Because stats are fun, here’s a little Buckeyes nugget to share before we light the fuse on 2017 and let the sparks fly. The statniks over at the FiveThirtyEight dropped an interesting piece last last week in an effort to test the oft-discussed premise of “Which College Football Teams Do The Most With The Least Talent? (And Vice Versa)”
But although raw talent has a pretty strong correlation with on-field success, it doesn’t completely guarantee it. Teams with good rosters can always let their fan bases down, while others can achieve far better results than we would expect from their recruiting hauls alone. (Hello, service academies!)
To get a sense of which teams have gotten the most — and the least — out of their talent, I took ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) ratings for each FBS program over the past two seasons, and plotted them against 247Sports.com’s Team Talent Composite scores. (The latter measures a roster’s strength by tracking how many highly touted prospects a team has at its disposal.) The overall relationship between FPI and roster talent is relatively strong — recruiting scores explain about 65 percent of the variation in team performance — but some teams have managed to rise above college football’s penchant for predestination.
They ranked the lot of them based on FPI expectations, and you wound up with the usual suspects at both ends: Air Force (18-9 the last two seasons), Western Kentucky (23-5), Navy (20-7) and Appalachian State (21-5) among the top 4 nationally; North Texas (6-19), Texas State (5-19), Rutgers (6-18) and Kansas (2-22) anchoring the bottom.
But when you pull the Big Ten schools out of the findings and rank them, things start to get a little more interesting. Wisconsin (No. 13 nationally) and Iowa (No. 20) top the league in terms of bang-for-talent-buck, which isn’t a shock. But check out No. 3 on the list:
So what does a “+4.3” mean, anyway, in the big picture?
For one thing, to give that bump a little context, we looked at ESPN’s current FPI top 10. The average FPI number difference among those 10 schools is a swing of 1.41. So dividing a bonus of 4.3 by the typical difference of 1.41 comes out to 3.05 — which means the Buckeyes’ power ranking probably lands them three spots higher in the rankings than their talent pool should dictate.
It also says something about the coaching and teaching and building components. If we’re going to fawn over the Badgers for turning coal to diamonds and the Hawkeyes for punching above their weight, then what about some love for an Ohio State staff that returned only six starters in 2016 — and went to the College Football Playoffs anyway?
“I’d say 2014 and 2016 are both strong cases for Ohio State, as both squads were extremely young and inexperienced but obviously were able to quickly adapt to the field,” Pro Football Focus college analyst Josh Liskiewitz said of the Buckeyes.
“I would argue that some players appear to peak early — look at the lack of progression year-to-year of their quarterbacks, and Pat Elflein’s mediocre play last season compared to a much stronger 2015 — but their ability to have players like Cardale Jones and Malik Hooker ready to go very quickly is a testament to their ability to teach their system.”
And teach it well. Although, truth be told, it also says something about having waves of NFL talent ready and waiting to replace NFL talent, too.
“I think it’s a lot easier to develop talent when the talent’s already pretty darned good,” noted Brandon Huffman, national director of recruiting for Scout.com. “That’s why I’ve always been cautious with [takes] like that and studies like that. It’s like when people say recruiting ratings don’t matter. They do, because the teams that usually finish strong in the recruiting rankings usually finish strong in the regular season.
“So yeah, they’re doing a lot with the talent, but their talent’s pretty darned good to begin with. Urban Meyer was a pretty good coach from the get go. He was a better coach at Ohio State and Florida than at Utah and Bowling Green.”
Fair point. And while the Buckeyes have fared far better over the last 24 months in parlaying prep talent into the win column than, say, Florida State, Southern Cal and Penn State, they’re not that dissimilar in terms of profile from Alabama, which has two national title games and one College Football Playoff crown since 2015 on its ledger:
“People said after that  team, they lost to Michigan State on that last-second field goal, ‘How did this team not win a championship with the talent they had?’ Huffman asked. “They were 23-3. It just happens. Sometimes they lose games. Does that mean they underachieved? Not really.
“Ohio State is such a weird anomaly in that if they don’t win it all, they didn’t do enough, because of the talent they have. [At most schools], you get a lifetime [contract], essentially, for going 11-2 or 11-3. At Ohio State, it’s, ‘Well, how did you lose two games?’”