Forde-Yard Dash: Breaking down college football's top programs and where they get their talent

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports


Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where it STILL never rains in Tiger Stadium – LSU coach Les Miles characterized the Saturday night downpour vs. Auburn as “stiff dew.” Which is why Les is Les.

TOP 10 TALENT: BETTER HAVE A PIPELINE

While watching games from home, The Dash did some number crunching and star gazing in attempts to quantify how the top teams reached their exalted place in the rankings – and how others have fallen from contention. The focus was recruiting – and not just class rankings, but the rankings of individual players who are actually on the field right now.

Specifically, The Dash looked at last week’s depth charts for every Top 10 team, then checked where every starter ranked in the 0-to-5-star Rivals.com recruiting rankings, then came up with an average star rating for each starting lineup. The results are below, and contain some surprises.

(Before we get to those surprises, a couple caveats: Data was taken from depth charts on the school websites. No backups were factored in, and some schools play games with their publicly listed lineups. Some schools also list 23 or 24 starters, accounting for different formations. The Dash took what was available. Also: Recruiting rankings, while vastly improved in terms of accuracy in recent years, remain a wildly inexact science. Signing Day is only the beginning of what a program can do with its players, not the end, so keep that in mind.)

While it is considered a given that the Southeastern Conference has the most talent, the two Top 10 teams that field starting lineups with the highest average recruiting rankings are Ohio State and Florida State. Some conclusions from that information: Urban Meyer inherited a really strong program from Jim Tressel; Jimbo Fisher has young, highly-rated prospects all over the place at Tallahassee; and some three-star guys from the South may simply be better than a lot of four-star guys from the Midwest.

Schools like Louisville, Stanford and Texas A&M are doing a very nice job evaluating, landing and developing underrated players. The Aggies don’t have a single five-star recruit in the starting lineup, and seem to be doing rather well with the three-star pass-and-catch combination of Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Louisville’s only five-star starter is running back Michael Dyer, a late-summer transfer who currently is the third-leading rusher on the team. Stanford has eight fifth-year senior starters, only one of whom (Shayne Skov) was rated higher than a three-star recruit.

The romanticized ideal of the gritty walk-on overachiever who worked his way up the depth chart and into the starting lineup plays great in Hollywood, but less so in the Top 10. Of 228 listed starters, only three were unrated by Rivals coming out of high school: offensive lineman Mana Greig of Oregon; defensive lineman David Parry of Stanford; and safety Connor Norman of Georgia.

But the biggest takeaway was this: you really need a recruiting pipeline to succeed at the highest level. For most of the Top 10, that means owning your own backyard: Georgia, for example, has 17 of 22 starters from in-state. For others, it means making a living in the neighboring hotbed: Oregon has 10 starters from California; Clemson has five from Georgia and four from North Carolina. And for others it means carving out a niche based on previous work experience (Charlie Strong and Louisville thrive in the state of Florida), or academic reputation (Stanford attracts high achievers from across the nation).

The breakdown:

Ohio State (1)
How the Buckeyes were built: By owning the best football state in the Midwest, and cherry-picking a few stars from Pennsylvania and the South.
Star average: 3.96. Three five-star players, 15 four-stars, four three-stars.
Percent of starters from in-state: 59.1
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 63.6
Of note: The Buckeyes’ highest-rated pro prospect, cornerback Bradley Roby, was a three-star recruit. Ohio State’s top two defensive players, Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier, both were plucked by the previous staff from SEC territory (Roby from Georgia, Shazier from Florida).




Florida State (2)
How the Seminoles were built: With a couple of hellacious recent classes full of Southern boys.
Star average: 3.87. Five five-stars, 11 four-stars, six three-stars, one two-star.
Percent of starters from in-state: 56.5
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 82.6
Of note: Nobody in the Top 10 starts more five-star players than the Seminoles, who have four on defense plus quarterback Jameis Winston. A whopping 14 of 23 starters are from the signing classes of 2011 and '12.




Alabama (3)
How the Crimson Tide was built: With star athletes from around the South willing to wait their turn on a deep roster.
Star average: 3.86. Three five-stars, 13 four-stars, six three-stars.
Percent of starters from in-state: 31.8
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 72.7
Of note: Sixteen of 23 starters are from the signing classes of 2010 and ’11. Most of the younger guys aren’t ready to crack a loaded lineup, and most of the guys who would be fifth-year seniors (Class of ’09) have long since gone pro or gone elsewhere.




LSU (4)
How the Tigers were built: On homegrown talent, plus a couple border raids into Texas and Mississippi.
Star average: 3.86. Four five-stars, 11 four-stars, seven three-stars.

Percent of starters from in-state: 63.6
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 81.8
Of note: The mass defensive exodus to the pros last spring has created playing time for some less-touted recruits. The Tigers have five three-star players starting on that side of the ball.

Georgia (5)
How the Bulldogs were built: Nobody in the Top Ten is more homegrown.
Star average: 3.64. Two five-stars, 13 four-stars, six three-stars, one unrated.
Percent of starters from in-state: 77.3
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 90.9
Of note: The Bulldogs’ spectacular offense starts six three-star prospects, while its leaky defense starts just one player who was not a four-star or five-star recruit.




Clemson (6)
How the Tigers were built: By battling South Carolina in the backyard, then going after top prospects in the Atlanta and Charlotte metro areas.
Star average: 3.5. Two five-stars, eight four-stars, 11 three-stars, one two-star.
Percent of starters from in-state: 45.5
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 86.4
Of note: Four of the five starters on the Tigers’ offensive line are three-star recruits. The fourth, tackle Brandon Thomas, is a four-star guy.




[Related: Clemson DT Carlos Watkins survives fatal car crash]

Oregon (7)
How the Ducks were built: With Nike bucks and bling, which play well in an increasingly wide area.
Star average: 3.23. Two five-stars, six four-stars, 11 three-stars, two two-stars, one unranked.
Percent of starters from in-state: 13.6
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 59.1
Of note: If Hawaii counted as an adjoining state – which it kind of is, give or take a few thousand miles of ocean – the Ducks would have 16 of 22 starters in that category.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota, Greig and defensive lineman Wade Kelikipi all are from Hawaii. Oregon also has the only Canadian starter in the Top Ten in linebacker Boseko Lokombo of British Columbia.





Stanford (8)
How the Cardinal was built: Over a painstaking five-year period, wooing tough kids with good grades.
Star average: 3.22. One five-star, seven four-stars, 13 three-stars, one two-star, one unranked.
Percent of starters from in-state: 17.4
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 26.1
Of note: The Cardinal has starters from 14 different states, including six from the East Coast. The three-man starting defensive line averages 1.7 stars. 




Texas A&M (9)
How the Aggies were built: In-state almost exclusively on offense, with some forays into Louisiana and elsewhere for defense. Mike Sherman left Kevin Sumlin some fun toys.
Star average: 3.21. Zero five-stars, six four-stars, 17 three-stars, one two-star.
Percent of starters from in-state: 75
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 87.5
Of note: The fact that Johnny Football was a three-star guy is worth repeating. Eleven of 12 defensive starters are three-star recruits, and four of them are true freshmen or sophomores. Which might explain the Aggies’ inability to stop opponents.




Louisville (10)
How the Cardinals were built: “Come to Florida North” appears to have been the sales pitch, and a large number of players listened to it.
Star average: 2.91. One five-star, two four-stars, 16 three-stars, three two-stars.
Percent of starters from in-state: 17.4
Percent of starters from in-state or adjoining states: 21.7
Of note: In numerical terms, no team is getting more out of its talent than the Cardinals.
Or maybe nobody has done a better job identifying underrated talent. A defense that ranks No. 1 nationally in points allowed and third in yards allowed starts eight three-stars, two two-stars and one unrated player.





THE NEBRASKA COROLLARY

The hurricane of response to Bo Pelini (11) and his potty-mouthed, two-year-old dissertation on Nebraska fans has blown over. But what’s left behind is the bigger-picture reality: Can Pelini (or anyone) ever win again at a Tom Osborne, national-title level?

Using the recruiting criteria discussed above, the odds are against it. 

Osborne worked a miracle in Lincoln, growing a powerhouse out of a talent puddle. He raided bigger states for skill-position players and ran them behind corn-fed (and sometimes steroid-fed) linemen from the heartland. Nebraska could sell America’s first deluxe weight room, built in an era when ticket revenue was a differentiating factor in terms of what schools could afford in terms of facilities.

Today, thanks to TV money and deep-pocketed boosters, all the power programs have great facilities. Nebraska doesn’t have anything special to sell in the Sun Belt, and those kids are too far removed from Lincoln to make all-important unofficial (unpaid) campus visits where the early recruiting foundation is laid.

Combine those factors with some clear recruiting misses in recent years – especially on defense – and the Cornhuskers are held captive in good-but-not-great territory. Which is not where the passionate and loyal fan base aspires to be.

Heading into their game against South Dakota State, the starting lineup averaged a 3.0 star rating and was frightfully young on the defensive side with five players from the 2012 and ’13 recruiting classes. Just seven starters are Nebraska products, including walk-on twins Jake and Spencer Long. The rest are a hodgepodge from eight different states.

The Cornhuskers don’t have a Louisville-style pipeline to Florida or anywhere else. What they mostly have are a core of moderately-sought-after Midwestern players and a few expatriates from warm-weather hotbeds who may be good enough to compete in the Big Ten, but aren’t likely to revive the Osborne glory days anytime soon.

APU MOVEMENT: START OF SOMETHING BIG, OR A REVOLUTION GOING NOWHERE?

Did an avalanche start with a few snowflakes of free speech? Or was it just a brief blip of dissent destined to die out from lack of support?

Those are the questions a lot of college football observers are asking after the so-called “All Players United” Sharpie Statement on Saturday. A few players, most notably quarterbacks Kain Colter (12) of undefeated Northwestern and Vad Lee (13) of undefeated Georgia Tech, wrote the letters “APU” on arm tape or other gear to apparently call attention to the general evils of college athletics.

The somewhat vague APU movement comes from the National College Players Association, which is run by former UCLA player Ramogi Huma. On the organization’s website (ncpanow.org), visitors are asked to sign a petition for the following reasons: “I’m joining players and fans from campuses across the nation to stand against unjust NCAA rules that leave college athletes without basic protections. Players should not be forced to forfeit their rights and endure unnecessary physical, academic, and financial risks as a condition of participating in NCAA sports.” 

What happens next is where it gets interesting. This was a very small, very isolated statement; do more players get on the bandwagon this weekend? Do they care enough to dare? Or do schools apply pressure (subtly or overtly) to stamp out any signs of rebellion?

The Dash applauds the APU movement if it helps educate players on where their educational, financial and physical status within college sports. And if those players understand where they stand and want to make a statement of protest, they should be encouraged – or certainly not discouraged. This is college, and questioning authority and the status quo has been an important part of that drill for decades.

The Dash also hopes coaches or administrators don’t use their power to extinguish free speech. We’re many years removed from the benevolent dictatorship of John Wooden, whose response to star center Bill Walton’s request to grow a beard was, “That’s fine, Bill. We’ll miss you.” Walton relented and waited until he was a pro to grow one.

Anything that promotes debate, discussion and education on this most debated of college sports topics is a good thing. This is far short of players boycotting the Rose Bowl and other doomsday/fantasy scenarios some have dreamed up – but it could be the first step in a real revolution. Let’s see where it goes, and see what the reactions are.

PRETENDERS OR CONTENDERS?

The Dash takes a look at 11 undefeated teams and appraises their legitimacy: 

Michigan (14)
Record: 4-0.
Average Sagarin Rating of opponents: 97th.
Average margin of victory: 17 points.
Verdict: Pretender, at least by Michigan standards. The victory over Notre Dame was nice, but the ugly struggles on consecutive weeks against lightweights Akron and Connecticut indicate major issues. Take out the Irish and the record of Michigan’s other three opponents is 2-9, with neither victory against an FBS team. The Wolverines could win their Big Ten division and still be a mediocre team in terms of national impact. 



Baylor (15)
Record: 3-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 119th.
Average margin of victory: 62.7
Verdict: Contender. Make no mistake, the Bears have played a soft schedule. But the offensive production has been mind-boggling. Problem is, it looks like it will be November before Baylor takes on a quality opponent.



Mississippi (16)
Record: 3-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 88th.
Average margin of victory: 14.3
Verdict: Contender. Ole Miss has two road wins against teams from power conferences (Vanderbilt and Texas). That’s a lot more than most have on their résumé to date. If only the Rebels were in some other division than the SEC West.



Texas Tech (17)
Record: 4-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 100th.
Average margin of victory: 25.5
Verdict: Contender. Because, really, what does it take to be a contender in the Big 12? Not that much. Beating TCU was a great start to league play, and the schedule sets up the Red Raiders for a potential 6-0 or 7-0 start. Michael Brewer, expected to be the starting QB this summer, should be back on the field soon after missing all season to date with a back injury.



Missouri (18)
Record: 3-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 100th.
Average margin of victory: 25.3.
Verdict: Contender-ish. The Tigers will regain bowl eligibility, after missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2004. And they may well be the third-best team in the SEC East. But beating Georgia, South Carolina or Texas A&M looks like a long shot, and a trip to Mississippi may be a loss as well.



Maryland (19)
Record: 4-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 120th
Average margin of victory: 29.5
Verdict: Contender, in an ACC sort of way. If the Terrapins were in the Coastal Division, away from Clemson and Florida State, they may win it. But they’re not, which likely relegates them to no better than third-place divisional status. Still, this team is far better than Randy Edsall’s first two in College Park.



Georgia Tech (20)
Record: 3-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 102nd.
Average margin of victory: 34.
Verdict: Contender. A 2-0 ACC record earns the Yellow Jackets at least that much. Georgia Tech now catches Virginia Tech in Atlanta on a short week, where preparation for its problematic option offense will be compressed. A victory over the Hokies would elevate the Oct. 5 game at Miami to another level, too.



Arizona (21)
Record: 3-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 121st.
Average margin of victory: 35
Verdict: Pretender. Unless the Wildcats can go into Husky Stadium and prove otherwise Saturday. Arizona walloped three opponents, but none of them are any good so it’s imprudent to get overly excited about them yet.



Minnesota (22)
Record: 4-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 139th.
Average margin of victory: 21.8
Verdict: Pretender. This may be the best Gophers team in several years, and four straight convincing victories is certainly a good thing. But nobody has played an easier schedule so far. And in terms of Big Ten competitiveness, The Dash will remain dubious until Minnesota proves it can throw the ball with any consistency.



Northern Illinois (23)
Record: 3-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 103rd.
Average margin of victory: 5.7
Verdict: Pretender. Tough call, given the Huskies’ accomplishments in recent years and a quality win (Iowa). But this is reminiscent of Ohio last year, which opened with a big road win over a Big Ten team but ended up with four Mid-American Conference losses. NIU trailed an awful Idaho team by two touchdowns, and had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat Eastern Illinois. Not far from 0-3 instead of 3-0.



UCF (24)
Record: 3-0.
Average Sagarin rating of opponents: 116th.
Average margin of victory: 24
Verdict: Contender. This verdict puts a lot of stock in the Golden Knights’ win at Penn State, because the other two opponents were awful. UCF certainly has a prove-it (or disprove-it) moment Saturday, hosting South Carolina.



Dashette Natasha Poly (25) is a definite contender. And anyone who disagrees can go run some laps.

PERSONS OF INTEREST …

… To The Dash in big games this weekend:

Melvin Gordon (26), Wisconsin running back. The Badgers have had a lot of good backs over the years, but maybe none with the breakaway ability of Gordon. The nation’s leading rusher already peeled off three runs of 65 yards or longer and is averaging a preposterous 11.8 yards per carry. If he can produce a fifth straight big game, at Ohio State Saturday, you have to include him in the Heisman Trophy discussion.

[Related: OSU QB Braxton Miller aims to return Saturday vs. Wisconsin]

Braxton Miller (27), Ohio State quarterback. You remember him, right? Started the season as a leading Heisman candidate, has gotten hurt and now some people wonder if he’s the second-best QB on his own team. Backup Kenny Guiton has burned up defenses in Miller’s absence, and although he lacks dual-threat capabilities, you can expect some Buckeyes fans to get antsy if Miller gets off to a slow start against a good Wisconsin defense. Weird situation for a star quarterback to be in.

The Belldozer (28)

, Oklahoma quarterback. Blake Bell, a battering-ram QB in short-yardage situations for two years, finally got his chance to start (and to throw) in the Sooners’ last game, against Tulsa. The result was more than 400 passing yards, touching off widespread optimism that Oklahoma has found its next top-shelf QB. But that was Tulsa and this is Notre Dame, on the road. If Bell can back up his last performance with a big one here, believers will follow.

Zach Mettenberger (29), LSU quarterback. Grew up a Georgia fan and was a Georgia Bulldog until being dismissed in 2010 after a sexual battery charge. Now he’ll come back between the hedges trying to beat the program that employs his mom, Tammy, as an administrative assistant. (Coach Mark Richt wisely gave her the week off, to prevent awkward office situations.) Mettenberger has been a different player this year compared to 2012, currently ranking sixth nationally in pass efficiency. And the Bulldogs defense has been vulnerable this fall.

[Related: LSU QB Zach Mettenberger's mom works for Georgia football staff, taking week off]

Central Florida fans (30). The lyrically named Bright House Networks Stadium seats 45,323. There were 10,000 fewer fans than that in the house for UCF’s season opener, and last year the Golden Knights only topped 40,000 once in six home games. If the program wants to be big time, a Saturday visit from No. 12 South Carolina to take on an undefeated home team seems like a good time for a full house.

Bo Wallace (31), Mississippi quarterback. Let’s make one thing clear: Wallace is not Johnny Manziel. He has nowhere near the improvisational ability or scrambling athleticism as the Texas A&M QB who has tormented Nick Saban twice. But Wallace is a dual-threat quarterback who operates a hurry-up offense, and if he’s on top of his game Saturday the unbeaten Rebels could keep it close against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The star running backs (32) in Arizona-Washington. Ka’Deem Carey of the Wildcats was the top rusher in the nation in 2012. Bishop Sankey of the Huskies was the top rusher in the nation this year after two games, then got just four carries (for 77 yards) in a rout of Idaho State. Who has the better game Saturday in Seattle? And does his team win?

Mike Leach (33), Washington State coach. Speaking of big games in Seattle: Leach’s 3-1 Cougars host Stanford in the Seahawks’ stadium. Too bad the game isn’t in Pullman, because traveling to the end of the Earth can wear on a visiting team. But either way, Washington State is vastly improved in Leach’s second season. If he can pull a second upset in two Pac-12 games this year, it would cement his comeback after a bad ending at Texas Tech.

OFFICIATING FOLLIES OF THE WEEK

On Sept. 14, Pac-12 officials botched the final seconds of the Arizona State-Wisconsin game. On Sept. 21, Conference USA officials apparently botched the entire second half of the Florida International-Louisville game (34).

It was widely reported Saturday afternoon that a running clock was utilized in the second half, as the Cardinals pounded the daylights out of the Golden Panthers 72-0. That was kind of true, though it reportedly resulted from a misunderstanding between FIU coach Ron Turner and the officiating crew working the game.

C-USA director of officiating Gerald Austin said in a statement that an official misinterpreted a comment from Turner – already well on his way to being one of the worst FBS hires in recent history – that he intended to run the ball in the second half. The official took that as a request for a running clock, which is normally the province of high school or Pop Warner games.

Austin’s review of the game tape showed at least five occasions when the clock was not stopped in situations where it should have been.

Turner certainly did his best to simply get out of town as fast as possible, ordering up just one pass in the second half. But if a running clock was indeed implemented based on a ref misunderstanding a coach’s comment, that’s pretty bad.

KICKERS KICKING TAIL

Kickers get no respect. They’re often mocked as the least manly of football players, and are far more likely to be ridiculed for a bad kick/punt than celebrated for a good one. The fact that there are zero punters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame tells you where kickers rank in the gridiron hierarchy.

But there were some noteworthy performances by the outcasts of the sport Saturday. Some cleverness and some toughness that deserves a mention:

Rice kicker Chris Boswell (35) executed a most excellent onside kick late in the Owls’ game against Houston. Trailing 31-26 in the final minutes, Boswell lined up as if he would bounce a kickoff to the left with his right foot. But upon arriving at the ball, he pulled a soccer sleight-of-foot and kicked it right with the heel of his left foot. It rolled the requisite 10 yards and the Owls were there to pounce on it at the precise moment it became anyone’s ball. Alas, Rice’s potential game-winning drive stalled out in Cougars territory and the kick was merely an interesting footnote in a loss for the Owls.

San Jose State punter Harrison Waid (36) went after Minnesota’s Derek Wells after Wells leveled him during the Spartans’ 43-24 loss to the Gophers Saturday. Waid was ejected for fighting, perhaps a first in punting history.

Eastern Kentucky punter Jordan Berry (37). The senior from Australia went Aussie rules against Morehead State on Saturday night, executing a fake punt with his foot by kicking it to a teammate who caught it behind the line of scrimmage (it would have been illegal touching otherwise) and then ran it for a first down. Great play, but a bit obnoxious: the Colonels were leading by 18 points with less than five minutes to play against an opponent that doesn’t give football scholarships. However, it did give future opponents something to look at and think about every time Eastern Kentucky lines up to punt.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Tim DeRuyter (38), Fresno State. The Bulldogs are living on the edge this season, with a pair of one-point victories – first over Rutgers, second over Boise State. But a victory over nemesis Boise, by any margin, is enough to make the Fresno faithful party like it’s 2005. That’s the last time the Bulldogs beat the Broncos prior to Friday night. The time before that was 1996. Fresno plays in the easier of the Mountain West’s two divisions and could be 12-0 heading to the league’s first-ever championship game, which in that case would be played in Bulldog Stadium. Perhaps in a rematch with Boise.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Dana Holgorsen (39), West Virginia. A year ago at this time, we were all praising him as an offensive genius. Then Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and others went pro, and Holgorsen now presides over an offense that has scored a total of seven points in two games against quality competition (Oklahoma and Maryland). The Mountaineers were shut out for the first time since 2001 by the Terrapins, prompting an impressive burst of self-criticism from Holgo on the Big 12 teleconference Monday.

“I see bigger issues," Holgorsen said. "The bigger issue is me. I've got to do a better job on all three sides of the ball."

Hard to disagree, even if there is plenty of blame to go around in Morgantown.

POINT AFTER

When hungry in Atlanta, as some LSU fans may be this weekend while making their way to Athens, The Dash recommends a visit to Miller Union (40). It’s a high-quality, farm-to-table joint that will please your palate from appetizer to main course to dessert. With, of course, excellent beer to wash it down. Try it and thank The Dash later.




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