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Signing Day to Season Finishes: Who Converts Stars to Wins

By on February 20th, 2017 in Football 21 Comments »

NX7M3609On Monday, February 13,, Track ‘Em Tigers’ Jay Coulter published an article: Malzahn Doubles Down on Recruiting. Jay outlined the mystifying dismissal of long-time Auburn staff member Scott Fountain, who worked at Auburn for two different coaching staffs. One of the few leftovers from the Gene Chizik era, Fountain is one of the best recruiting gurus in the business. In addition to his recruiting prowess, he led Auburn’s special teams and tight ends. While some might question his ability as a tight ends coach, judging by Auburn’s poor utilization of the position in the last two years, his special teams coaching was spectacular as Auburn led the country in several key special teams areas.

Still, Fountain was dismissed, and Larry Porter was hired to the same position on the staff. Though he is a terrific recruiter, Porter is a man who has no experience with tight ends or special teams.

This process has resulted in some questions. Even though Gus Malzahn has put a premium on recruiting with Auburn never finishing outside the top ten on National Signing Day, except for his first year as Auburn’s head coach the Tigers have not finished a year ranking in the top ten on the field.

It’s final rankings and wins that are really in question. Given the respect in which Fountain was held, his dismissal raises questions. One is just what does recruiting buy Auburn and how does Auburn compare to other schools?

From 2013 through 2017, only a handful of teams were in the top ten of recruiting each year. This includes in-state rival Alabama, SEC West rival LSU, and Ohio State. 

Alabama is the standard bearer and has finished No. 1 in the composite rankings every year from 2013 to 2017. In that period, Alabama  never finished lower than seventh in the final rankings while winning a national championship and twice finishing 2nd overall.

In the same period Ohio State has been on the top ten list every year. The Buckeyes have a national championship, never finished lower than 12th and were in the top ten two times.

LSU has finishes at No. 13, No. 14, No. 16 and was unranked one year.

During this period Auburn was No. 2 in 2013, finished at No. 14 in 2014, was unranked in 2015, and finished at No.24 in 2016. It clearly has underperformed in comparison to Alabama, Ohio State and LSU.

Even when comparing Auburn to lesser recruiting teams, it doesn’t fare much better.

  • Florida State has been in the top ten recruiting rankings four different times since 2013. The Seminoles have one national championship, a playoff appearance, and have never finished lower than 14th.
  • USC has finished unranked twice, 19th, and No. 3, despite multiple coaching changes.
  • Georgia has struggled mightily on the field, finishing unranked three times with a No. 6 final ranking in 2014. Can Auburn claim superiority to UGA? Judging by final rankings, perhaps. Yet Auburn is 1–3 against the Bulldogs despite beating them on the recruiting trail.

Then there is Clemson, a clear over-performer. The purple Tigers played Alabama in the College Football Playoff final two straight years, beating the Tide in 2017. Yet Clemson finished in the top ten in recruiting just once.

Auburn is vastly outclassed by Alabama and Ohio State. Its results are questionable in comparison to LSU, FSU, USC and UGA, and it suffers in comparison to Clemson, which has clearly done “more with less.”

There is no doubt that college football recruiting isn’t a science. There are greater unknowns from the transition from high school to college than from college to the NFL. In the NFL, there are more booms than busts, so it stands to reason that there is a large margin of uncertainty for college recruiting.  

Except for the few teams that are able to turn recruiting classes into rock-solid on-field programs, recruiting classes are a poor predictor of on-field performance and final rankings for most schools. Except Auburn. No team in America has done less with more than Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers.


  1. ausouthal says:

    Zach, as I read your articles it is easy to see your frustration with the Auburn football program. You write up scathing critique after scathing critique. Get to the bottom line. Tell us exactly what it is you want accomplished and how you want it accomplished. Being critical is always the easy part but offering up a concrete solution is the tough part.

    While Auburn is not as successful as other programs and probably the one burning your insides the most is just across the state, there are plenty of fan bases that would be overjoyed if their team of choice were as successful as Auburn. While I wish Auburn to win every game it plays, I realized long ago that was not going to happen. So if you must continue to write how Auburn is failing in your eyes, then please convey to us how Auburn can reach the level to which you would be able to be satisfied.

    • Lt.Dan_man Lt.Dan_man says:

      Asking a pessimist to write a positive post or point out anything but the negatives is futile. His track record proves he’s a glass half empty kinda writer, always has been and always will be. A Leopard can’t change his spots.

  2. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    There is a great quote from the nfl. Something like “you are what your record says you are.” Or, maybe it’s “you are what the numbers say you are. ”

    There is also a other saying: good writers don’t tell you what to think, they lead you to the conclusion and convince you.

    In this case, these are not “baseball stats.” Auburn has done less with more than any team in America and that is a fact. Even if you consider that recruiting services may occasionally get it wrong, there is enough data to still put the onus on the coaching staff.

    • ausouthal says:

      I am not challenging your right to show your stats. I have a friend that criticizes everything in the world. That is his right. What I am saying to you is tell us your solution! Tell us what you really want Auburn to do. If you want Malzahn replaced then write that and include the type of coach or person you want him replaced with. If there is someone out there that you know will do a better job then put the name out there and rally everyone behind him. Be a solver!

  3. neonbets says:

    Zach, I think you need to rethink this post…

    Your last paragraph, for instance states: …recruiting classes are a poor predictor of on-field performance and final rankings for most schools. Except Auburn. No team in America has done less with more than Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers.

    If recruiting classes are a poor predictor of final rankings, then ‘Except Auburn’ doesn’t make any sense here. Auburn–by your reasoning–is a prime example of the futility of ranking a team’s recruiting class. Instead of ‘Except Auburn’, you appear to really mean something along the lines of …recruiting classes are a poor predictor of on-field performance and final rankings for most schools. Take Auburn for example…

    OK, fine. You didn’t really mean ‘Except Auburn’. Instead, you really meant to include Auburn by using it as your lead example of how these rankings don’t correlate to on the field performance.

    But then, your reasoning gets worse! Zach, you just spent the better part of an entire post refuting the efficacy of recruiting services. By your calculus, the rankings from the recruiting services are meaningless.

    If recruiting rankings are meaningless, then why are you frustrated with Malzahn for having done so little with his ‘stellar’ recruiting classes? For all we know–since recruit rankings are meaningless–Malzahn’s recruiting hauls could have been terrible. His classes could have been among the worst in the entire country. If that’s the case, then Malzahn did an amazing job of developing all that subpar talent. And we could then conclude that, No team in America has done MORE with LESS than Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers.

    How ’bout that!? Zach is actually showing Malzahn some serious respect for his ability to coach ’em up and get the most out of his players. I knew you’d come around.

    Now, if Malzahn could only do a better job of evaluating talent, boy oh boy, Auburn would be well on its way to national dominance!

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      That’s a lot of info to digest and I don’t think I agree with it. Maybe some of my thoughts didn’t translate through the editing. That happens occasionally.

  4. uglyjoe says:

    I was going to comment later when I had time, but you guys are doing fine without my help.

    • ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

      Same here – I was taking time to compose thoughts but, like you, those above seem to have things in hand…

  5. Blackbelt tiger says:

    You folks seem to be piling on a bit. Zach I’m picking up what you’re putting down and I agree with you. Last year’s team was, at times, very hard to watch. It was hard to watch not because of the losses (I can accept a loss. I am, after all, an Auburn fan), but because you had a group of very talented young men out there spilling their guts out on the field and being hampered by crappy play calling and coaching. They never gave up. They were let down by leadership and that is a shame. They deserved better. Hopefully Malzahn is self aware enough to realize that. I have by doubts but I’ve wrong before (once, maybe twice).

    Since everyone seems to want a solution, I’ll give you one: Malzahn needs to some how remember how to coach football or get out of the way. He needs to quit listening to the worldwide leader and remember that he doesn’t need a running quarterback to be successful. It can be nice to have one but it has become an excuse. Excuses make me want to vomit. I don’t accept them from people who work with and/or for me and I do not accept them from a football guru who is making millions of dollars coaching a game. I mean, he’s not even making a meaningful contribution to society here, the least he can do is win or accept responsibility when he doesn’t, not give excuses. As best I can remember those two boys he had at Tulsa or Ryan Aplin weren’t exactly Nick Marshall when it came to running and they had plenty of success. And give that excuse about lesser competition because as a group the o lines or receivers at Tulsa or Ark. St. Couldn’t hold a candle to Auburn’s.

    • ausouthal says:

      Piling on? Really! It did not have to do with a running qb. It had to do with a lack of a qb that could hit an open receiver on your team. Quarterback recruiting looked great till Johnson showed a lack at producing on the field and Sean White stays on the disabled list more than on the field and his injury problems have affected his play when he has been on the field.

      Name a team that has won to your standards in the SEC west without decent qb play. When things go bad it is always easy to blame this and blame that. Sometimes it just did not work and it takes time to readjust. If Auburn fails Malzahn will be gone and maybe you and Zach will get to recommend the next coaching hire.

      • Blackbelt tiger says:

        Well my standards are winning every game. I realize than is an unrealistic expectation, even for UAT. My secondary standard is having a record equal to or better than UAT. Once again, I realize that is a tough standard to live up to, I tend to reach for the stars.

        As far as SEC west programs or SEC programs that have lived up that standard without at least decent QB play–none that I can think of off the top of my head. Although you need better than decent play across the board for that standard. But AU has had, in my opinion, better than decent play with SW in the game. If he had played the entire game against Clemson instead of that 4 headed whatever we probably would have beaten the eventual national champion. That’s coaching. If we had decent blocking schemes to contain the best pass rusher in the SEC , he would not have body slammed SW to the ground for at least one less hard hit on his body. That’s coaching. If you had designed a decent game plan against a below average SEC east team, you would not have had to put an injured SW in to save your tail. That’s coaching. If you had not put an injured SW in against UGA and then blamed him for the loss because he didn’t tell you how hurt he was even though you didn’t let him throw for a week. He may have been available for your biggest rival. That’s using a 20 year old kid as an excuse for your ineptitude and sandbagging for what you figured was going to be a loss in the next game.

        Look, you have a point about bad QB play at times and missing on a big recruit at a crucial position. That can be tough to overcome. But making proper decisions to mitigate the damage is why the gets paid the amount of money that he does. I seem to recall a certain team a few hundred miles to the north of AU that won a NC with their 3rd string QB starting against their biggest rival and 2 playoff games. Including a drumming of the vaunted benchmark from West Alabama. That QB wasn’t even good enough to finish out the next season as the starter. The Broncos won the SB with Manning a mere shell of his former self. Need I go on? Every team has weaknesses. Good coaching is needed to make those weaknesses less of a liability. They do it in Tuscaloosa every year.

        I know where you are coming from and I also used to accept mediocrity with occasional greatness as a fact of life as an Auburn fan up until 2010. That’s when I realized that AU can and should stand equal with the elites of college football. I have seen the promised land…And I like it.

  6. audad says:

    Lots of stuff there Zach, and your frustration is evident. Nothing wrong with that. You’ve obviously generated food for thought based on some of the comments already posted. About the only thing I might take issue with is that you stated AU has underperformed the past 4 years compared to ‘bama, OSU and LSU. I would challenge the LSU piece of that. Final rankings between Auburn and LSU over that 4 year period are pretty comparable, and if anything AU may get the edge based on that #2 finish in 2013. And if I’m not mistaken, their recruiting classes typically get rated a little higher than ours. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Mr. Miles did not survive last season.

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      I agree. LSU has underperformed and that’s why Miles ain’t there.

      Auburn has split with LSU and the orange and blue have played for a NC, a far cry from what LSU has done. Still, lsu hasn’t had the roller coaster that Auburn has had.

  7. Col.Angus Col.Angus says:

    If I can give everybody some advice I learned a while ago, its this. You can recruit great players all day long, but talent doesn’t mean anything if you can’t get on the field or stay on the field. Meaning, the players have to perform academically, stay out of trouble and stay out of the trainers room. Some of that has to do with the player and some is just bad luck. Then there is the player who is supposed to be great, who just isn’t, be it work ethic or they just run into a wall at the next level. Look at Byron Cowart, arguably the #1 recruit in the nation two years ago, who has yet to make an impact going into his junior season and has been passed by rising sophomore Marlon Davidson. Obviously it isn’t coaching, or the rest of the D-line would have underperformed last year. And I don’t think anybody would have thought that Cowart would be an average player….but thats what he is. Do you blame Malzahn for Cowart but praise him for Davidson?? Nope.
    The bottom line is that you get the best players you can, stock the offensive and defensive lines and hope you get a lottery ticket QB. If you aren’t Alabama, that the only way you are contending for a national title. Does Clemson get where they are without DeShaun Watson? No. OSU always cleans up in recruiting, but are they a perennial contender without Urban Meyer? No. Are UGA, UF and LSU failures? Their fanbase would probably say yes, but I think most Auburn folks would trade places with them right now based on their recruiting and their recent won-loss record.
    If you aren’t Alabama, hauling in the cream of the crop every year, where even 4 stars are willing to Gray shirt just to play there —you really are hoping just to get to a point where you have a chance to contend. Do I think Auburn could do better? Absolutely, but we could certainly do a hell of a lot worse. I get frustrated with Malzahn, just like many of you do, but I don’t envy the work he has to do to get a competitive team on the field and keep a bunch of kids, fans and boosters happy. Its a pretty thankless job if you think about it….but it does pay well!
    The question you have to ask yourself is, considering everything that we know about where we were…with the injuries and the guys who just didn’t pan out (Jeremy Johnson, Roc Thomas, Jovan Robinson, Duke Williams etc, etc, etc,), who could we reasonably assume would have done better than Malzahn, when you also consider he is at Auburn —not Florida, UGA, Michigan, OSU, BAMA, etc. Whether we like to admit it or not, for a land grant second tier state school (and thats what we are…lets face it), we probably are way OVER performing to compete against the heavyweight state schools of the SEC. More importantly….given our recent history of head coaching hires, who could we replace Malzahn with, that we could REASONABLY assume would come in and do a better job? The truth is, we aren’t going to get a known winning coach with a top 10 resume. Thats just a fact. We are going to have to get someone that is unproven but shows lots of potential. And just like in roulette, when you spin the wheel, you have the POTENTIAL to win big and the POTENTIAL to lose big.

    • uglyjoe says:

      That’s what I was going to say.

    • dyingculture dyingculture says:

      That could be selling our program short. By that I mean, not getting a top coach. First of all, who is a top 10 coach other than Saban and Meyer? Dabo Swinney? Jimbo Fisher? Okay, using Swinney and Fisher as examples, were they known quantities before they joined their respective programs? Or were FSU and Clempson taking an educated guess that these great assistant coaches might become a good head coach?

      And most importantly, would a Swinney or Fisher consider Auburn if they, for instance, were considering a head coaching gig if they were in the same situation as they were 5 years ago? I think they would. Auburn is loaded with talent. What coach wouldn’t think Auburn is a good situation to step into at this point in time?

      • Col.Angus Col.Angus says:

        Well, as I said, based upon our last few hires…Malzahn, Chizik, Tubberville, Bowden, Dye…none of them were established head coaches at major universities, let alone perennial top 10 schools. We took a chance on them and really all of them got us an undefeated season, a national championship (i’m giving Dye ’83) or a national championship appearance. And they all got fired and never became top tier coaches again. Don’t you think thats odd???
        We as a fan base have REALLY high expectations for our coaches, which is OK, but I don’t ever see any top tier coaches clamoring to come here when there is a vacancy. Which is saying something because we almost always have talent and we are tradionally a top 10 school in revenue production. We SHOULD be one of the top destinations in college football, but we aren’t. In fact, we almost ALWAYS settle for the up and comer with something to prove. So far its worked out, but the law of averages says we are due for some major clunkers. So I would say, be careful what you wish for.

  8. JRoweMDN says:

    I think recruiting top 10 every year should always result in a top 25 finish with a top 10 finish every 3-4 years. A good coach should be able to take that talent and compete with every team in the SEC and have the opportunity to win. I could point out every thing that went wrong this year from coaching to injuries, but the truth is we were missing continuity. The team never got to maintain momentum. I hope that the change with Lindsey and a new QB with a veteran backup QB will give us that full season. I said last year that I thought Gus was moving forward and it seems he got trapped in his own head. I am always positive about the team and hope this is the year that makes a difference, but this year I am tempering it more to say this is a true pivotal year for Gus to get out of the way and really lead.

    • Col.Angus Col.Angus says:

      My biggest problem with Malzahn is that every year it takes the offense 3-4 games to find its stride. Its almost like they don’t get 9 months to prepare for the upcoming season! You would think that with the system he runs, its plug in the parts and lets go…but its not like that at all. Even when we had Cam, it took Gus a while to figure out how to use him…which is mind boggling.

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