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Exploring college football and CFB recruiting from a data-centric perspective.

  • RedmondLonghorn

Disparities in the Distribution of Blue Chip Recruits and NFL Players

Comparing the distribution of Blue Chip recruits to the home states of NFL players.

I've been following college football recruiting since I was in college, which was long before the current era of Internet recruiting sites (which really started in earnest in 1999). My interest in geography and demographic data goes back even farther; I can remember perusing atlases and almanacs when I was in third grade. Lately I've been exploring the intersection of those two interests by using another: data science and statistics. If that sounds horrifyingly geeky and dull to you, hit Back on your browser a couple times. If not, read on.

Recently I published an article at SBNation's Football Study Hall, the excellent college football analytics site run by Bill Connelly, exploring the geographical distribution of Blue Chip college football recruits across the US and how that data compared to population data and the home states of current NFL players. It wasn't a totally original idea, it was really an update and extension of an earlier article I had written nearly five years ago.

While the article had a lot of data on Blue Chip production by state, both on a gross basis and adjusted for population, the key takeaway was the map shown below. This map was the result of comparing the differences between Blue Chip recruits per capita for each state (over the 2006-2018 recruiting cycles) and the per capita production of NFL players (based on current rosters). Now, that is a little bit of a sloppy comparison, because one data set covers 13 years and the other is just a snapshot in time, but I also ran the comparison for just four years (2009-2013) and the results were similar. I then eliminated states with less than five current NFL players and converted the differences in per capita rates into Z scores (standard deviations from the mean for the US).

Deviations in the Production of NFL Players and Blue Chip CFB Recruits

The states shaded in varying hues of blue had proportionally more NFL players than Blue Chip recruits, while the ones in red tones had proportionally fewer. Cases where the outcome was statistically uncertain are in grey.

It isn't surprising that some states are significantly over- or under-represented. It would be more surprising if outliers like that didn't exist. But the geographical clustering is very interesting and likely indicative of some kind of systematic bias in the recruiting rankings.

The fact the overestimated states are mostly clustered in the South of the US and correlate highly with states where the per capita production of both Blue Chip college talent and NFL players is above average is de facto evidence of some kind of bias. Determining the exact source(s) of that bias is a far more difficult problem to solve than identifying that one exists. Testing different hypotheses on the potential source of the bias is really beyond the scope of what I am interested in or able to accomplish, but I do have a few thoughts on why it exists.

While the quote may be apocryphal, when the infamous criminal Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he was reported to have replied: "Because that's where the money is". I think that goes a long way towards explaining why the talent in the most talent-rich states appears to be systematically over-estimated.

The consumer-facing recruiting services are not insignificant businesses, but they don't have unlimited budgets. Scouts and reporters from these services can't attend enough games or visit enough practices to get a good understanding of all of the talent in the country or even in a single region or state. Instead, they tend to attend regional scouting combines, 7-on-7 tournaments, and marquee match-ups between very talented teams. As a result, those scouts have more access and exposure to players on teams that are very talented and to players that attend camps and 7-on-7 tournaments. This has a self-reinforcing effect: they tend to overestimate the talent levels in locales that are relatively rich in talent and football-focused, and to underestimate talent levels in those that are not.

There may also be a bit of a commercial bias at play. While I don't have any data to back it up, I feel quite sure that there are far more people willing to pay $120/year to read about college football recruiting in Texas and SEC country than there are in the Rust Belt, Midwest, or West. Whether conscious or not, I think this logically tends to result in a bit of "grade inflation" for recruits in regions where interest is higher.

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