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Gains from Trade: TCU Recruiting Before and After the Switch to the Big 12

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Conducting a broad overview of TCU’s recruiting dynamics after conference realignment.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Day Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As the old saying goes, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” On Monday, TCU Coach Gary Patterson modified that adage a bit; when asked about assessing and developing two star talent, GP replied:

Number one, that rating is your rating. That’s not my rating. If I’m bringing them in I think they’re a pretty good player so they may be a four star or five star, obviously we’re getting more of those guys.

Patterson’s quote, and subsequent comments, drove me to the question of TCU and recruiting. Dean had a great write-up of Patterson’s thoughts here. What I’ll do today is a more in-depth analysis of TCU’s recruiting dynamics before and after the Big 12 move in 2012. Gary Patterson has made his mark as an “unconventional recruiter,” but as we will see below, that success has translated into success in more traditional recruiting measures.

First, the methodology. We have a nice, balanced panel of recruiting, as TCU has now gone through equal number of recruiting cycles in both the Mountain West and the Big 12. Through the lens of switching conferences, we will look at how TCU recruiting has improved from the Mountain West to the Big 12, and which position groups have moved the needle the most.

TCU Recruiting Averages and Ranks, 2005-2018 (rankings pulled from 247Sports.com)

Initial observations here are pretty straightforward; TCU recruiting hovered in the 80s until the breakout year of 2008. From then on, the floor has been steadily but slightly increasing, with a few spikes based on good years and exceptional efforts. This affirms that success breed success, as TCU’s recruiting increase started years before the switch to the Big 12. What has substantially increased in TCU’s national rank- the Frogs’ best year in the MWC put them at 28, after the Rose Bowl Season, but otherwise, they never broke 44th in the country. Since the move to the Big 12, TCU has finished outside the top 40 one time. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s an average finish of 50.86 in the MWC, and of 31.43 in the Big 12, a twenty spot jump.

Let’s look at position groups:

And so, here we have, sorted by recruit type, the average total number of stars in each recruiting class, and the average number of recruits brought in each year. The far right columns show the difference in each by position group by each conference. We can go line by line to determine the recruiting impact across position groups from TCU’s move to the Big 12.

  • ATH: Historically, TCU has used ATH as a bin for talented players who will switch positions. The Frogs are bringing in about 1 fewer ATH recruit a year during their time in the Big 12, and they are bringing in 3 fewer stars. That equates essentially to replacing a position-less three star with a specific recruit at another position. That can be a benefit of the Power Status - the Frogs are having to take fewer risks or make fewer reaches on athletes, instead moving to more specialized talent.
  • DB: TCU has done well with defensive back, and as they switched conferences, they brought in fewer, but higher quality back. Here we have a clear and demonstrable increase in recruiting; the Frogs are still targeting defensive backs, but are able to consolidate resources to recruit higher talent. By recruiting a couple fewer DBs over the course of seven season, TCU is able to divert recruiting energies elsewhere. The decrease in number of recruits with the increase in stars suggests spillover effects in recruiting.
  • DL: The defensive line might be a beneficiary of those spillover effects. The Big 12 version of TCU is bringing in the same number of defensive linemen, but a higher quality. As the team defensive identity expands to a national audience, TCU can afford to target DLs who fit the system, and to reach higher. Additionally, we see fewer position converts, as TCU can invest in higher recruiting targets.
  • LB and OL: The linebacking core and offensive line numbers tell similar stories - volume. Recruits in the LB and OL mold often drift to traditional powers, and as TCU has access to the Power 5, they have brought in more and better linemen and linebackers. The OL improvement is a compounding investment: players like Mashsall Newhouse, Marcus Cannon, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai having success has bred more recruiting success for TCU. The linebacker boost also comes with the decrease in position switching - true LBs come in as higher quality recruits.
  • QB: Here’s where the deception starts. TCU recruited Andy Dalton as a 3 star QB, Boykin as an ATH, and benefitted from a lot of transfers to boost their backfield, and so the recruiting numbers look fairly similar. The numbers don’t tell the story of three 4 star QB recruits in three years for TCU, not to mention a 4 star transfer who became a two year starter. When you factor those in, TCU’s average at QB over the last four years climbs to over three stars. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that quarterback has received the biggest gains from conference realignment.
  • RB: TCU has relied on ATH to become running backs, for the most part, and as the Frogs have had Big 12 success, they have moved away from volume at RB, which brings their average down, but belies the fact they’ve actually improved their RB ceiling.
  • WR: Finally, we come to TCU’s recruiting breakout. Far surpassing the Frog gains in LB and OL recruits, incoming wide receivers have more than doubled in quality - instead of a relying on a mix of athletes, two stars and three stars, TCU’s WR classes now look more like four stars mixed with high upside three stars. Where TCU was used to creating their own playmakers, now they can afford to bring in ready-made playmakers.

In conclusion, TCU’s recruiting since Big 12 membership has increased substantially, although the increase had started before and may have effected the conference switch. The takeaway here is that TCU built their brand on an unorthodox recruiting style, and the success they had bred further success. Now, after having established themselves as a national recruiting power, TCU is free to chase higher level linemen, linebackers, and dynamic playmaking wide receivers. These higher ceiling pieces will further compound TCU’s already established success. Winning at recruiting will look differently than it has in the past, but still allows TCU to take risk on unorthodox players.