The 2017 Blue-Chip Ratio: Your college football champ will be one of these 10 teams

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I have a pretty good idea who will win the national championship this season. The list of true contenders is short.

It’s not based on my opinion, but rather a simple stat I’ve been tracking for a few years: the Blue-Chip Ratio, which shows what percentage of a team’s signees are rated four- or five-stars ("blue chips") as recruits.

It boils down to teams that sign more four- and five-star recruits than two- and three-stars, over the previous four recruiting classes. That’s an exclusive club, usually consisting of the top 10 percent of FBS programs. All of the national champs over the last decade-plus have accomplished it, and often, the team taking home the trophy has signed many more elite players.

Clemson took home the title in 2016 after signing 52 percent blue chips in the 2013-16 classes. In 2015, it was Alabama with a 77 percent mark. In 2014, it was Ohio State at 68 percent. In 2013, it was Florida State at 53. And on and on.

As my colleague Bill Connelly has said, winning in college football takes talent acquisition, development, and deployment. I agree. But Gene Chizik has a national title, while Mark Dantonio and Gary Patterson do not; acquisition is by far the most important element. By NCAA rule, coaches get just 20 hours per week with their players. Only so much development can be done.

(It’s worth it to add a disclaimer. This metric is quite useful for determining which teams have signed elite talent. It is not the most useful for differentiating between bad and below average teams, or below average and average; some teams simply do not have much of a shot of signing elite prospects and instead try to find diamonds in the rough. That’s a strategy that can produce wins, though perhaps not rings.)

This year, in order, it is Alabama, Ohio State, LSU, Florida State, Georgia, USC, Michigan, Auburn, Clemson, and Notre Dame.

These teams made the Blue-Chip Ratio cut

Team Blue-Chip Ratio
Team Blue-Chip Ratio
Alabama 80%
Ohio State 71%
LSU 65%
Florida State 65%
Georgia 63%
USC 63%
Michigan 61%
Auburn 59%
Clemson 56%
Notre Dame 56%

That’s it. Ten teams. There are no real surprises; it’s all bluebloods. This year features the lowest number of teams meeting the 50 percent threshold since I began tracking. Usually there are two or three more.

  • Alabama’s 80 percent is the highest I’ve seen since I began publishing this piece. But it’s not a surprise when Nick Saban is literally convincing top-100 players to grayshirt.
  • Ohio State is a a clear No. 2, six percentage points ahead of everyone else, but still nine behind the Tide.
  • Though they have had different levels of success of late, due to coaching, LSU and Florida State are typically the teams mentioned after the Tide and Buckeyes when the discussion of the most impressive roster comes up.
  • Kirby Smart inherited a good Georgia roster from Mark Richt, but his first two classes are humming at 74 percent, while Richt’s final two were at 53. It’s not yet known if Smart can coach, but Georgia’s talent is being upgraded.
  • Perhaps the only surprise of the 10 is Notre Dame, and I’ll be interested to see how their talented upperclassmen perform this season. The Irish went 4-8 in 2016, but were one of the least lucky teams in the country.

There’s not a team on the list I believe would enter a four-team tournament without a shot to bring home the goods.

What sort of odds would you want to bet against the eventual national champ coming from this list? I asked some oddsmakers that question.

All 10 were in the club last year, too. So were UCLA, Texas A&M, and Texas

They all dropped out as the data point of the 2013 recruiting class left, replaced with less spectacular 2017 signees.

On a conference basis, it breaks down as follows: SEC (four), ACC (two), Big Ten (two), Pac-12 (one), and independent (one). The Big 12 does not have a team on the list, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Regionally, over half of the list comes from the deep South. The Southeast produces the most talent nationally, by far.

Blue-Chip Ratio risers

Team 2014 2017 Net
Team 2014 2017 Net
Penn State 21% 41% 20%
Arizona State 12% 28% 16%
Clemson 42% 56% 14%
Georgia 51% 63% 12%
Michigan State 16% 26% 10%
Florida State 56% 65% 9%
Washington 22% 30% 8%
Tennessee 36% 43% 7%
Maryland 13% 20% 7%
Ole Miss 25% 32% 7%
Alabama 73% 80% 7%
Michigan 55% 61% 6%
TCU 10% 16% 6%
Auburn 53% 59% 6%

Some teams have seen their four-year rolling averages increase a lot.

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Penn State was at 21 percent when James Franklin took over in 2014. It rose to 28 percent in 2015, 34 percent in 2016, and, following a Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance, now sits at 41 percent. Penn State is a real candidate to join the club next season, if it can land another top-10 class, which is likely.

Arizona State’s talent rise under Todd Graham has also been steady, from 12, to 20, to 22, and now 28 percent. The Sun Devils are not close to competing for a title, but the frequency with which the Sun Devils are signing top players has risen steadily.

Clemson has made some steady progress, from 42, to 47, to 52, and now 56. The Tigers are also the most picky team in the country on the trail this year, regularly turning away good players because of space constraints.

Michigan State actually makes the risers list, going from at 16 percent clip in 2014, to 26 percent this year. But it feels fleeting to me, and the Spartans do not have much juice on the trail following a disastrous season and the re-emergence of Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State within the same division.

While some have been slow, steady builds, several have turned things around over the last one or two years.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

That includes Georgia and Oklahoma.

Washington belongs in this category, going from 23 percent in 2015 to 30 percent now. Chris Petersen’s Huskies couldn’t hang against the two elite recruiters on their 2016 schedule, USC and Alabama, but UW’s talent is increasing.

TCU has also made a leap from 8 percent in 2015 to 16 percent in 2017. The Horned Frogs are recruiting well so far for 2018, including a commitment from elite QB recruit Justin Rogers. Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs are just 25-20 in Big 12 play, but things could be looking up.

Remember all the non-traditional powers who looked ready to contend for national titles?

Remember Baylor? Remember Oregon? Remember Ole Miss? Remember Oklahoma State? Who’s gonna fill their shoes?

Blue-Chip Ratio fallers

Team 2014 2017 Net
Team 2014 2017 Net
Notre Dame 63% 56% -7%
Rutgers 12% 4% -8%
Virginia 16% 6% -10%
Nebraska 30% 19% -11%
Oregon 41% 28% -13%
California 22% 9% -13%
Texas 60% 46% -14%
Florida 54% 37% -17%

Texas A&M seems to have peaked in recruiting under Kevin Sumlin, going from 46 percent, to 54, to 53, and now down to 43. That’s what signing 20 two- and three-stars in a class can do to a ratio. The Aggies’ roster likely won’t ever be truly bad, being an SEC team located in Texas, but things just got tougher with Tom Herman recruiting nearby Houston on behalf of the Longhorns.

Like the Aggies, UCLA enjoyed a moment among the elites (in recruiting, not including coaching). The Bruins went from 41 percent, to 53, to 55, and then back down to 46. You can only sell hype for so long without some wins.

Notre Dame dipped below 60 percent for the first time in a half decade, from 63 to 67 to 63 and then down to 56 percent.

Ole Miss’ roster reached as high as 38 percent in 2016, but is now down to 32 and is heading for the bottom of the SEC West in a hurry following sanctions and the firing of coach Hugh Freeze.

Then there are a few programs who have fallen steadily, but seem to be on track to turn it around.

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Somewhat incredibly, Florida has fallen all the way from 54 percent in 2014 to 37 percent now, easily the lowest they’ve been in a decade. The reason is the inability to land star players in 2014-16, with only 23 four- and five-stars among 70 signees. Jim McElwain shook up his staff, it paid dividends in the 2017 class, and the Gators are in line to sign an elite crop in the 2018 cycle. It’s Florida; the Gators should never be signing fewer star players than 18 other teams in a four-year period.

Texas has gone from 60, to 55, to 50, to 46 percent. But I don’t expect that trend to continue.

Oregon has fallen from 41, to 39, to 33, to 28, but though the Pac-12 North for new coach Willie Taggart is tougher than what predecessors Chip Kelly or Mark Helfrich faced, along with USC getting off probation, the Ducks are lighting up the trail, thanks to an excellent staff.

Nebraska’s gone from 30 percent in 2014 to just 19 in 2017, but seems to have real momentum in the 2018 class.

Where is the Big 12?

The Big 12 has not produced a national champion since Vince Young strode into the end zone against USC in 2005. Current recruits were barely old enough to remember that game. Oklahoma last won it all in 2000. Recruiting has been a big part of the league’s issues. The league just lacks talent as a whole, and that’s borne out on the field and in the NFL draft.

There are only two teams that — because of geography, resources, tradition, and commitment — have realistic chances to recruit at a national title level: Texas and Oklahoma. Right now, they sit at 46 and 45 percent, respectively. Texas’ poor 2014 class (23 signees, eight blue chips) is weighing its average down. Oklahoma’s 2013 is also its issue (27 signees, eight blue chips).

Those numbers are so close to meeting the minimum threshold, that both are potential candidates to break through a year early under their respective new coaches, Herman and Lincoln Riley.

And both are clearly trending in the right direction on the trail. Over the last three classes, the Longhorns are at exactly 50 percent blue chips, while Oklahoma is at 51. With young coaches who have reputations as elite recruiters, Texas and Oklahoma are putting together excellent 2018 classes, and I expect both to return to the club a year from now.

Texas and Oklahoma are the horses the Big 12 can ride back into prominence. You need your aces. That allows second-tier programs like Oklahoma State, TCU, and West Virginia to succeed in roles befitting their abilities, as opposed to trying to fill the shoes of the bluebloods.