BYU's stated, aspirational goal is to be a "legacy Top 25" program. As far as wins and losses are concerned, the program is close, but one area where the program isn't even close to the Top 25 rankings is with recruiting classes quality. Per 247 Composite rankings, the Cougars have only signed a single Top 50 class since 2008.
The reasons given for this are myriad. BYU shares Utah, a state that doesn't produce a ton of top-flight recruits, with two other FBS programs, leading to a highly competitive local market. The school's religious affiliation and honor code rules effectively rule out the majority of potential recruits. The coaching staff itself isn't full of excellent recruiters. Finally, several fans have pointed to the academic rigor of BYU as being another mitigating factor.
That got me curious, so I decided to do a little digging into the numbers. If BYU's academics are high enough to cause a recruiting disadvantage, other schools with similar standards should also be at a disadvantage, no? And just how high are BYU's standards anyway?
First, I'm using two (admittedly imperfect) metrics to give a very rough outline for how selective a school is, their average freshman ACT score, and their US News ranking. GPA-focused metrics aren't as useful, since GPAs are not nationally standardized, and vary considerably from school to school and state to state. The ACT hasn't changed considerably as of late, and is used across most of the country, so it can give us a rough estimate for the level of academic competence needed to get into a school. The test is out of 36 points, and BYU's freshman average around a 28, which is a very good score.
The second metric is the US News ranking, which is the most popular (despite it being very imperfect) ranking metric for universities. It can provide a baseline snapshot for comparing prestige, selectivity, and for finding comparable institutions. BYU is listed as the 62nd best school in the country, which still makes it a selective institution...but also certainly not Stanford or Michigan.
Based on those metrics, BYU's is about as academically selective as quite a few major FBS programs, like Ohio State, Penn State, or Georgia Tech. In fact, well over half of the Big Ten and the ACC, and about half of the Pac-12, are at least as (if not significantly more) academically selective as BYU.
"But PAWWWWWWLLL, them boys at Michigan and Wisconsin and Virginia ain't GRADUATIN' their players! They just bringing in ringers, they ain't true SCHOLAR BOYS" you might say. Well, thankfully, there is a way we can measure that. It's a tool the NCAA uses called the APR.
Each student athlete who is receiving athletic financial aid is given two "points" per semester. If a student stays in school and is good academic standing, they keep both points. If a student leaves school but in good academic standing, (say, to transfer, or go to the NFL), they lose one point. If lose their academic standing, they lose one point. If they leave school *and* aren't in good academic standing, they lose both points.
If programs have poor APR scores, they're penalized, from anything from a public rebuke to scholarship reductions, to a postseason ban, most recently assigned to the UConn basketball team. For the 2014-2015 season, a team must have a four year average of 930, or a two year average of 940, to escape sanctions. The full nitty-gritty of how the formulate is calculated can be found here, and also here.
Below are some numbers comparing ACTs, APRs, and recruiting rankings. If it's too much, don't worry, we'll break this down below.
Average ACT score: 28
US News Ranking: #62
2011-2012 APR score: 931
2010-2011 APR score: 932
2009-2010 APR score: 929
247 Recruiting rankings from 2013-2011: (66, 70, 60)
Average ACT score: 28
US News Ranking: #52
2011-2012 APR score: 982
2010-2011 APR score: 988
2009-2010 APR score: 985
247 Recruiting rankings from 2013-2011 ( 4, 9
Average ACT score: 29
US News Ranking: #36
2011-2012 APR score: 983
2010-2011 APR score: 974
2009-2010 APR score: 966
247 Recruiting rankings from 2013-2011: ( 74, 61, 49)
Average ACT score: 27
US News Ranking: #37
2011-2012 APR score: 261
2010-2011 APR score: 271
2009-2010 APR score: 272
247 Recruiting rankings from 2013-2011: ( 30, 42, 37)
No matter how you slice it, schools that are just as academically challenging as BYU (if not more challenging) are recruiting a higher caliber of athlete AND graduating them at a better clip than BYU, which makes me skeptical that academics are a primary factor for slower recruiting.
"But PAWWWLL, them boys at Penn State and Ohio State are majoring in finger painting or something." Sure, it's true that football players are probably, on average, taking less academically rigorous majors (which makes sense, given the time constraints of football), but that's also true at BYU. This data is a little old, but there is no reason to think that the numbers have changed much. Most student athletes are flocking to open-enrollment majors, with the most popular being Exercise Science. Georgia Tech actually doesn't offer those majors, so those students ARE actually majoring in something very challenging. Yet in two out of the last three years, despite an offensive scheme that makes recruiting top QBs and WRs almost impossible, Tech had a higher class than BYU (and almost certainly will this year too).
This is probably burying the lede, but BYU's APR score is actually very low, dangerously close to the cutoff for penalties. For a program that prides itself on not having "football first", and one that is careful to only recruit a "certain kind of athlete", what are some possible reasons for such a low APR? Why are more people not concerned about this?
-BYU recruits a fair amount of JUCO athletes. By my count (which could be off), BYU has 17 players on the roster who spent time at a JUCO, or Junior College. Typically, athletes go to a JUCO instead of a four-year institution either because they are not satisfied with the caliber of scholarship offer coming out of high school, or because they are not academically prepared enough coming out of high school. Historically, these students graduate at a lower rate than those who start four-year universities as freshman, and represent some risk. The more academically-focused schools in the ACC and B1G are much less likely to recruit from JUCOs.
-BYU has players who are leaving school to go on missions. It's true that the school would get a small dip in their APR score when a student withdrawls, they would also get a point added back on when the student returns to school, so long as they were in good standing. Other schools that have a high level of mission activity have higher APR scores than BYU (Utah State's last two years were 967 and 959 respectively, and Utah was 963). Unless BYU has a large swath of students with terrible GPAs who then leave for missions, it's unlikely this is the sole cause of a low APR.
-BYU's academic support services are not going a good job. Given the huge time commitment of football, many FBS athletes utilize academic support services to help keep students on track. I am highly skeptical that the university is not giving football players enough support, since as a whole, BYU student athletes actually have an excellent APR. The basketball team's APR is well above average, and at least one sport had a perfect score. If the institution was the problem, you would see lower scores across all sports. This is another reason to be skeptical that missions are the primary issue.
-The football players that are recruited as not as academically prepared or successful as they should be. That seems to be the most likely scenario, which is curious, given that many fans seem to think that academics are keeping them from getting quality players.
Personally, I suspect that many fans in the West underestimate the quality of many large public universities in the Midwest or East Coast. Lots of high achieving schools have to restrict their recruiting to accommodate academics (Ohio State withdrew at least one scholarship offer this cycle because the athlete didn't have the grades), but with a good support system and strong coaching, programs can find ways to keep players successful on and off the field.
There are lots of good reasons for why recruiting at BYU will probably lag behind, but I don't think this should be one of them. The Cougars already on the team better get serious about hitting the books too, or else future BYU squads could be in serious trouble.