argued, and yes, plenty of those players turned into not only fantastic college players, but elite NFL players. Hell, Eric Fisher, who made history by going No. 1 overall to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, probably shouldn't have even been rated 2-stars coming out oh high school, and yet he turned out to be an elite level player. The MAC has developed a skill for maximizing the potential in otherwise undervalued recruits, and it's a great thing to see. But at what point do we, as fans of this great mid-major conference, start expecting to see some improvement in recruiting. I don't think any of use are asking for multiple 4-star recruits, or Top 25 recruiting classes, because that is a pipe dream. But, is it too much to ask to see the MAC recruit better than FCS teams? Is it too much to expect the majority of our teams to not wind up with some of the worst ranked recruiting classes year in and year out?
With the way the conference has garnered attention, and shown it can compete (even with the last two bowl seasons going less than ideal) it's frustrating to see that we're not at least pulling in a few bigger named talents each year. One would like to see the success translate into a few improvements in caliber of recruits. Maybe it's something that will never change. Maybe the MAC is just poorly located (cold weather) and not sexy enough to ever out-recruit the likes of the Mountain West or the AAC. But, then again, maybe Fleck and WMU are more than just a statistical outlier. Maybe, just maybe, the Kalamazoo boat rower is on to something, and maybe we will start to see the NIU's and Bowling Green's of the MAC start to compete on the recruiting trail with the mid-level BCS schools they beat on the field.
We'll just have to wait and see.
**Thanks to 121Merrimac of UBFan.com, here is a break down of the offers every MAC recruit received this season (using 247Sports information). I've compiled it into a Google Spreadsheet for easier viewing.