When You Wish Upon a Two-Star, or, The Wall Street Journal Fails Logic and Arithmetic

Everybody loves Rocky. And Rudy. And probably David Eckstein if he weren’t some sort of albino dwarf, because who could love that? We love the underdogs – the guys who were overlooked by experts and succeeded (even David Eckstein, while not a very good MLB player, was good enough to BE a MLB player) despite the evaluation that many made of their talent. The media loves them too. This may have something to do with the fact that the media, like you and me, are a bunch of doughy non-athletes who would prefer to root for people with whom they identify. We don’t know what it’s like to be able to run a 4.2 40-yard dash, but we do know what it’s like to be the 5’6″ awkward guy picked last in two-hand-touch football. Maybe WE could have been elite athletes if the talent evaluators were only right, you know? Regardless, we won’t bog you down with amateur psycho-analysis any longer, but will focus on how this silly wish-casting can turn fans, bloggers, and “reputable media” alike into complete drooling idiots who forsake 5th grade math.

Scrolling through some college blogs, we find this post at The Wizard of Odds mindlessly regurgitating this small piece at the Wall Street Journal. The Wiz words his critique much more strongly (referring to the rankings as “b.s.” and the sites as “frauds”), but of course, the WSJ isn’t permitted to get away with such meat-headery. The main point is stated thusly:

If bowl season teaches fans anything, it’s that getting top recruits doesn’t guarantee success. In this year’s 34 bowls, half of the participating teams didn’t have a single starter in their final regular-season game that was considered a top-100 prospect in high school, according to recruiting Web site Rivals.com. The Count analyzed 1,496 bowl-game starters and found that just 8.4% of them were top-100 recruits.

Holy shit! 8.4% is pretty fucking low, right? Maybe Rivals and Scout ARE full of shit! But waaaaiiiiit a second…there aren’t that many top-100 players, right, like somewhere around 100? Let’s do some quick back-of-the-envelope math here. There are 120 FBS schools. Let’s estimate that each offers approximately 20 scholarships per year. That means that there are about 2400 incoming freshman scholarship athletes. The top 100 would make up roughly 4.2% of that population. So wait – that 8.4% number is “low” because, by definition, there aren’t thousands of top-100 recruits! Not because they aren’t good! If we accept “starters in bowl games” as a good metric for evaluating the success of rankings (a dubious assertion anyway) these numbers actually say the precise opposite of what the WSJ says they do – top-100 recruits are disproportionately likely to be a bowl game starter. If we assume that there are approximately 400 top-100 ranked recruits in college football right now (4 classes of top-100 players (yes, I know “5th-years” but many may leave early, drop out, etc.)) that means that more than a quarter of the top-100 players currently  in college football are starting in bowls!

The WSJ continues with argument by anecdote – noting that neither Colt McCoy or Mark Ingram – the two top vote-getters in the Heisman race, and the leading men on the two teams vying for the Championship were top-hundred recruits. You know, because citing 2 players in all of college football that are good, and not top-100 players, proves anything. Further, while Ingram wasn’t in Rivals’ top-100, he was ranked #189 – inside their vaunted top-250. Ha! So take that Rivals!

OK, so lets pretend that the WSJ is too brah-tastic for nerdery like “math” (but my business-school finance classes had math!). Lets boil this down to logic, for those terrified by the division button on their calculator. The WSJ is, essentially, claiming that good teams (those in bowls) succeed without highly-ranked recruits. Well, in the last 4 recruiting cycles, a handful of schools have recruiting classes appear in every single top-10: Florida, USC, Alabama, Texas, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma. Man, that sounds like a short-list for the best programs in recent memory, right? If the rankings don’t matter, and Rivals is stupid, and these teams succeed, I bet that guys like Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, and Mack Brown aren’t going after players in lock-step with the Rivals’ rankings, right?

#1 Seantreal Henderson hold offers from Florida, USC, OSU, Oklahoma, and Oregon

#2 Kyle Prater holds offers from USC, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Florida

#3 Robert Woods holds offers from USC and Oklahoma

#4 Lache Seastrunk holds offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Texas, and USC

#5 Ronald Powell holds offers from Florida and USC

So wait – if Recruiting Rankings mean nothing, then good teams must be succeeding because they do a better job of unearthing over-looked talent than other teams, right? If Rivals’ list is stupid and meaningless, then why does it virtually mirror the wishlist of the most successful football programs? Is Urban Meyer a retard, too?

The article calls USC in for a special dose of scorn, noting that USC, the holder of the most top-100 recruits of any bowl team, is playing in the lowly Emerald Bowl, ignoring, of course, that repeated Rivals-approved recruiting classes had actually propelled USC to the 4th highest winning percentage in the past decade. You know, if you want look at the program in perspective, not just the most immediate results.

So, in the space of 2 paragraphs and a chart, the WSJ, our nation’s financial paper of record, reached the staggering achievement of horrifically botching basic statistics, demonstrated an apalling failure of logic, and failed to see beyond the most immediate of results. If there is a better metaphor for our current financial duldrums, I’m unaware of it.

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