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“Stars Matter” Mantra and the Future of CU Football

Ari Wasserman is a highly-respected sportswriter for The Athletic. He is a recruiting expert, and has written thousands of articles on the topic.

Wasserman has also been the defender of the “Start Matter” mantra when it comes to predicting national championship contenders, and has usually been proven right, with Top Ten recruiting machines like Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson dominating the College Football Playoff.

But here comes TCU, prepared to upset the apple cart (as did, to a different degree, Tulane, which went from 2-10 to 11-2 in one season, setting the new standard for the largest single season turnaround in NCAA history).

What do the seasons TCU and Tulane mean for the future of the sport … and what do they mean for the CU program under Deion Sanders?

Let’s find out …

“Stars Matter” … but TCU is playing for the national championship

Wasserman recently posted an article in The Athletic entitled “TCU is playing for a national championship — and threatening my ‘Stars Matter’ mantra“.

In the article, Wasserman notes:

As many of you know, I’ve oversimplified the sport of college football. My “Stars Matter” mantra has been built off of the seemingly obvious fact that the teams with the most good players win the most. The numbers back it up: Since the online recruiting rankings era began in 2000, only three teams have won a national championship without ever signing a top-five recruiting class in any of the previous four recruiting cycles. The exceptions were 2010 Auburn (led by Cam Newton), 2016 Clemson (led by Deshaun Watson) and 2018 Clemson (led by Trevor Lawrence). All three of those teams, though, signed top-10 recruiting classes in the previous four years.

TCU, however, has been built without coming within shouting distance of a top-ten recruiting Class.

Wasserman continues … Georgia has 68 combined former four- and five-star recruits on its roster, 15 of whom are five-star prospects. Ohio State has 66 blue-chip players, 14 of whom are former five-star prospects. TCU has 17 total blue-chippers. It has one five-star, Marcel Brooks, who doesn’t even play. Michigan, which had 44 blue-chip prospects, had a talent advantage against the Horned Frogs in Glendale Saturday night and it didn’t matter.

So how did TCU, which went 5-7 in 2021 and fired its head coach (Gary Patterson, who has a statue outside of the Horned Frogs’ stadium), manage to get to the College Football Playoffs?

New head coach Sonny Dykes offered some insight:

“In today’s college football world, it is a lot different assembling a team than it used to be,” Dykes said. “You used to rely on signing the recruiting class, you redshirted the class if your program is good enough to do that, so all the programs that were good historically had an advantage because they didn’t have to play freshmen. Those teams went to bowl games, got those 15 extra practices and got a chance to work those young players. There was only one way to acquire players, and that was through traditional high school recruiting.

“Well, in today’s world, it’s, it’s a lot different, you know, you can acquire players and a lot of different ways. People don’t really redshirt as much anymore. Because if you do redshirt somebody, chances are, they’re not going to be there for very long. … So what happens is, that opens the door for maybe non-traditional programs to be able to acquire players in a different way, which is kind of what we did.”

TCU took in 13 quality transfers over the past off-season (including CU safety Mark Perry, who was second on the team in tackles this fall), and turned the program around in short order.

Can CU turn its program around that quickly? 

Coach Prime and his coaching staff have to date signed 20 transfers, the highest total in the country this off-season (Arizona State has signed 19), with CU currently ranked by 247 Sports as the No. 2 Transfer Portal Class in the nation. CU has signed one five-star recruit (cornerback Travis Hunter), to go with four four-star recruits: quarterback Shadeur Sanders; wide receiver Jimmy Horn, Jr.; tight end Seydou Traore; and offensive lineman Yousef Mugharbil.

In addition, Coach Prime has three more four-star recruits heading to Boulder as part of the Recruiting Class of 2023: running back Dylan Edwards; wide receiver Omarion Miller; and wide receiver Adam Hopkins.

The 2022 CU roster, according to 247 Sports rankings, had three four-star players: safety Isaiah Lewis; offensive lineman Tommy Brown; and linebacker Robert Barnes, all of whom are moving on from Boulder.

So, even with the influx of talent signed in the past month – and the other talented players who may still come CU’s way between now and the start of the season – the roster still falls far short of even the 17 blue-chip players TCU had on its roster this fall.

And it also bears noting that seven of the eight blue-chip players CU has signed to date are on the offensive side of the ball. Having – finally – an NFL draft-worthy quarterback on the roster, one who can hand the ball off to and throw to other blue-chip players, is exhilarating. Shedeur Sanders is a quality quarterback who brings an immediate upgrade to the entire offense, and the fact that he will have numerous four-star teammates at the skill positions to pay with … Wow.

The surge in ticket sales – with a sold out Folsom Field expected for every game this fall –  tells you all you need to know about how excited the fan base is to watch quality offensive football.

The influx of quality skill position players on offense, though, doesn’t solve CU’s issues on the defensive side of the ball. Class of ’23 signees – Linebacker Morgan Pearson, edge rusher Taje McCoy, and cornerback Carter Stoutmire – are all highly-rated three-star prospects (and certainly welcome additions), but they are also all three freshmen, and shouldn’t be counted on to dominate Pac-12 competition in Year One.

Upgrades have been made to the defense, but not enough to overcome its deficiencies … at least not yet.

The Buffs, as we all know too well, was in the bottom ten in the nation last fall in almost every defensive statistical category, ranking dead last (131st) in both rushing defense and scoring defense (not to mention 130th in total defense).

That being said … before the transfers on defense took over at TCU, the 2022 season was not looking so great for the Horned Frogs, either. TCU was picked to finish seventh in the ten-team Big 12 this past fall, largely due to its horrific defense. In the 2021 season, TCU was ranked 122nd in rushing defense, 119th in total defense, and 118th in scoring defense.

So you’re telling me that there’s a chance … 

No, not really.

Does CU have the chance to match what Tulane did, going from 2-10 to 12-2?

No.

In 2021, Tulane did go 2-10, but had one of those “everything went wrong which could go wrong” kind of seasons, with four losses by a touchdown or less and 22 nights in a Birmingham hotel while the city of New Orleans recovered from the impacts of Hurricane Ida. But the Green Wave had gone bowling in each of the three previous seasons, so a return to winning form was not unexpected in 2022 … Tulane just greatly exceeded expectations.

Does CU have chance to match what TCU did, with the Horned Frogs going from 5-7 to the national championship game?

No.

At least not this season.

Is it possible for the Buffs to jump to a TCU-in-2021 like 5-7 in 2023, then make a magical run to the College Football Playoffs in 2024?

I wouldn’t put it past Coach Prime.

Stars still do matter. TCU had 17 blue-chip players on its roster, and went from relative obscurity to the Playoffs.

Colorado currently has eight blue-chip players on its 2022 roster. A giant stride from what we’ve become accustomed to seeing at Folsom Field, but also a giant stride from where the Buffs need to be in order to compete for titles.

So keep an eye on the coaching staff over the next few weeks, as they try and up the “blue-chip count” of the CU roster.

After all, stars still do matter …

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12 Replies to ““Stars Matter” Mantra and the Future of CU Football”

  1. We may also never see another Larry Allen come from Sonoma State again (grew up in the Bay and didn’t even know they played FB until that draft). With the transfers not too concerned w/HS rankings, plenty of non blue-chippers have a nice career in the league. It’s about identifying/signing the quality of the players (the ‘dawgs’) vs. college comp. (the Van Wells of the college football world).

  2. buy in is important. Lots of players bought into wac mac and the flimflam man…………but they couldn’t coach.
    Coach is gotta be able to coach
    no coach
    not game
    no wins
    no horn

    say like a&m
    2019 2 five, 13 four
    2020 2 five 13 four
    2021 1 five 16 four
    2022 8 five 20 four
    2023 2 five 11 four

    13 five stars and 62 four stars went 5 and 7.

    interesting

    Prime buffarooski

    Note: Horns always sound good to a tin ear

  3. I have always thought that stars mattered from a depth perspective. You bring in 25 kids a year, if they are all 3 stars most of them will not be able to play right away. How many of them will adapt to the grind of football and put the work in to getting better? How many of them will grow into great players? The answer is all too often not enough so you end up with a a perennially thin team. 2016 was great but it had no depth. What does it say that a depth price at Alabama came here and was regarded as one of our best lineman? Woods plus
    Wei’s were a solid Safety group, when they both went down we had a really poor back up. I do think stars seriously matter at a couple of positions where elite speed, power or technique really shine through: QB – you have to have a great one to be great. Reciever – you have to have a guy who can beat the guys on the other side from a purely physical sense. Edge Rusher – the guy who can put pressure on a qb from any direction. Corner – the guy who can lock down their reciever or at least slow him down. And lastly, maybe running back. Great running backs can make a difference, I think though they are one of the hardest to find a true blue chip player becuase adapting to the speed and power of the power 5 football takes a ton at this position and I think it is hard to project.

    I think the rest of the team can be covered by players you develop. Of course it helps to have Blie chips everywhere, they need less development. But you can have an offensive line made up of big strong juniors and seniors that have worked their butts off in the weight room and with their coach. Same goes with interior d lineman. Linebackers must be able to adapt to the speed of the game and that is as much mental as it is physical. Instincts and aggressiveness comb8ned with good coaching, but I think it is really hard to predict guys that will be able to adapt. I am sure the 5 stars are pretty solid but I bet the failure rate on 4 is pretty high. Look at Barnes. A very solid safety, a pretty good “star” a ridiculously bad ILB despite the physical gifts. Now some of that was scheme and coaching I am sure but I saw plays where Barnes keys are the same keys they teach in high school and he goes the wrong direction multiple times. His eyes got caught on one key instead of multiple that linebackers need to read simultaneously.

    So I ramble a bit here, sorry, back to the point. How many of those transfers that TCU brought in were 3* coming out of high school but actually developed into great athletes? I couldn’t find it online. But more than stars I think that is going to determine good programs. You have to have a core group of guys who know and buy into your culture but then you have to go bring in guys who may have been under recruited or developed later that play better than the guys you recruited.

    1. I mostly agree with this. I think this was the story of the MAC-GB years. I think this was the downfall of Neuheisal’s CU years, sure he had 3 bowl wins and his 1st 2 seasons were 10 wins (using Mac’s talent and depth); but his last two seasons were sort of down years (the conference record had 4+ conference losses both years). I believe this was attributed to Neu signing some great 4-5* players (top 100 those days) but his inability to back-fill with quality guys that made depth and signing a decent QB did not lead to results. You then go to Barnett, he signed a great class when he arrived. 1999 they got off to a slow start as the implemented new schemes (that CSU drubbing was bad. 2000 was bad W-L, but all except KSU were close games–Marcus Houston broke out and then got hurt.

      2001 we are almost playing in NC game and drubbed the Corn + beating Texas in B12 championship. Recruiting drops off with the scandal and B12 North is surpassed by South, but he wins 4-5 B12 North Championships… to me this was depth, playing older guys and not being thin.

  4. Nice write up as usual Stuart.

    TCU has ONLY 17 blue chip players, but if spread out evenly, that’s 17 of 22 starters or so. A team with 8 or 9 blue chip players on both sides of the ball with 3 or 4 guys from other programs that were starters has a pretty good chance at fielding a winning team, especially if their backups are any good and the starters stay healthy.

    That doesn’t mean it’s not easier to win big with 2 deep of blue chip players at all positions, it’s doable with the right team of men and great coaching… And a little luck, some self made by the players believing in themselves and their teammates.

    Can Coach Prime bring in a couple more blue chips to get the Buffs competitive in year one?

    Coach Prime has brought in one ton of new O-line players before the latest O-line transfer who is a four star, along with a four star TE and a newly loaded QB room means CU should climb from the bottom to the middle of the conference and I’d say are a few more quality defensive players away from competing and getting 6 or more wins in the PAC12.

    That can still happen by this summer.

  5. Excellent analysis, as usual, Stuart. A few things to consider that may make the Buffs season a bigger turnaround than expected. First, with an improved offense, an improved defense naturally follows. At least in the points allowed department, because presumably the D will be on the field less. Second, the biggest improvements in the D right now are in the back end, that is the CBs and we have experienced safeties returning. This should allow for a little longer time to rush the passer. Third, a definite upgrade in the coaching on the D side of the ball will naturally lead to improvement.

    Now I’m not saying the Buffs will have a top 20 D, but maybe a top 50, which combined with a top 20 O, should lead to a bowl game with 7-8 wins. Just my hopeful opinion.

    GO BUFFS!! ROLL TAD!!

  6. Aloha. Of course it’s the players who make plays and win games. That’s not to say recruiting stars, always works, but odds are better with higher rated players that they will actually play to their ratings.

    But, as we also know, if super talented players aren’t buying what the coach/es are selling, they can underperform. Similarly, “belief” in self, team, and the coach’s vision can elevate decent to good, and good to great. But making the bad news bears/Buffs a contender? Never gonna happen.

    That’s the roughly 70/30 ratio, that I hang my horn on.

    Thanks to coach prime – and he may be the only dude on the planet CU could’ve gotten who could improve the talent level as quickly as he is – the talent tide is turning.

    Can he also sell his vision and coach? It sure looks like it. Klieman at Kansas state said about his belief in being successful from one level to the next, “coaching football is coaching football.” I buy that philosophy.

    This spring is going to be fun. The fall, moreso.

    Anyone know when spring practices will start?

    I wonder if coach prime goes fully open, or what?

    Then there’s that matter of the transfer visitors this weekend. Anyone wanna bet against this staff landing a few more food ones?

    Go Buffs

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