Here's the thing: criticizing a recruiting class feels like a jerky thing to do. Cal has just signed 25 new players to the program, and all Cal fans should and are grateful that they chose Cal. The point of this article is not to criticize any of the players in Cal's' recruiting class, who are all three star or higher players capable of contributing at a major conference level if developed properly.
At the same time, there are some facts that we have to deal with. Cal's 2016 class* ranks as the 38th best in the nation, and the 8th best in the Pac-12. Last year, Cal was 34th in the nation and 7th in the Pac-12, and the year prior, 54th in the nation and 8th in the Pac-12. You get the idea.
Cal has not finished in the top 25 of the national recruiting rankings or higher than 6th in the Pac-12 recruiting rankings since the 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes that ended up combining for a roughly 50% attrition rate in terms of guys that actually played out their full eligibility. With the departure of a few redshirt seniors, there are no more 2011 recruits left on Cal's roster.
You know why this matters. As much as we love to point out the occasional five star bust or two star break through, the reality is that recruiting rankings are generally quite predictive. If you needed any convincing, you can read this article that links to a wide variety of research that indicates how much recruiting matters at both the macro and micro level. Much like gravity or evolution, the basic theory is no longer a matter for debate, and the only areas for study are details within the larger framework (which we will consider a bit more below).
And to get a sense of how recruiting rankings matter in the Pac-12, here's a quick and dirty chart:
|School||Pac-12 wins, 2012-15||Avg. Pac-12 recruiting
class rank, 2012-15
There's obviously plenty of ugliness in this chart. How a team recruited in 2009/10 is obviously much more important in determining wins in 2012 and 2013. And obviously, this doesn't take into account attrition. But it illustrates the point well enough.
You know that schools that recruit better win more. I mostly wanted to note which teams have been over and under performing their recruiting rankings. Really, there's a remarkable correlation between recruiting rankings and wins, with the exception of under-performances from USC, UCLA, and Cal. USC's can perhaps be attributed in part to sanctions, and Cal's in part to massive, massive attrition (getting good recruits does you no good if they aren't on the roster in two years.) I don't know what UCLA's issue is. But beyond that, there's an almost a one to one relationship between wins and recruiting.
(Of note: Don't finish last place in the conference in recruiting three out of four years, or you might find yourself averaging a 1-8 record every season.)
Looking at Cal's four year average entering the 2016 season, you see a team that has recruited as roughly the 7th best team in the conference. That's about how the Bears performed last year, and it's probably a safe bet that it's about where they will perform next year. This year's class has plenty of intriguing prospects, and will probably have a few unheralded guys who develop into bigger contributors than their star ranking would suggest. But unless Cal's coaching staff starts developing talent like a Michigan State or a TCU, the Bears will likely continue performing at about the same level we have seen over the last two years.
There's a second layer that's worth looking into: Recruiting rankings matter more on the defensive side of the ball. The always insightful Bill Connelly has more insights than I can provide, but it makes intuitive sense. Brilliant offensive schemes can mask talent deficits--hell, many aspects of the spread revolution started because coaches were trying to find systems that could function without above average offensive line talent.
But defense? While scheme still matters, you're still reacting to what the offense is doing. You need to have speedy guys in the secondary to cover the acres of space modern offenses will attack, and you need dominant linemen who can actually bother the quarterback before they can get off the quick passes that are so common in essentially every offensive system. Scheme can only do so much on defense - you need talent to make those types of plays.
And the fact of the matter is that Cal's defensive recruiting has lagged behind its offensive recruiting. Of Cal's top 12 recruits in 2016, 9 of them are likely to play on the offensive side of the ball. That exact same ratio held true in 2015. In the aggregate, Cal's recruiting has been in the middle of the conference. But it's probably more accurate to say that Cal has been recruiting in the top half of the conference on offense and firmly in the bottom half of the conference on defense.
That's not really surprising. Sonny Dykes is an offensively minded coach who runs a system that has become wide spread at the high school level. More than that, the offense has produced. If you're a recruit, you see Jared Goff, Bryce Treggs, Kenny Lawler and company putting up crazy points and yards, and it makes sense that you would want to join on. And I personally believe that Cal's offensive coaching staff can take offensive talent that would otherwise rank as 5th or 6th best in the conference and produce results closer to 2nd or 3rd best.
But Cal's defense has been abysmal over the past few years, with the type of coaching turnover you would expect in response to a team that has finished 10th, 11th, 12th, and 9th respectively in yards/play allowed over the last four years. And as much as we love to advertise the allure of instant playing time, I think it's safe to say that team success is much more important.
It's easy (and fair, I think) to give the coaching staff a certain amount of leeway for the 2013 and 2014 classes. One was a transition class between Tedford and Dykes, and the other followed Cal's disastrous 1-11 season. The 2015 class was solid considering that Cal had only moderate improvement from the depths of the last two season.
The 2016 class? I was hoping for a higher ranking. For the first time in years, Cal had both on-field success and off-field stability to advertise in their recruiting pitch. 8-5 with a bowl win and improvement on both sides of the ball isn't exactly earth shattering stuff, but that's way better than anything the staff could use to sell to recruits in previous seasons.
The 2015 season restored Cal's level of performance to roughly align with the level of their recruited talent. Cal has now recovered from the ravages caused by attrition during the coaching transition. It likely won't be tremendously challenging for the Bears to continue performing at this level; better than the Colorados and Oregon States of the world, but worse than the USCs, UCLAs, and Stanfords.
At some point, Cal's fan base (and, probably, Cal's administration) will expect better than that. Maybe as soon as next year. To do so, Cal's coaching staff is either going to have to be some of the best talent developers in the nation, or they will have to recruit better--particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
*Throughout this article I have used 247's composite rankings, which average the rankings both for individual prospects and for teams, using the 4 main recruiting services of Rivals, Scout, ESPN, and 247. Everybody has their opinion about which service is the most accurate, but using the wisdom of crowds usually leads to pretty reliable results.