Pete Volk and Chris Fuhrmeister also contributed to this story.
As recruiting rankings continue to grow more accurate, they're now to a point at which they can help tell us which teams are ready to compete for titles.
Every BCS champion since recruiting rankings could be accurately tracked (2005, or four classes after Scout joined Rivals in rating players) has met a benchmark: it's recruited more blue-chips (four- and five-star players) than lesser-rated players over its four previous signing classes.
Building a Champion
Building a Champion
And since those blue-chips are rare -- roughly 300 of them per year, with more than 10,000 scholarships to fill nationwide at the FBS level -- the teams that get blue-chips crush those who sign a lower-rated level of recruits.
Coaching stability, attrition management, player development, scouting, support and a host of other factors have a lot to do with a team's success. But even doing all of those things well, it is very hard for a program to stay at an elite level if it's not bringing in a lot of top talent.
So: what percentage of signees for each contender over the last four classes is made up of blue-chips? And what can we learn from that data?
Note: Player ratings are from the 247Sports Composite, which blends ratings from 247Sports, Scout, ESPN and Rivals. We tried to confirm accurate and complete signing class data for every team. This does not include walk-ons or players who never signed scholarship papers.
The 11 blue-chip programs
Let's first look at the 11 schools who've signed more blue-chips than non-blue-chips over the last four classes. Six play in the Southeast (five SEC teams and one ACC), which is unsurprising, considering that region of the country is far more talented than any other.
The 2014 national champion will likely come from among these 11 schools. After all, every national championship since 2002 has been won by programs in this list of 11.
Alabama: 73 percent blue-chip recruits
The Tide have undoubtedly been the most dominant team in college football over the past few years, with six straight 10-win seasons, three national titles in a four-year stretch and five BCS bowls in the past six seasons.
The class the Tide just inked was their fourth No. 1 in a row, likely Nick Saban's best yet. An Alabama scholarship offer commands instant attention from almost any recruit. The Tide market their "built by Bama" branding non-stop, making sure recruits know how many NFL players come through Tuscaloosa.
Alabama is the perfect model for the theory that recruiting success leads to on-field success. No team is all that close to what Alabama has accomplished, on the field or off. It's not just about oversigning, as many claim. Alabama's ratio is king.
If recent history is any indication, Alabama's incredible roster, featuring more raw talent than any other team in the nation, should make it one of the top contenders for the first College Football Playoff title.
Ohio State: 68 percent (17 percentage points better '13-14 than '11-12)
One of six teams above the 60 percent mark, Ohio State is a machine. In two seasons under Urban Meyer, the Buckeyes have gone 24-2 with a perfect 16-0 record in regular-season Big Ten play.
Ohio is the best recruiting state in the Midwest, and Ohio State has also shown the ability to recruit nationally, like winning five-star linebacker Raekwon McMillan out of SEC country. The Buckeyes have recruited at an even stronger rate under Meyer.
Ohio State has yet to win the Big Ten under Meyer, but it'll be the smart pick every year in which Meyer keeps outrecruiting the rest of the conference at such a ridiculous rate.
USC: 64 percent
USC is breaking in a new head coach in Steve Sarkisian after Lane Kiffin failed to replicate the Pete Carroll era at USC.
While USC's percentage is excellent, NCAA sanctions meant the Trojans signed just 75 players over the last four years, about 19 fewer than the average of the other 10 teams who eclipsed the 50 percent mark. Can the Trojans get back to meeting the mark while still taking full classes?
Notre Dame: 63 percent (25 percent better '13-14 than '11-12)
Notre Dame is located in the worst state for recruiting of any team eclipsing the half mark, but the Fighting Irish have always had to recruit nationally. Notre Dame has seen mixed on-field results through four years under Brian Kelly, with a 37-15 record boosted by a 12-1 title shot.
Now, Kelly is taking over play-calling duties, and the Irish are playing some tougher competition over the next few years -- Notre Dame will need its blue chips to turn into stars.
While Vegas has Alabama and Ohio State 5/1 and 9/1, respectively, to win the next national title, Notre Dame checks in at 40/1. That could have a lot to do with schedule and roster losses, but the data suggests Notre Dame is closer in talent to those two than the odds show.
LSU: 62 percent (17 percent better '13-14 than '11-12)
LSU has performed at a level of sustained success unmatched by nearly any other program in college football in the new millennium, never once falling below eight wins.
LSU brought in an excellent 2014 class. Some Tigers fans will lament the amount of talent that escaped Louisiana, which was as loaded as anyone can remember.
Despite being in a division with Alabama and Auburn, LSU has the sixth-best odds to win the title, at 16/1.
Texas: 60 percent (27 percent worse '13-14 than '11-12)
Can Charlie Strong fight off Texas A&M? Erich Schlagel, Getty
The Longhorns haven't made a BCS bowl since after the 2009 season --- a loss in the BCS Championship to the Tide, which Texas followed up with its first losing season since 1997.
The Horns are moving into a new era with former Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, and we'll see if he can take their loaded roster to new heights. In the final seasons of the Mack Brown era, development of talent was clearly lacking, as the Longhorns are the exemplar program for underachievement on this list.
Looking at Strong's track record at Louisville, that issue should be corrected, both through signing stars and making sure the lesser-rated signees are well-scouted and fit for the system. But, can he recruit at a high enough level? Texas' recruiting over the last two cycles brought in 27 percent less blue-chip talent than its 2011-12 classes. It's still Texas, but things are tougher now that A&M has established itself as a legitimate recruiting power.
Texas is posted at 40/1 odds to win the next title.
Florida State: 56 percent
The Noles will be strong contenders to repeat in 2014, as the odds-on favorite at 15/4.
Florida State's two-year recruiting trend is fairly flat, but Florida State fans are probably okay with that, given the crystal ball Jimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston just hoisted. It will be interesting to see what FSU does on the recruiting trail in 2014 coming off a title, as history shows that teams typically see a bump not a few weeks after winning the title, but in the year immediately following that title.
Michigan: 55 percent (16 percent better '13-14 than '11-12)
It's getting pretty close to reckoning time for Brady Hoke at Michigan. The Wolverines recruit at the highest level, but a 15-9 conference record over three years and diminishing win totals in each year of his tenure has his job in question entering a fourth year.
Michigan is also listed as 40/1 to win the championship.
Florida: 54 percent (16 percent worse '13-14 than '11-12)
Florida is by far the most talented team that had a losing record in 2013. There's good reason why Will Muschamp is also on the hot seat. A terrible 4-8 season with a loss to then-FCS Georgia Southern will do that.
With another solid recruiting class in 2014, and new coordinator Kurt Roper to overhaul the offense, fans in Gainesville will want to see at least twice as many wins and appreciable improvement on offense. Florida's offensive recruiting has lagged behind its defensive hauls, but the talent Florida has brought in on the offensive side is still rated considerably higher than on most other teams.
A national title may be a bit much to ask at 50/1 odds, but a strong on-field campaign could really help recruiting, as many of the Sunshine State's top players for the class of 2015 grew up as Florida fans.
Auburn: 53 percent
After the disastrous 2012 campaign that saw the Tigers go winless in SEC play, Gus Malzahn took over and immediately led them to an SEC title and a place in the title game. Auburn makes the cut despite a 2013 class that doesn't quite measure up on paper to what the Tigers signed in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
The Plainsmen are currently listed as 20/1 to win the 2014 title.
Georgia: 51 percent
Georgia also just makes the cut. Mark Richt's squad could make things interesting with new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, a top recruiter stolen away from Florida State.
Considering the amount of high-quality players the Dawgs bring in, it's a bit surprising they haven't won a conference title since 2005. Georgia is currently 28/1 to win the championship, tied for the 13th-best odds.
The next six
Thus ends the list of title contenders, if we're sticking with the trend of a blue-chip ratio of at least 50 percent.
So what about some others? It would be foolish to pretend that a team not reaching the 50 percent mark is disqualified from winning a title. If a school is to break through, it will likely be one that is fairly close to the mark that also boasts great talent development, scouting and a unique system. Here are six who are close.
Texas A&M: 47 percent (18 percent better '13-14 than '11-12)
Thanks to a combination of Johnny Football, Kevin Sumlin, on-field success, a move to the SEC and a very down Texas program, A&M has been on fire on the recruiting trail. Houston is one of the best recruiting cities in the country, and no team recruits better in Harris County than the Aggies.
Of their last 72 signees, 39 have been blue-chippers (54 percent). Another good recruiting year will move them into the upper echelon.
Still, A&M is in a division where three teams have brought in more recruited talent over the last four years. That -- combined with key losses, including Johnny Manziel -- has it posted at 66/1 to win it all. Maybe in 2015?
Oklahoma: 42 percent (24 percent worse '13-14 than '11-12)
Despite the resurgent 2013 season, trouble could be looming for Oklahoma.
There is not enough in-state talent to sustain a dominant program, and the Sooners must do well in Texas to be an elite squad. Texas A&M's meteoric rise up the recruiting rankings is bad news for Oklahoma.
Oklahoma has done well in California of late, but with many Pac-12 staffs solidifying, there's a legitimate question as to the Sooners' long-term viability recruiting in California. Already we are seeing Oklahoma amidst a two-year dip in recruited talent compared to the 2011-12 classes.
Clemson: 42 percent
Life after Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins could be tough for Clemson in 2014 -- especially with division rival Florida State well ahead of it on this list -- but Dabo Swinney has been recruiting well, winning a lot of games and giving the Tigers a chance.
Some Tigers fans believe Clemson should be doing better on the trail and on the field, but only 14 schools have brought in a higher percentage of elite talent than the Tigers over a four-year period. Clemson is on a strong three-year trend.
Oregon: 41 percent
Considering its location in a talent-light state, Oregon recruits about as well as can be expected. How close is Oregon to being on the 50 percent list? Try six players being rated as four-stars instead of three-stars over the last four years. That's it.
The Ducks also scout well, making sure their lesser-rated recruits have specific roles to play. The Ducks have developed players quite well, and have had great success with quarterbacks. Oregon has also benefitted from coaching staff turnover in the Pac-12 -- eight conference rivals made staff overhauls over the last three years, while the Ducks have been promoting from within for almost two decades now.
The Ducks return a great bit from a strong 2013 team, and are currently posted at 7/1 to win the national title, the third-best odds in the country.
UCLA: 41 percent (40 percent better '13-14 than '11-12)
Look who's responsible for the country's biggest recruiting turnaround. Ivan Pierre Aguierre, USA Today
No coach has been able to transform his roster's talent level over two years more than Jim Mora has. Ridiculous: 40 percent more blue-chip players in the most recent two signing classes than the previous two. And the three-year trend is great as well, with major outlier year 2011 dragging down the overall roster, much like with A&M and Clemson.
The Bruins should be a contender for the Pac-12 crown. UCLA is currently 18/1 to win the title, good for the seventh-best odds.
Stanford: 39 percent
Stanford recruits linemen well, but has trouble recruiting elite skill position talent, for whatever reason. It is almost the opposite of Oregon in that regard. Stanford has also made the best of its academic situation, but the tough admission standards do close Stanford off from a significant portion of the talent pool.
Stanford checks in at 25/1 odds this year after losing some key players off the 2013 squad.
Three more contenders
And here are the last three teams with 30/1 or better Vegas odds for the 2014 national title.
Ole Miss: 25 percent (14 percent better '13-14 than '11-12)
Ole Miss is likely on the Vegas lists because of its recent recruiting successes, notably in the 2013 class. After years near the bottom of the SEC recruiting rankings (including a 2012 class that received especially poor ratings), the Rebels pulled together a top-10 class headlined by four five-stars, including consensus top recruit Robert Nkemdiche.
If Ole Miss wins more games, perhaps it can bring its recruiting up to par with the elites of the league.
Ole Miss checks in at 33/1 odds for the title.
Michigan State: 16 percent
The Spartans have gone to seven straight bowl games under Mark Dantonio, and things continue to get better for the defense-minded Big Ten champs.
Based on the raw talent going to East Lansing, Michigan State is quite possibly the most overachieving program in the nation. Michigan State's player development is tremendous, and its scouting is quite good as well. There's an upward recruiting trend here, with 12 of its last 62 signees being blue-chips. And importantly, unlike some upstarts in the SEC, there is room for upward mobility in the Big Ten, because so many programs don't bring in any elite recruits.
Michigan State is 20/1 to win the championship.
Baylor: 13 percent
The Big 12 is wide-open right now. Can the Bears establish themselves for good? Jerome Miron, USA Today
And if Michigan State isn't America's biggest overachiever, that title must go to Baylor. But as injuries mounted in 2013, Baylor's lack of depth was exposed. Even playing in the weakest major conference, it's hard to consistently win big when only two out of every 15 new players are blue-chips.
The Big 12 has room for another power program. If Baylor can put together another big year, continue to scout well, and pair that momentum with its beautiful new stadium, the Bears could be that program.
Baylor is 25/1 to win the title, but history says that proposition doesn't offer value for a roster of this talent level.
Finally, let's take a look at each conference, with some observations on the teams we didn't already cover above.
The SEC is far and away the best recruiting conference in the country. Its top teams are the best, and it has more of them. But the true difference is that it doesn't have awful recruiting schools. Even Vanderbilt and Kentucky pull in around 10 percent blue-chips. And it is improving faster than any other conference. Scary.
Tennessee is pretty clearly on the rise under Butch Jones. The Volunteers inked a major class and saw their overall percentage jump by six percentage points. But will Tennessee be like Ole Miss, signing a great class and then falling back to earth? That's the challenge for Butch Jones. Tennessee has not won the SEC in the lifetime of most current recruits and has had only one winning season since the class of 2015 left elementary school.
South Carolina turned in its best class ratio so far under Steve Spurrier, but many recruiting media members feel that Spurrier's Gamecocks might not reach that next level. Typical of most overachievers, South Carolina scouts very well and finds players to fit its system, but the Gamecocks have never won an SEC title.
Another good scouting team is Missouri. The Tigers had a rough first year in the SEC, but had a great bounce-back year, playing in the SEC Championship. Can Missouri begin to bring in a higher level of recruit thanks to that newfound success and league membership? We'll see.
Arkansas fans preach scouting and player development, because of what Bret Bielema did at Wisconsin. But SB Nation's Matt Hinton examined Wisconsin's 2010-2013 success, finding ...
... they were actually very ordinary in that span against blue-chip competition, putting up losing records against five-star (2-3), four-star (3-6) and even three-star (5-6) opponents. Much of Wisconsin's success is based on thorough, consistent dominance of its two-star peers in the Big Ten - Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue - against whom the Badgers have won 17 in a row. But they've hardly made a habit of playing over their heads.
Where are Bielema's Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern and Purdue wins going to come from in the SEC? The SEC, and the West in particular, is probably the worst place in America to be counting on scouting and development beating big-time talent.
Thanks in large part to his family's strong reputation in Ohio, Mark Stoops seems to have Kentucky headed in the right direction on the recruiting trail.
After the recent run of solid coaching hires in the Pac-12, more of a premium will be placed on recruiting than ever before. And that could spell trouble for some staffs, as the talent west of the Rockies is somewhat limited. If all of these great coaching staffs win a few battles each, it will mean that the top programs in the conference get fewer elite kids.
Washington closed out 2014 extremely strong in the state, and if Chris Petersen can continue that, he might be able to increase the Huskies' win total by one or two per year.
California's recruiting is going down the tubes, and fast. No team in the country saw a 2011-2012 to 2013-2014 drop quite like Cal's, and it wasn't all that close.
Arizona State signed twice as many blue-chips in this recent class as it did in the previous three years -- combined. Keep Todd Graham in place for more than a year, and you shall receive results. After a promising 8-5 campaign in his debut year, Graham's Sun Devils shocked the Pac-12 by going 8-1 in conference play, winning the division and finishing with a top-25 ranking. If Arizona State can survive a potential down 2014 year on the field and bring in another good class, this could be a serious team on the rise.
Utah's move to the Pac-12 doesn't seem to have helped all that much with its recruiting, though its percentage of stars signed hasn't decreased quite as rapidly as its winning percentage.
Who's No. 3 on the recruiting trail after these two? Gregory Shamus, Getty
The Big Ten gets a bad rap at times, but it's basically right there or better than most other conferences. There is some serious jockeying for the No. 3 slot, and some of the lesser teams are fighting tooth-and-nail to make moves out of the cellar. But there is a lot of cellar here, with six schools recruiting in the single digits.
Nebraska's move to the Big Ten has not helped its recruiting at all. If anything, it has hurt quite a bit. The two-year drop of 28 percent compared to the '11-12 classes is one of the biggest in the country, and coach Bo Pelini's perpetual hot-seat status doesn't help either. Nebraska is a weak state for high school talent, and Nebraska has not been nationally relevant in any way since current recruits began elementary school.
James Franklin is an awesome recruiter, and Penn State's sanctions will hurt less over the next few years. However, even with all the excitement about Franklin's first class, it was right in line with the 20 percent clip Penn State had recruited at over the three classes before his arrival. It will take time before Penn State can match Ohio State and Michigan on the recruiting trail.
Wisconsin seems to be making some moves under new head coach Gary Andersen, thanks perhaps in part to the success of the former head coach. And that's not easy, because its state produces very little elite recruiting talent.
The two teams entering the league, Maryland and Rutgers, bring a similar level of talent, but the programs seem to be going in opposite directions. Rutgers' recruiting is plummeting. Maryland, meanwhile, has overcome ridiculous injuries on the field and made the best of it, and its recruiting is on the way up. Penn State's hiring of Franklin will make things tougher on the Terrapins in the D.C. area than Bill O'Brien did, though.
The ACC is a league with some heavy hitters and some real disappointments. The good thing is that nobody's fallen like Nebraska, Rutgers, or Cal have. All of the big two-year trends for ACC teams are positive. And Florida State winning a title might help to counteract some of the negative recruiting the league faces from its SEC counterparts, who occupy much of the same footprint.
We talk about the player development and scouting at Michigan State and Baylor, but Duke winning the ACC Coastal with zero blue-chips on its roster is something to behold. History says that's not sustainable, and while Duke is probably getting a higher quality of three-star than it used to get (something this measure is not designed to register), it's still not popular with top recruits. It is nowhere close to becoming Stanford East.
While Miami is a long way off from having a championship roster, its improvement in 2013-2014 compared to 2011-2012 is very impressive. Many believe Miami reached for players in the class of 2012 who were not Miami quality, simply to have a full roster in case the NCAA came down hard. With NCAA sanctions being extremely light, Miami's recruiting is on the way back up. In the 2011-2012 classes, Miami signed 40 players who were not blue-chips. In 2013-2014? Just 28.
Not everyone can be Texas A&M. Like Utah, Colorado, TCU, Missouri, and Nebraska, the move to a new conference has not yet had a quantifiable impact on recruiting for Pitt and Syracuse.
The hope is that Louisville will be more like Texas A&M. Unfortunately for the ACC, Charlie Strong's departure turned what would be likely been Louisville's best class in quite a while (off back-to-back great years) into its worst in a four-year stretch. Maryland, the team that Louisville is replacing, has more recruiting momentum. After signing just 38 players in the last two years, if Louisville were to surprise with a 10-win season in its first year in the ACC, it would be in position to capitalize and take a big, impactful class.
Mike London has the recruiting side of things down pat, but he could be running short on time to win.
Georgia Tech's defeatist recruiting is a drain on the ACC's talent. Elite players simply do not want to play in that offense. To have the ACC's only Georgia school forfeiting all of Atlanta's elite players to SEC schools is a major negative.
The Big 12 is in trouble. Other than the SEC, which is up four percentage points over the last two years, all other leagues are essentially flat. Then there is the Big 12, which is down an incredible seven percentage points. That's not a big deal for a single team, but when a league posts that number, it means that talent isn't being redistributed within the league. It's leaving for other conferences.
Texas and Oklahoma have to carry this league. There really are no other options. Oklahoma State and Baylor are nice, but them winning the league is a lot like Virginia Tech and Boston College winning divisions on a yearly basis upon entering the ACC -- it means that teams with next-level potential are not operating at close to peak efficiency. The Cowboys and Bears work well as second-tier programs bolstering the league's reputation for depth. If Texas A&M, the third or fourth-best program in the SEC West can consistently beat Texas and Oklahoma for prospects, then the future of the Big 12 is bleak. There is probably reason to believe that the two programs will rebound, however, as they have great tradition, facilities, and recruiting bases. The newness of A&M will wear off if recruits stop signing up to finish third or fourth in the SEC West.
Texas Tech, a program that used to compete with Texas A&M for recruits, has also taken a huge dive. Getting players to Lubbock is never easy, but it is somewhat surprising that the charismatic Kliff Kingsbury has not been able to find a boost. In 2011-2012, the Red Raiders signed 13 blue-chip prospects. In 2013-2014? Just one.
Part of the problem is that the Big 12 replaced Nebraska and Missouri with West Virginia and TCU. Both have struggled mightily in the league, and the Big 12 might have bought high on both programs. TCU is, at best, fifth in the buffet line for Texas recruits, and the state of West Virginia offers very little talent. Both have been exposed in making the jump to a tougher league.
Kansas State consistently outperforms its recruiting rankings by a huge margin. Why? Similar to other programs that do so, it knows its own system, wins on the margins, develops well, and finds hidden gems in the junior colleges with which Bill Snyder has decades of good relationships.
Top 10 mid-majors
The Bulls are outrecruiting every other mid-major. When will that start paying off? Kim Klement, USA Today
The top teams: Boise State, BYU, Marshall, Cincinnati, East Carolina, San Diego State, Houston, UConn, UCF, and USF.
Mid-majors rarely sign elite recruits. If we counted all the teams in all five non-power conferences (the American, Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West, and the Sun Belt, plus independents besides Notre Dame), that 1.6 percent blue-chip rate would shrink to near zero. In the 2014 class, only three teams in those five conferences signed four-stars, and only one each (Boise State, Marshall, and UCF).
Fans of these teams sometimes say that recruiting services ignore their players and that they are as good as any. One could point to counter-examples like Utah and TCU, which dominated the second circuit for years before joining BCS conferences and tanking.
What do you think? Which of those 11 blue-chip teams is most poised to change its fortunes, for better or worse? Who's best prepared to crash the upper echelon? Can any other conference ever hope to challenge the SEC's recruiting level? And which team without an elite roster could win a championship anyway?