As part of its 10th anniversary celebration, Rivals.com this week published a ranking of all of major conferences teams in recruiting over the last decade. Not surprisingly, Northwestern finished second-to-last in the Big Ten, in front of only Indiana.
Fans wouldn't raise an eyebrow at the Wildcats' spot in standings because the program has never been one to land many blue-chip prospects. During the last 10 years, Northwestern never finished higher than eighth in the conference in recruiting in any single year and landed just two four-star prospects -- Loren Howard in 2002 and Patrick Ward in 2008. The Wildcats have never landed a five-star talent.
Northwestern prides itself on being a "development program." The Wildcats rely on identifying those two- and three-star prospects who have what the coaches call "the right fit" and developing them into bona fide Big Ten players.
With that in mind, WildcatReport took Rivals' rankings a step further to determine which Big Ten program gets the most bang for its recruiting buck. Which school makes best use of its incoming high school talent to turn potential into production on the gridiron? And how would Northwestern stack up in that scenario?
To get our answers, we took Rivals' recruiting rankings and combined them with won-loss record to see who improved the most. For example, if a team finished fifth in recruiting over the decade and then fourth in record, they would get a +1 ranking -- in other words, the team turned what should have been fifth-place talent into a fourth-place finish on the gridiron.
Not surprisingly, Northwestern did much better in our study. In fact, the Wildcats finished third, right behind co-leaders Iowa and Wisconsin, in terms of improvement from their recruiting ranking to their won-loss ranking.
This analysis is far from scientific, but it is a good indicator of which programs are the best at maximizing their players' abilities.
Here are the results.
1. Iowa and Wisconsin +4
Iowa: 6th in Rivals rankings, 2nd in W-L rankings (46-26, 2 titles)
Wisconsin: 7th, tied for 3rd (44-28, 1 title)
3. Northwestern +3
10th, tied for 7th (33-39)
4. Purdue +2
9th, tied for 7th (33-39)
5. Ohio State +1
2nd, 1st (61-11, 7 titles)
6. Indiana even
11th, 11th (13-59)
7. Minnesota -1
8th, 9th (26-46)
8. Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State -2
Michigan: 1st, 3rd (44-28, 2 titles)
Michigan State: 4th, 6th (34-38)
Penn State: 3rd, 5th (41-31, 2 titles)
11. Illinois -5
5th, 10th (21-51)
A few explanations: Rivals included the 10-year period from 2002-2011 in their rankings, so WildcatReport used the same period, meaning just nine seasons because the 2011 season has yet to be played. Rivals ranked Nebraska No. 2 in its recruiting rankings, but we excluded the Huskers from this study because they have yet to compete in the Big Ten. Therefore, all teams that finished below second in Rivals rankings were bumped up one spot (i.e., Northwestern went from 11th to 10th).
In the final analysis, Northwestern does uphold its reputation of doing more with less, but the Wildcats don't do it quite as well as Iowa and Wisconsin. The Wildcats use lower-level talent to get to the middle of the pack, but the Hawkeyes and Badgers are taking middle-tier talent and finishing among the leaders.
Because we ended up with a first-place tie, we decided to institute a tiebreaker: championships won. Iowa, with two titles in the last decade, would get the mythical BCS berth as our bang-for-buck conference champions.