College football's talent pool is an interesting animal to discuss. Yes, there are more kids playing high school football than ever, so it would stand to reason there is more talent out there available to coaches. In that same vein, there are now more schools playing big-time Division I-A—or FBS football—than ever before. So there is more opportunity for those increased numbers to play at a high level.
Ultimately, the answer to the question is not just yes or no; rather, the talent pool is deeper—not simply due to numbers, but because of the refinement on both the individual and system levels associated with the craft of football.
Pardon me as I go "back in the day" on you:
College coaches of old were largely tasked with developing talent. They would get a lump of clay and, over the course of four or five years, slowly mold that clay into usable talent. They taught the kid how to work out, how to eat, how to run and how to play football.
College coaches were providing the true base for football for the bulk of their players.
Fast forward to today, where we've already talked about collegiate freshmen being more advanced than ever. Coaches are getting players that are further along in the developmental process, and that means coaching today is less about teaching basics and more about refining the talent at your disposal. Players who would have taken time to develop in the 1960s or '70s (or even the '80s or '90s) now walk onto campus built like their sophomore or junior counterparts of yesteryear.
A bigger, faster, stronger player gives way to more focus on skill and less focus on growth.
Now, it must be stated that growth is still a major component of football. There are hard-gainers and weight-loss groups on every roster, and bulking up and adding strength is something that will never go away.
The point here is freshmen can get to campus and play while working to add weight during the season and first offseason. That leaves more time for the coaching staff to work technique and maximize what they are getting out of their players.
Certainly, there are instances where players come in tabula rasa as they change positions or grow into new roles. But for the bulk of players, they know what their job is before getting to campus.
Instead of learning how to be a football player in college, players are learning how their coach wants their specific position to be played. Quarterbacks come in and learn playbooks instead of trying to get to playing size. Linebackers learn blitz packages instead of trying to eat their way to normal collegiate stature.
Or, put bluntly, there are far fewer years wasted on players trying to get up to size and speed to be contributors.
Do you think the talent in college football is better than ever?
Coupled with this refinement—releasing more talent, more quickly—is the advancement in the complexities of offense and defense. These systems are designed to showcase the talent. No longer are solid wide receivers left to block on first and second downs because of their coaches' run-first, run-second and run-some-more philosophy.
If they want to have their talent on display, they go somewhere that is going to chuck the ball around forty-plus times a game.
Running backs that are too small to run between the tackles can find a school that is dedicated to getting their rushers to the edge. Quarterbacks that can't see over the line in a traditional offense can head to a spread system that puts him in the shotgun, takes wide splits and lets him sling it all over the field. Offensive linemen who would normally get passed over as too small can hook up with a spread coach who likes for his blockers to shield block, not line up and just blow people off the ball.
So while more kids playing high school football and more schools at the top level of college football make it seem like the answer is easy, the truth is, there is more to the answer. It is about the refinement of the available talent that makes the pool deeper than ever.
On the individual levels, coaches spend less time waiting for players to be ready to play. On the team level, offensive and defensive systems are finding ways to make use of all of their players in a more complex capacity.