UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen made headlines yesterday for critical comments about the NCAA in a recent interview with Bleacher Report. Some of the things he said were valid. Here’s an example:
“Look, football and school don’t go together,” Rosen said. “They just don’t. Trying to do both is like trying to do two full-time jobs. There are guys who have no business being in school, but they’re here because this is the path to the NFL. There’s no other way.”
Rosen is right to challenge the NCAA’s hypocrisy of labeling someone a Division 1 “student-athlete.” Especially in sports like football and basketball, they’re viewed exclusively as athletes. However, Rosen then suggested there’s a relationship between success on the fields of play and lax academic requirements. Elaborating on his comments from above, Rosen stated:
“Then there’s the other side that says raise the SAT eligibility requirements. OK, raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have. You lose athletes and then the product on the field suffers.”
At first I thought, “yeah, Rosen is right.” Just look at the teams who have made the last three College Football playoff’s and see where they ranked on U.S. News’ latest rankings of national universities.
- Alabama: ranked 103rd
- Clemson: 66th
- Ohio State: t-54th
- Washington: t-54th
- Oklahoma: 111th
- Michigan State: 82nd
- Oregon: 103rd
- Florida State: 92nd
Keep in mind that these are just national university rankings. All of these schools would rank even lower if acclaimed liberal arts schools like Williams and Amherst (and Skidmore, maybe?) were included.
However, Rosen is implying that there is a correlation between SAT requirements and football success. That is, if Alabama were to raise their minimum SAT threshold by, say, 100 points, they wouldn’t contend for every national title. Conversely, if a school like Northwestern, who has the highest 25th-quartile SAT score (1480) of all Power-5 conference teams according to Compass Education Group, were to drastically lower their academic standards, they would suddenly turn into a football powerhouse.
Here’s why Rosen is wrong. Let’s take a look at the twelve Power-5 schools with the lowest 25th-percentile SAT scores (again, courtesy of Compass Education) and see how many top 25, top 10, and top 5 finishes they’ve had over the past ten seasons. In theory, they should all be highly productive.
- Washington State (25th-percentile SAT score: 990): 0 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes since ’07
- Kansas State (1020): 3 Top 25, 0 Top 10, 0 Top 5 finishes
- Iowa State (1030): 0 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Arizona (1040): 1 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Mississippi State (1040): 2 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Oregon State (1040): 2 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Oklahoma State (1060): 7 Top 25, 2 Top 10, and 1 Top 5 finish
- Louisville (1070): 4 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Iowa (1070): 3 Top 25, 2 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Nebraska (1070): 4 Top 25, 0 Top 10 and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Michigan State (1070): 6 Top 25, 4 Top 10, and 2 Top 5 finishes
- Ole Miss (1070): 4 Top 25, 1 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
Only a few of these teams–Oklahoma State and Michigan State, most notably–have been successful recently. Others like Washington State and Iowa State have been pathetic.
Now let’s take a look at the twelve Power-5 schools with the highest SAT requirements, and repeat the same process. (Note- Notre Dame isn’t technically a Power-5 school, but I included them because they’re treated like one).
- Northwestern (1480): 2 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes since ’07
- Vanderbilt (1480): 2 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Stanford (1460): 6 Top 25, 4 Top 10, and 2 Top 5 finishes
- Duke (1440): 1 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Notre Dame (1410): 3 Top 25, 1 Top 10, and 1 Top 5 finish
- Georgia Tech (1380): 3 Top 25, 1 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Michigan (1370): 4 Top 25, 2 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Illinois (1370): 1 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- USC (1350): 6 Top 25, 4 Top 10, and 4 Top 5 finishes
- Boston College (1340): 1 Top 25, 1 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Virginia (1320): 0 Top 25, 0 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
- Wisconsin (1290): 8 Top 25, 2 Top 10, and 0 Top 5 finishes
Judging by the recent success of schools like Stanford, Michigan, USC, and Wisconsin, higher academic requirements don’t prevent on-field dominance. In total, the “smart” schools have had fifteen top 10 and seven top 5 finishes since ’07. That’s more than the other group, which only had nine and three, respectively.
But the most notable difference is in recruiting. Led by USC, Michigan, and Stanford, the “smart” schools collectively have had 26 top-15 recruiting classes since 2007. The schools with lower SAT scores, meanwhile, have had a grand total of zero. So it actually might be an advantage from a football perspective to be regarded as a top academic destination.
In closing, I understand what Rosen is hinting at. Schools like Alabama prioritize SEC titles and national championships over education–and it has worked. By casting as wide of an academic net as possible, it’s easier, in theory, to lure any big-time recruit. If SEC schools hypothetically had the same academic standards for their athletes as the Ivy League, they obviously wouldn’t be quite as successful.
Yet inferring that teams like Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson would struggle if they had higher standards is still misguided. Even when you account for how academic standards are lower for athletes at all Division 1 schools, there’s seems to be a clear positive relationship between a school’s aggregate test scores for their entire student body and their athletic team’s (i.e. Stanford football’s average SAT score is still significantly higher than Washington State’s average). In other words, teams like USC, Michigan, Wisconsin, and, most notably, Stanford, have higher academic standards than most of their peers, even for their athletic teams, and they’ve all done remarkably well of late. So Rosen’s comments are too simplistic of an explanation for a school like Alabama’s success.
Rosen should know this first hand, too. His Bruins have been blown out by both Stanford and USC each of the past two years. In theory, UCLA, whose SAT scores are lower, should beat both of them, right Josh?