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Is Michigan's High School Football Talent Getting Better or Worse?
The answer is a bit complicated
Welcome back to Goosepoop, newsletter #29!
Today we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the recruiting dataset that we’ve been posting about over the last few months, with the intention of answering this question: is our State’s High School football talent getting better or worse?
But, before we get into this analysis, I want to pause and do two things:
Say thanks - we’ve seen significant growth over the last few weeks, and I’m proud to say there are now over 250 of us, data-loving, high school football wingnuts on this newsletter. Here’s to that, and here’s to finding more people like us - we’re all on this mission to elevate the discussion around a game we care deeply about, and we can’t do it without one another
Remind you - this post is post #3 in a series we’re running on high school football talent. If you haven’t read our other posts on the subject, please give those a look before proceeding further (links to both below).
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With that out of the way, let’s get into the analysis…..
First Up: Recap
Let’s recap: in Post I of this series, we discussed a dataset we’ve been using to measure talent over time in the State of Michigan. This dataset comprises the athletes receiving a composite rating from 247 Sports, a group that amounts to about 90 players per year.
While this figure trended up 2014 - 2019, it is down significantly since 2020: in 2021, only 78 athletes in the State received a composite rating (a 17% decline from the 9 year average), and, in 2022, things got even worse: only 63 athletes received a composite rating (a 33% decline from the 9 year average).
Adjusting for the Decline in Participation
What explains this trend? Our first thought upon reviewing the data was to adjust these figures to account for the decline in the number of schools participating: as we’ve discussed before, there were 100 less schools playing 11-man football in 2021 vs 2013, so it makes sense that there would be a few less recruits than in prior periods.
To adjust for this decline in schools, we’ve crafted a new metric: 11-Man Schools per Ranked Recruit. This number is derived simply by dividing the number of schools playing 11-man football by the number of ranked recruits in a given year.
When you make this adjustment, the trends in our original graph become even more apparent: from 2014 to 2019, overall talent in the State was actually climbing, with the number of schools per ranked recruit falling from 7 to just below 5.
However, this metric has since reversed itself dramatically, starting in 2020: for each of the last 3 years, the number of schools per ranked recruit has steadily climbed, with 2022 clocking in at the highest figure in our time period.
Big Schools vs Small Schools
After making this adjustment, our next thought was to parse our new metric by division - if we could look at the trend here from both a big school (Divisions 1-3) and a small school (Divisions 4-8) view, perhaps we would find something interesting.
And this is exactly what happened - compare the two charts below. The first is our 11-Man Schools per Ranked Recruit for big schools, and the second is the same metric for small schools.
Notice any differences? The trends are almost exactly opposite! The talent in large schools is flat to slightly up over the time period (although declining since 2020), while the talent in small schools has dropped off a cliff, with almost 3x as few recruits in these divisions since 2014.
Transfer Rules: One Possible Explanation
Before we conclude that there is simply no longer any talent in the State’s smaller schools (a fact I refuse to believe), let’s examine the data another way: recruit quality.
Up until now, our metrics have been focused purely on volume, with no attention to how talented the recruits in question actually are. By honing in on the trends within overall quality, we can assess whether there actually has been a decline in talent in the smaller schools.
To do this analysis, we will use the metric given by 247’s composite rating system. This metric is an aggregation of the ratings given by all 4 major recruiting services, and, while it can range from 0 to 1, the metric generally hovers above .75 (the system is much akin to Madden player ratings).
Above are the average composite ratings for recruits, split by large and small schools. If overall talent was truly declining at the small school level, we would expect to see this line drop (or at least be flat). However, the opposite is happening: the overall talent is actually rising, both for large and small schools!
So, wait a second: how can this possibly be true? You’re telling me there are less recruits than ever, but that the recruits that are getting recruited are now more talented an ever? How does that make sense?
One possible explanation is that the sheer number of recruits at the small school level hasn’t dropped at all: it’s just that the less talented ones are no longer receiving composite ratings. This could be occurring for any number of reasons, but one thought is that recruits are no longer receiving ratings simply because they aren’t getting recruited any more: they may be just as talented, but because they aren’t getting offered by a college, they aren’t receiving a rating.
If this is true, we next need to answer why it may be happening: why aren’t the State’s less talented recruits receiving college offers? A large driver is certainly the change in transfer rules at the college level - in 2021, the NCAA waved the need for players to sit out a year after transferring schools. As such, college coaches are now recruiting each other’s rosters more than ever, and giving less attention to the ‘marginal’ high school recruit: as existing college players are generally more proven, it is safer to focus your efforts there and place bets on only the most talented of high school prospects.
Under this theory, it makes sense why would we see more a pronounced decline in the number of recruits at small schools: there were fewer recruits at these schools to begin with (due to their small size), and those recruits were generally less talented than those at large schools (see the graph above). So, a shift in focus from college coaches to only the most talented recruits would have the largest effect here.
You can even extend this conclusion to large schools: as we mention above, the same trends that we have called out for small schools are present in the large school data as well, just to a lesser extent: there has been both a decline in the number of large school recruits and a sharp rise in recruit quality. You just don’t ‘feel’ it in the numbers as much, as the recruitment of the lesser recruit matters less to these schools, as they had a higher number and quality level of recruits to begin with.
In short, it’s likely that there’s the same level of talent in the State that there’s always been: the talent is just not getting recruited like it used to be.
Do you buy this theory? What other explanations do you have? Drop a comment below - I’m interested to hear your guys thoughts on this!
That’s all for today’s post! Later this month, we’ll be wrapping up this series, with a breakdown of our recruiting dataset, by position: we’ll attempt to answer questions like:
Does the State produce more offensive or defensive talent?
What position does the State produce the most of?
Which position is the State most talented in?
What does the ‘average’ recruit look like (height/weight), by position?
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