Recruiting and the Big Four (plus ECU)




Recruiting is the most significant vital sign for the health of a football program. Well, that’s not entirely true, but it certainly seems that way with the amount of money that programs pump into facilities and equipment designed to catch the eye of blue chip prospects. Head coaches are hired, and fired, based on their reputation on the recruiting trail, perhaps even more so than their reputation as a successful on-field coach.

It’s been six years since UNC recruiting coordinator John Blake resigned for his involvement in the North Carolina agent and improper benefit scandal, and five years since former head coach Butch Davis was fired for (allegedly) allowing it to happen. It was the golden age for North Carolina football recruiting, and while it’s been said many times that the uncertainty of the NCAA investigation … that’s still going on, by the way … hurt the Tar Heels more than any punishment ever could because of its impact on recruiting. Of course, it could also be argued that the impropriety that led to the scandal contributed to the otherworldly success in football recruiting, but that’s a different story for a different time.

From 2011 to 2012, the Tar Heels went from their best recruiting cycle in recorded history according to the 247 composite recruiting rankings to their lowest score over the past six years. Whether it was the scandal itself or the absence of a permanent football coach, the cause certainly had an effect as UNC recruiting returned to the rest of the field in the North Carolina football landscape. Who benefited the most? NC State had the sharpest increase from 2011 to 2012, so it could be inferred that the Wolfpack not only brought light to the scandal at UNC, but took the most advantage from it as well.

Looking beyond those two seasons, however, a pattern begins to emerge that shows that NC State’s success in recruiting is perhaps tied more to East Carolina’s failure, and the Heels are operating more in a league of their own. In every recruiting cycle between 2010 and 2016, if ECU increased, NC State decreased, and vice versa. UNC quickly stabilized with a gradual increase between 2011 and 2015, and a very slight decline in 2016. Meanwhile, NC State has been all over the board with an erratic trend line that coincides with a coaching change. A sharp increase from 2013 to 2015 in Dave Doeren’s first two full seasons shows a tremendous amount of hope in what the Wolfpack were poised to do, but an even sharper decline from 2015 to 2016 seems more tied to lackluster results than the UNC scandal.

Meanwhile, among the private schools, Duke and Wake Forest followed a similar path from 2010 to 2016 that goes against the conventional thinking that they’d be direct competitors on the recruiting trail. The only separation between the two schools came this past signing day as Duke took a significant leap with the best signing class in program history as Wake continued on their six year trend line. David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils finished on top of the Big Four plus One for Signing Day 2016, but a “Battle of the Blues” rivalry in football recruiting remains unlikely unless that trend continues over the next few cycles.

One statistic that may give Blue Devil fans hope this year, however, is that this is only the 2nd time in six years that a Big Four team improved their recruiting for four consecutive years. The previous team? The 2011-2015 Tar Heels who won the Coastal Division and finished with double-digit wins. Not surprisingly, the Blue Devils are scheduled to start 9 players on Saturday against NC Central who will be seeing their first college football action. Crootin’.

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Data courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings