National Signing Day held no surprises for Northwestern's football recruiting, but the 2013 class looks like one of the strongest groups to step on campus. With another recruiting cycle in the books, it is time to look at the history of Northwestern recruiting and how it has tracked team success. Because of his background, I think that this is a particularly important factor for evaluating Pat Fitzgerald's time as Northwestern's head coach.
As this excellent piece noted, when Fitz was named head coach in the summer of 2006 his chief qualification was as a recruiter, including two seasons as Walker's recruiting coordinator, a position he received in 2004 (that is, beginning with the 2005 recruiting cycle). This was a far thinner resume than the previous two Northwestern hires; Gary Barnett had been a coach since 1969, with head coaching stints in high school and at Fort Lewis College followed by 8 years as an assistant at Colorado, coordinating the offense for a national champion during his final season. Randy Walker entered coaching in the mid-70s, and he had been the head coach at Miami (OH) for 9 seasons (including the 1995 season, when his team was the only team to beat Barnett's best team during the regular season) when Northwestern came calling.
Because of his background, the Fitzgerald era came with a pre-made storyline focused on recruiting. To see how the narrative of improving recruiting during his time as head coach holds up, I looked to the rankings produced by Rivals and Scout. Both Rivals and Scout have databases of recruiting rankings that go back to 2002, when the redshirt seniors from Fitz's first team were recruited. Though we cannot compare Fitz to Barnett and Walker with these databases, we can take a look at how Northwestern's recruiting has developed from the later Walker years to the present and the impact this has had on Northwestern's roster composition.
What I have done is fairly simple. Both recruiting sites give players a star rating from 2-5. A few players aren't rated; this is only significant for Scout's evaluation of the 2002 class, in which they only rated 4 of 22 players. Otherwise, there are a total of 4 players that Scout didn't rate and 1 that Rivals didn't rate; the last of these players was recruited in 2005. I have entered the star ratings into a spreadsheet, giving a look at how Northwestern's recruiting classes have changed over time. I have also noted where each service ranked each class both nationally and among the 12 current Big Ten teams (something is wrong with the Rivals 2004 national rankings, but I think I have NU's placement right for that year). Though there is room for significant disagreement about how useful the ranking formulas are, they give some idea of how classes compare in depth and quality. The rankings also provide some control over broader trends in star ratings; if more players are receiving three star ratings overall, an increase in 3 star recruits may simply be a result of this trend rather than an improvement in recruiting relative to other teams.
As an additional look at how Northwestern's recruiting compares to the rest of the conference, I have entered the total number of recruits of each rating for the 12 current Big Ten teams in each year. There may be some data entry errors here; if you find them, please let me know. I have also shown the average number of recruits overall and of each star rating. In these calculations, "2*" includes all players not given a 3* rating or higher; this is because the small number of exceptions did not seem worth the effort of locating them.
The final piece of analysis I have done is to total the players Northwestern recruited in the 5 year window of each of Fitzgerald's teams. This is not a look at the players actually on the roster; neither attrition before 5 years, whether due to not redshirting or another reason, nor transfers in are accounted for here. Instead, it is a somewhat abstracted look at the talent pool for each team. This helps to account for the lag between when players are recruited and when they reach their peak and provides some indication of the cumulative change in Northwestern's recruiting pool.
While the totals below the individual year show how many players of each star rating Northwestern has brought in, the totals below the 5 year windows add a time element to show how much each class contributed to Fitz's teams. Thus the 2012 and 2003 classes only have 2 years in this total, while the 2006-2009 classes played their entire careers under Fitzgerald and are counted for a full 5 years. This isn't exactly "player years", since a proper measure of that would account for attrition, but it is a somewhat abstracted measure that gives greater weight to classes that have spent more years under Fitz.
The spreadsheet is broken into two sections, the first with Rivals ratings and the second with Scout. Following each I have noted the record of each year's team, the team's Pythagorean wins, the team's F+ ranking, the team's SRS ranking, and the PFEI ranking for the 5-year period ending in that year (explanations at each of the links). These are intended to give a few perspectives on the team's quality and the program's trajectory on the field.
Now that all that is out of the way, here is your link to the spreadsheet.
In both sets of ratings, the Fitzgerald years have seen Northwestern's recruiting move from mostly 2 star players to mostly 3 star players, with a sprinkling of 4 star recruits concentrated in the most recent classes. The trend slightly predates Fitzgerald's elevation to head coach, with the 2005 class (Fitz's first as recruiting coordinator under Walker) featuring the most Rivals 3 stars of any class before 2007 and the most Scout 3 stars before the 2010 class. Overall, Rivals is more generous with 3 star ratings (118 to 88) but stingier with 4 star ratings (5 to 8) in the Northwestern classes concerned. This appears to roughly track with the conference-wide trends; while Scout issued fewer 4* ratings than Rivals, about half of the difference comes from issuing significantly more 5* ratings, and Rivals gave significantly more recruits 3 stars throughout the conference. Scout's 2002 ratings are fragmentary, with only 4 of 22 NU recruits rated; this may explain a small part of the gap in 3 star recruits between the services.
There is some evidence that the increase in 3 star recruits is part of a general inflation of star ratings. The proportion of 3* recruits in the whole Big Ten recruiting base rises over time in both sets of ratings, though Northwestern's improvement in this regard has outpaced the overall change in Big Ten rankings. In addition to the change in the overall conference rating mix, Northwestern's class rankings, both conference and national, have improved less dramatically than the star ratings of players. Class size is a factor in keeping Northwestern's rankings down, as Rivals bases their class rankings on the top 20 players in a class and Scout bases theirs on the top 25; this helps explain why apparently solid classes in 2010 and 2011 received particularly low national rankings from Rivals. Both Rivals and Scout give the 2013 class the highest national ranking of any in their databases. Rivals also gives the class the highest Big Ten ranking of any in their database, while Scout puts only the 2012 class ahead in the Big Ten.
Overall, the improved recruiting narrative holds up. Heading into 2013, Northwestern's talent pool looks better than it has at any point during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. This is true even looking at the classes' average ranking, a metric that may underrate a developmentally-oriented program like Northwestern. On the other hand, this is improvement from a low starting point; the much improved Northwestern classes of recent years are still mediocre at best compared to the rest of the conference. Still, Fitz's teams have recorded some respectable seasons with classes rated much worse than his recent classes. If he can keep up or improve the modest success of the last two classes, winning Big Ten records should become routine and championships more likely.