The field for the third College Football Playoff is now set, and breakdowns from every angle possible are sure to follow. As SB Nation’s recruiting guru, I’ll be taking the recruiting angle.
Over the last decade-plus, each year’s national title has gone to a team that has signed more four- and five-star recruits over the previous four classes. I’ve dubbed that the “Blue-Chip Ratio,” and write about it every season.
This year, 13 of the 128 FBS teams made the cut, and three are in the Playoff: Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson.
Alabama, having signed 77 percent blue-chips, and Ohio State, 70 percent, are the two most talented teams in college football, according to the recruiting data.
The Tide do this by dominating in-state recruiting over rival Auburn and any program that might try to come in. But Alabama only produces about 10 such players on a yearly basis, so Alabama must go out of state to fill its talent coffers, doing well in Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida. Alabama also cherry picks unique national prospects and does a great job with junior college players, particularly from the Mississippi circuit along the defensive line.
The most striking thing about this Alabama team is its imposing front seven, which it used to, among other things, shut down LSU’s Leonard Fournette without even having to load up the box often. That shows up in the recruiting rankings as well. The Tide have 20 former four- or five-star recruits among their defensive linemen and linebackers.
That's as many blue-chip recruits in the front seven as semifinal opponent Washington has on its entire team.
Alabama’s talent is why I wrote, back in August, that the Tide could win it all with true freshman Jalen Hurts at QB.
The inability of any team to block the Tide so far is probably the biggest reason why sportsbooks are offering 3/1 odds on the field, while bettors looking to take Alabama must lay $260 to net a profit of $100. Seriously.
Ohio State, at 70 percent blue chips, is plenty talented, as well, but is very young. The Buckeyes have a dominant defense, but many of their better players are sophomores and juniors, and it’s safe to say Ohio State has probably arrived a year early. But so did its 2014 title team.
The Buckeyes assemble their talent by dominating recruiting in the state of Ohio and the Midwest, but also but also by cherry picking Florida, where Meyer once coached, and Texas, where QB J.T. Barrett played his prep ball.
Speaking of Barrett, if Ohio State is to get past Clemson, the QB must play better. Against winning FBS teams, Barrett was 70th in yards/attempt. In Ohio State’s last two games, Michigan State and Michigan shut down Ohio State’s offense by disrespecting its receivers and loading up against the run.
The result? Barrett was a combined 25-54 (46 percent) for 210 yards (3.9/attempt), with a QB rating of 81.
The Buckeye’s young, talented receivers must win one-on-one battles, and Barrett must be more accurate.
Clemson is close, at 52 percent, and has a generational QB talent in Deshaun Watson.
The state of South Carolina only produces about seven or eight top prospects per year, so like Alabama, Clemson must go out of state, namely to Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida. That includes stars like Watson (Georgia), and receiver Deon Cain (Florida).
Similar to previous national champs, the Tigers have some truly special defensive line talents in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
The Tigers have the Playoff’s best set of receiving targets, with Mike Williams, Cain, Jordan Leggett, Artavis Scott, and Ray Ray McCloud.
The question for the Tigers is the running game, which has not been as effective this season, despite running back Wayne Gallman’s decision to return to school.
Part of this, though, might be that Watson is throwing the ball more, perhaps trying to showcase for the NFL or protect his body. If history is any guide, that could soon change. Last year, over the last four games, Watson carried the ball 21, 24, 24, and 20 times. This year, he exceeded 14 carries just thrice, but those were in Clemson’s biggest games, against Louisville, Florida State, and Virginia Tech.
It would not be a surprise for Clemson to run Watson a lot more against Ohio State, and, if it reaches it, in the title game.
And then there’s Cinderella. Washington has a blue-chip score of just 26 percent, less than half of the other three teams in the Playoff and just a third of Alabama’s.
Chris Petersen is doing a great job of building at Washington, but this is still a fairly young team. And it is several years away from having national-title talent.
Whether it can get there is a question worth exploring more at a later date, because the Pacific Northwest does not produce many elite players. But things are absolutely trending in the right direction, as Washington’s 2017 class has nine blue-chip recruits and just five lesser-rated players.
The Huskies played just one team over the 50 percent level this year, USC, and got physically dominated at home. It also hurts that Washington, because of its recruiting, does not have great depth. That makes replacing injured defensive starters Joe Mathis and Azeem Victor that much tougher.
Washington is an 8/1 underdog against Alabama in the early betting markets.
The Huskies are extremely well coached, and do a great job of not beating themselves with turnovers and dumb plays, but can they go out and beat an excellent team?
Maybe next year?
As someone who preaches the importance of recruiting rankings, I want to see the best recruiting teams win. This year looks great for the trend of the champion hitting the blue-chip ratio threshold yet again. In a sport with practice time limited by rule, coaching matters — just not as much as talent.