BY LARRY WILLIAMS AND TRAVIS HANEY

The Post and Courier

As National Signing Day nears, college football fans focus more attention on recruiting rankings. But should they?

In the popular and profitable world of ranking future college football players, it can come down to the old cliche about the glass being half-full or half-empty.

More precisely, half-right or half-wrong.

"We're evaluating kids based on a snapshot in time," said Allen Wallace, a respected recruiting analyst. "It's like gambling: Who are you going to put your money on?"

This stuff can be more flip of the coin than anything else, and that's demonstrated with a look at the final Associated Press Top 25 college football poll the previous two seasons. Less than half of those 50 teams averaged a Top 25 recruiting ranking over the previous five years by the two most recognized recruiting services.

Last season, Rivals.com had just 11 of the Top 25 averaging a recruiting class of 25th or better from 2003 to 2007. Scout.com didn't do any better, also missing on 14 teams.

A year earlier, Rivals had 13 of the Top 25 finishers with a Top 25 class from 2002 to 2006. Scout had one fewer at 12.

The combined success rate of 47 percent, among other insights and trends culled from an in-depth analysis of recruiting rankings by The Post and Courier, underscores the dangers of relying on them as a harbinger of success or failure. The closest thing to sure things are the elite programs that perennially load up with so-called four- and five-star players. And even then, there are no guarantees.

The consumption with recruiting rankings will hit its yearly peak Wednesday, when high school football players across the country sign binding letters of intent with colleges.

"I absolutely believe it's an inexact science and it has been from day one," said Bobby Burton, chief operating officer of Rivals. "At the end of the day, it's opinion. You're not always right and you're not always wrong. We hit some and we miss some. It's a barometer. It's not an absolute."

Florida State and Miami can attest. The Seminoles pulled in three Top 5 classes in the past four years, according to Rivals. They barely sneaked into a bowl in 2006 and couldn't finish better than fourth in their division in 2007.

According to Scout, the Hurricanes have recruited 14th or better each of the past five years. They went 7-6 in 2006 and couldn't even crack .500 last season, finishing 5-7.

Closer to home, the two Palmetto State powers have plenty of experience seeing the air seep out of their signing-day balloons. Of the 135 players South Carolina signed from 2002 to 2006, 44 (32.6 percent) either did not step foot onto campus or did not complete their eligibility — early NFL entries excluded.

Clemson signed 107 players over that five-class stretch. Thirty-five (32.7 percent) didn't make it to the school or did not finish out their eligibility, though some did graduate.

The Gamecocks have averaged a Top 20 recruiting ranking over the past five years according to both of the services, but they haven't managed to finish a season in the Top 25 since 2001. And they couldn't even snare a bowl bid in 2007.

Clemson has improved its recruiting rankings over the past four years, yet that presumed progress hasn't yet translated into a 10-win season or Atlantic Coast Conference title.

Wallace, publisher of SuperPrep Magazine and Scout's national recruiting editor, has been in this business since 1985. He used to believe strongly in the rankings he meticulously compiles, but over the years he's grown convinced that some variables — chief among them coaching — are more important than how big a player is, how fast he is, or how many offers he has from big-time schools.

The business of ranking recruiting classes has exploded this decade with the rise of the Internet. It provides a way for obsessed fans to get their fix and keep score year-round, but Wallace says bluntly that it's merely "fool's gold."

"You come to understand that you just can't really tell how kids are going to turn out until they get to school," he said. "It sounds really lame. But outside general parameters, there are things you just can't predict. We don't have a crystal ball. ... A lot of times, results just don't show up."

It would be a stretch, however, to suggest recruiting rankings are irrelevant and meaningless. Because teams like Southern Cal, LSU and Georgia have demonstrated a strong correlation between success on the field and the number of four- and five-star athletes on the roster.

But for programs beyond the perennially elite, it can be a waste of time to base optimism — or pessimism — solely on a recruiting ranking.

For fans whose teams garner high rankings Wednesday, it might be wise to hold off the party for a few years — or at least until August, when some of the signees might not qualify academically.

"I certainly think people become too involved in everything," Burton said. "Why do you think they care about Britney Spears going back to the hospital? That's just the nature of people who enjoy news."

At the top of the final 2007 Top 25 are teams that have cleaned up on the recruiting trail in recent years. BCS champion LSU averaged a No. 7 recruiting ranking the last five years, according to both Rivals and Scout. No. 2 Georgia has five Top 10 classes according to Rivals, four according to Scout.

No. 3 Southern Cal has been a recruiting monster according to the so-called experts (1.6 by Rivals and 2.2 by Scout). Also in the top 15 of the poll are teams that regularly compile decorated classes — No. 5 Ohio State, No. 8 Oklahoma, No. 10 Texas, No. 12 Tennessee, No. 13 Florida and No. 15 Auburn.

But then there's No. 4 Missouri, whose average recruiting ranking since 2003 has been 35.2 (Rivals) and 44.4 (Scout). Two spots lower is West Virginia (39.8 by Rivals and 43.4 by Scout), which dusted Oklahoma by 20 points in the Fiesta Bowl last month and has finished in the AP Top 10 each of the past three seasons.

Also crashing the party: No. 7 Kansas (61.6 average by Scout); No. 10 Boston College (44.2 by Scout); No. 14 BYU (74.6 by Rivals); No. 17 Cincinnati (91.4 by Rivals); No. 24 Wisconsin (37th by both); and No. 25 Oregon State (44th by Scout).

It was much the same story in 2006, when the final Top 25 was littered with teams like No. 5 Boise State, No. 12 Rutgers and No. 18 Wake Forest.

Rivals ranked Notre Dame's recruiting 8th in 2007 and 2006, and Scout had the Irish at 11th last season and fifth the year before. Yet somehow, all that talent finished 3-9 last season while losing at home to Air Force and Navy.

"What's the deal with those players?" Wallace said. "What the heck is going on?"

Speaking of Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons signed just one four- or five-star recruit from 2002 to 2005. Yet they managed to win the ACC in 2006 and bag nine wins last season, beating the supposedly loaded Seminoles both years.

"It's not talent alone," Burton said. "If it were talent alone, Florida State would've won several more national championships."

As of Friday, Clemson's class was ranked 14th by Rivals and 16th by Scout. Rivals had USC 29th, Scout 38th.

For the Tigers, this kind of haul might be what it takes for them to win their first ACC title since 1991.

Then again, maybe not.

Three of the top four players from their heralded recruiting class of 2001 — Roscoe Crosby, wideout Tymere Zimmerman and tight end Ben Hall — were more duds than studs.

The Tigers signed nine four-star prospects in 2002, but just three of them went on to do anything of note. The supposed jewels of the 2003 class, defensive back Brian Staley and linebacker Maurice Nelson, never delivered.

The 2007 All-ACC teams show that lower-tier talent can hold its own. Thirty-seven of the 46 players on the first and second team were classified as three stars or lower by Rivals, not including special teams players.

Clemson had six players make the teams, and just one — first-team tailback James Davis — was considered more than a three-star prospect. Offensive lineman Barry Richardson, classified as a two-star at Wando High School, was first-team All-ACC in 2006 and 2007. Another two-star, receiver Aaron Kelly, made the first team.

Of the 11 regular starters on Clemson's Top 10 defense in 2007, eight were three stars or lower — including defensive end Phillip Merling, safety Michael Hamlin and linebacker Nick Watkins.

At South Carolina, all four players who made first- or second-team All-SEC last season were three stars or below — including cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, a former two-star prospect.

Five-star players weren't good to the Gamecocks in the late years of the Lou Holtz era. The trio from the 2002 class — junior-college defensive players Randy Jackson, Corey Peoples and Darrel Slay — couldn't even establish themselves as the best players on their own team.

The Gamecocks' 2003 class exemplified the inexactness of it all. Cory Boyd was a two-star defensive back out of Orange, N.J. Five-star tailback Demetris Summers came in as perhaps the most decorated prospect in school history.

Boyd went on to have an inspiring career at running back and is now prepping for April's NFL Draft.Summers was kicked off the team after the 2004 season and is toiling in his hometown of Lexington.

Budding NFL stars Johnathan Joseph, Sidney Rice and Ko Simpson emerged from the dud-ridden 2004 class that included 16 washouts out of 29 signees. From 2002 to 2005, 43 of 111 players (38.7 percent) didn't make it four seasons with the Gamecocks.

Extensive research into SEC and ACC recruiting history does indicate that upper-tier prospects have a better chance of succeeding. The Post and Courier examined every prospect signed from 2002 to 2005 in both leagues, calculating how many have gone on to make first- or second-team all-conference.

In the ACC, 19.2 percent of four- and five-stars (46 of 239) have made one of those teams, according to Rivals' ratings. For three stars and lower, the percentage dips to 8.1 (64 of 786).

There's a similar gap in the SEC, where 17.3 percent of four- and five-star players signed (52 of 300) have made first- or second-team all-conference, according to Scout's ratings. For the lower-tier players, the percentage is 6.6 percent (57 of 859).

That's not to say some teams haven't accumulated more than their share of whiffs on supposedly slam-dunk prospects.

Just take Florida State, where for every Leon Washington, Ernie Sims or Myron Rolle, there are just as many five-star signees who are now forgotten.

At Miami, five-star successes like Devin Hester, Kenny Phillips and Greg Olsen make a case for the legitimacy of star ratings. Five-star flops like Willie Williams, Ryan Moore and Kyle Wright make a case against them.

Virginia Tech is perhaps the most prominent example of a program that has won big regularly without a high number of big-name players.

From 2002 to 2006, 80 percent of the Hokies' signees were three stars or lower, according to Rivals. Yet Virginia Tech has established itself as the class of the ACC, amassing four straight 10-win seasons and two ACC titles with players Florida State and Miami did not want.

"Sometimes going after the guys that are just under the cream of the crop name-wise means your recruiting ranking isn't going to be that high, but that doesn't mean your team isn't going to be super talented," Wallace said.

"Because you're getting a guy who's coming in with a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove something."

Reach Larry Williams at lwilliams@postandcourier.com. Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.