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How Good is Ole Miss’ Recruiting Relative to the Rest of the SEC?

We all know Hugh Freeze is a good recruiter, but how good?

Wofford v Mississippi'n

Yesterday, Ben Garrett of OMSpirit published a story chronicling in brief Ole Miss’ rise from a 2-10 football team in 2011 to a 2016 Sugar Bowl winner with staying power. The story was framed in a way that rebuked common criticisms of the Rebel program under Hugh Freeze, namely that Ole Miss has performed exceptionally (and therefore suspiciously) well in recruiting and not, the argument goes, in the other many aspects of college football program management.

The story pointed out some flaws in the assumptions that bolster argument, chief among which is that Ole Miss’ recruiting has been particularly elite under Hugh Freeze. Per garrett,

And as far as cumulative SEC recruiting rankings the last five years, Ole Miss has finished no better than middle of the road. Excluding the 2012 class, when the Rebels managed a class ranked in the 50s [nationally], the last four years have resulted in a overall cumulative class ranking of 12.25. In the same period, Alabama has finished, on average, No. 2 overall; LSU 7.0; Auburn 8.2; Tennessee 9.0; Georgia 9.6; Florida 12.2; and Texas A&M 12.8.

Ole Miss’ classes, on average, have been good enough for sixth or seventh-best in the conference in a given year. With the 2012 class? Almost out of the Top 10.

The Rebels, per this argument, are not exactly outperforming much of the rest of the SEC on the recruiting trail, so any criticism that assumes that they are is not valid. (Garrett also argues against Ole Miss’ critics by pointing out things like the number of walk-ons Ole Miss is getting production out of, and how the Rebels have missed on nearly just as many blue chip talents as they have signed under Freeze.)

Garrett makes this argument with national recruiting class rankings. His point, in doing so, is valid, but there’s a way to get a deeper and more robust look at what Ole Miss has done on the recruiting trail in the 247Sports 247Composite ranking system. The 247Composite ranking uses a score based on the recruiting rankings of multiple scouting services. Ostensibly, this provides a holistic view of how good a given recruit is considered to be and, by extension, how they improve the recruiting classes they are a part of.

Taking the 247Composite rankings of each SEC recruiting class from 2013-2016, you can get the same sense of Garrett’s argument that Ole Miss has been more-or-less a middle-of-the-pack recruiter in the SEC under Hugh Freeze. Note that I did not include the 2012 recruiting class in this even though it probably would help our argument to do so. The reasoning here is twofold: it wasn’t a class that he completely owned, as he was hired in December of 2011, and b) of the signees from 2012, only three - Issac Gross, John Youngblood, and Robert Conyers - remain on the Rebel roster, marking a rate of attrition that is probably similar across the SEC.

Here are the 247Composite class scores for each SEC team from 2013 to 2016, plus an average score by which the teams are sorted.

The “WAVG” in the last column see is an attempt to create a weighted average which emphasizes the 2014 class. The logic goes that players from that class, if they’re still playing, are either juniors or redshirt sophomores today and would account for more of the performance on the field than the classes that came before and after theirs. Implicit in this is the assumption that much of a team’s 2016 class are freshmen and, therefore, not playing many snaps, just as much of the major contributors from the 2013 class are likely to have left for the NFL. The formula for WAVG uses one quarter of the value of the 2013 and 2016 classes, one half of the value of the 2015 class, and all of the 2014 class to calculate the average.

This, however, is not really rooted in anything concrete (it would be nice to have an average of how many true freshmen actually contribute in the SEC, for example) so it is more a thought exercise than anything else. Ole Miss, it should be noted, falls to eighth in the conference if you emphasize the current juniors on the roster, due to Tennessee jumping to 5th due to their 2014 class being the conference’s second best for that year.

So Ole Miss, on average, has had the 7th best recruiting class in the SEC over the past four years. Talent-wise, then, the Rebels are middle-of-the-pack in the SEC. But if the 247Composite score is a fair proxy for talent (and let’s say it is), then just how talented is Ole Miss relative to the rest of the SEC?

The standard deviation among the average 247Composite scores of the SEC’s recruiting classes is 40.75 points. But, because Alabama’s average score is so high (312.39) and Vanderbilt’s is so low (162.57), you have a couple of “clusters” of teams whose average scores fit neatly within one standard deviation. “Cluster one” includes LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee in that order; “cluster two” includes South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Mizzou, in order.

Within the first cluster, the average classes deviate by just 10.86 points. That is to say that, on average, the differences among the classes signed by LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee are, per the 247Sports class calculator, not much more than the difference caused by the signing of a single player. Within that cluster, you have an even tighter cluster of Texas A&M, Florida, Ole Miss, and Tennessee, which only deviate by 2.95 points, which is to say that they’re virtually the same teams, talent-wise, per the 247Composite.

So, yes, Ole Miss is in the middle of the pack of the SEC when it comes to recruiting, but a handful of other teams are right there with the Rebels with little separation among them.

Of course this tells a very, very incomplete story. These scores cannot tell us, for example, how well a recruit fits in with a given depth chart or system, how likely he is to stay in school and improve upon his talents, how transfers impact a team’s overall success, and so on. They cannot explain, for example, how Ole Miss blew out a Georgia team that it has consistently been out-recruited by, or how the league’s second most talented team moved to fire its BCS Title-winning head coach after a loss to Auburn, or how Mizzou and Mississippi State have done a pretty good job of exceeding whatever expectations recruiting rankings provide us.

In short, there is a lot more to coaching a winning football program than simply acquiring talent. Whatever those things are, Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss have proven that they have it, regardless of if their critics care enough to see that.