In 2014, I wrote about how signing more four- and five-star recruits than two- and three-star recruits in the previous four recruiting classes has been a prerequisite to winning the national title over the last decade-plus. I called this the Blue-Chip Ratio.
In 2015, I discussed whether the College Football Playoff could increase the chance of a team falling short of the standard and still winning a title, concluding it probably makes it tougher, since chances are the non-super recruiter would have to defeat two awesome rosters consecutively.
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.
And yet, despite 80 percent of FBS teams having nearly zero shot to win the National Championship, the sport is still wildly popular.
So how’s the Ratio look for 2016?
(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.)
The national champion will almost certainly be from this group:
The 13 teams to reach the blue-chip threshold this year are Alabama, USC, Ohio State, LSU, Notre Dame, Florida State, Michigan, Auburn, UCLA, Texas A&M, Georgia, Clemson, and Texas.
This list includes schools that have won 12 of the last 14 national championships (Florida won the other two and met the mark at the time; it’s at 39 percent for 2016 after a recent coaching change). It also includes eight other national title game appearances in that span.
Are there any major surprises on this list? Not to serious recruitniks.
Alabama clearly belongs. Ohio State is incredibly young, but it is hard to discount that level of talent. LSU, Notre Dame and Florida State are loaded.
UCLA, Georgia, Texas A&M and maybe Texas might stand out to some as surprises because of their relative lack of recent on-field success.
After National Signing Day, it looked like Texas would drop off the list, but adding a handful of top former Baylor signees pushed the Longhorns back up to 50 percent.
Some schools on the list above help to establish that this level of recruiting is necessary, but not sufficient, to win a title.
Here’s how the entire Power 5 ranks, including selected non-powers who’ve signed at least one four- or five-star in the last four years.
Let’s look at each conference.
The Big 12 and Pac-12
There is an interesting dynamic in both. The team in each that has recruited the most talent on Signing Day isn’t seen as the best bet to win.
In the Big 12, that favorite is Oklahoma. The Sooners won the Big 12 and made the Playoff in 2015 before getting smashed by Clemson, a team that does recruit at the title level. Oklahoma sits at 36 percent, good for second in the Big 12, but has been recruiting better in recent years after taking a dip with the 2013 and 2014 classes. Is having an elite QB in Baker Mayfield and a good, but not great, roster enough to break through? History says no.
TCU is also a trendy Playoff pick, and the Horned Frogs have been improving rapidly on the recruiting trail, signing more four- and five-stars in the most recent class than in all of the previous three combined. But those previous three classes still count, and a Blue-Chip Ratio of 13 percent is probably far too low to win the biggest prize.
With the exit of Baylor as a top recruiting threat, I’ll be interested to see how consolidation of talent at the top changes the dynamics in the league. It could mean two or three extra blue-chip players each for Texas, Oklahoma and maybe TCU. That’s a big deal for a league desperate to field an elite team, as opposed to several very good ones. Texas playing to the level it recruits would help even more.
Out West, this is the last year that USC can say it is being seriously impacted by NCAA sanctions, as the Trojans’ 12-man class of 2013 is still on the books. And can UCLA really contend for a national championship after all it lost to the draft and attrition?
In the North Division, Stanford, Oregon, and Washington project as strong teams, but none has managed to sign more than 33 percent blue-chips over the last four years. Stanford is excellent at retention and development, Oregon has a unique scheme, and Washington coach Chris Petersen is considered among the best, but this division feels like it has a trio of very good teams, not a trio of title contenders.
Complicating this problem is that the Pac-12 lacks pushover teams. That means even more losses for very good teams, particularly with the league playing a nine-game conference schedule.
The ACC has two title contenders in Clemson and Florida State, plus a talented Louisville that many have in the top 20. And it made four hires that were widely praised: Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, Mark Richt at Miami, Dino Babers at Syracuse and Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia.
The data shows how much work must be done for those coaches to reach their top goals. Miami is multiple elite classes away from having enough talent to contend for a national title. Virginia Tech’s talent level has slipped precipitously in recent years; Frank Beamer and Co. might have been squandering talent a few years ago, but the Hokies simply haven’t had many elite signees to waste in recent years.
I also find it interesting that the Atlantic Division has the ACC’s two best and three worst recruiters while the Coastal teams are clustered in the middle.
The SEC is still the best conference. It wins titles and produces the most draft picks.
And the reason is recruiting. Five of the 13 teams meeting or exceeding the 50-percent standard are from the SEC. No other league has more than two.
It says something when more than half of the league has signed a higher percentage of blue-chips over the last four cycles than Ole Miss, a team best known for its recent recruiting.
The new darling seems to be Tennessee. Is Tennessee good enough to break through? Butch Jones is known much more for his recruiting than his coaching. But if the Vols do win the SEC East, they are likely to meet a team from the West (Alabama, LSU) that has recruited considerably better.
The Big Ten
It feels like ages since Urban Meyer lamented the lack of elite talent in the Big Ten.
His new complaint might be that it is all clustered in one division. The average Blue-Chip Ratio in the East Division is 30; in the West it is just 6.
As if Ohio State and Michigan weren’t enough, Penn State has been recruiting pretty well. Michigan State, the team with arguably the best development and on-field coaching in the league has been rapidly improving; turning wins into more talent could fuel more wins.
Poor Maryland, Indiana, and Rutgers. If only they could somehow get into the Big Ten West.
The Group of Five
Houston is the team from the Group of 5 receiving most of the preseason love, and its recruiting justifies much of the hype. The Cougars have been the best recruiting team outside the Power 5, based on the Ratio, and signing four blue-chips last year is a prime reason why coach Tom Herman is being considered for many of the elite jobs in the country.
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.