Four weeks into the season, Louisville looks everything like a national championship contender heading into its game at Clemson. The Cardinals are putting up ridiculous stats on offense, and quarterback Lamar Jackson is the Heisman front-runner. He’s currently responsible for 25 touchdowns, more than any entire team besides Michigan.
Any doubts about their status were erased when they destroyed Florida State two weeks ago. AP Poll voters agree, and Louisville sits at No. 3 in the rankings. Houston, another non-elite recruiter that enjoyed a rise thanks to clobbering a blue-blood (Oklahoma), sits at No. 6.
Under the hood, Louisville and Houston aren’t like most other national title contenders we’ve seen in the modern era. These teams don’t recruit like champions. Every team that has won a title in the recruiting ranking era has signed more blue-chippers (four- or five-stars) than non-blue-chippers. These are programs that routinely sign top-10 classes, such as Alabama or Ohio State.
That’s not Louisville. Last year, the Cardinals’ recruiting class signed two four-stars and ranked 38th in the 247Sports Composite. Over the last four years, Louisville has never signed a top-30 class, and its average recruiting rank has been 38th.
That number sells Louisville a little short, since it doesn’t include transfers. The Cardinals have added blue-chip-caliber players who started their careers at other schools, fortifying their roster. On the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, Louisville has the 30th-most talented roster, with 12 blue-chip players. But that’s 12 blue-chips and dozens of non-blue-chips.
That’s still not close to a championship blue-chip ratio.
Houston is even farther away. Per 247Sports, Houston has just eight blue-chip players, an overall talent ranking of 52nd. That’s below programs like Rutgers, Northwestern, and Duke.
So can either team keep this up?
Let’s take a closer look at the teams with similar recruiting profiles that made serious runs at national titles.
2015 Michigan State
Last year’s squad had 19 blue-chips (including a five-star), compared to 66 non-blue-chippers, signing classes in the low 20s and 30s over the previous several years. But the Spartans won the Big Ten, beating more talented Ohio State and Michigan squads, and even made the Playoff.
They also had Connor Cook, one of the best QBs in recent program history.
And sure, Michigan momentarily forgot how to punt.
Their talent disparity was on full display against Alabama, but their formula was more than good enough to contend for a national title.
Both came within a hair of a Playoff bid, and both finished in the AP top 10 at the end of the season.
From 2011-2014, neither signed a top-25 recruiting class, with most classes ranging from the high 20s to low 40s. Baylor signed 12 blue-chip players over that tenure, while TCU added nine.
Both had the benefit of outstanding coaching, outstanding quarterbacks who outperformed modest recruiting profiles, and favorable schedules. Baylor and TCU played in a Big 12 that wasn’t recruiting elite talent at the caliber of other power conferences, and neither played a team with superior talent in out-of-conference play.
While the Ducks recruited at a higher level than Louisville, TCU, or Baylor, they were still short of the blue-chip benchmark and never signed a top-10 class from 2011 through 2014 (their closest was a No. 12 class in 2011).
The Ducks still had plenty of elite recruit playmakers, like defensive end DeForest Buckner, defensive back Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, and running back Royce Freeman, but the star of the show was their three-star quarterback, a guy named Marcus Mariota, who would win the Heisman. Oregon made it to the national title game, before getting blasted by Ohio State and their bevy of blue-chippers at every position.
2011 Oklahoma State
The Cowboys were a loss to Iowa State away from playing in the BCS Championship. But from 2008 to 2011, OSU didn’t sign a class ranked higher than No. 25 and only signed 11 blue-chip players.
The Cowboys were buoyed in part by the outstanding play of quarterback Brandon Weeden, a former minor-league baseball player who exploded to become one of the best players in college football.
They were also strong in close games, as they beat No. 8 Texas A&M by a single point, No. 17 Kansas State by 7, and No. 4 Stanford in OT.
What does this tell us?
It’s true that only elite-recruiting programs have won national titles during this era, but a few programs that weren’t at that level have come close. Oregon made multiple national title games, and Oklahoma State came within a whisker of playing in one. Others like Mississippi State, Kansas State, South Carolina, and Iowa (and Louisville and Houston) have finished in the AP top 15.
The type of programs that achieve this level of success without elite recruiting tend to have a few things in common.
Virtually everybody had an exceptional quarterback. Louisville has Jackson, and Houston has Greg Ward Jr., who outdueled preseason Heisman contender Baker Mayfield.
Most teams had very strong coaching staffs (check), had good luck with injuries (check, so far), and most did not have to beat multiple teams with significantly superior talent.
Louisville certainly has enough talent to hang around the national title picture. Of the Cardinals’ remaining regular season games, only Clemson has significantly superior talent on paper.
And outside of Louisville and maybe South Florida in a hypothetical AAC title game, Houston won’t face a team with more talent, either.
Just because a team that doesn’t pass the Blue-Chip Ratio test hasn’t won a national title yet doesn’t mean it won’t happen, and this year, we have multiple teams with chances to do it.