The cost of competing in college football depends on your neighborhood. It takes a more prolific recruiting class to win in the Sun Belt than it does to win in the SEC.
This post isn’t about the best recruiting classes, strictly speaking. It’s about the best classes relative to each team’s conference — in other words, who has the nicest house on the block. In this sport, out-recruiting your peers is by far the simplest path to contention, even if “contention” means going to conference title games and not the Playoff.
How the conferences stacked up
This is the average national rank of the classes in every FBS league after National Signing Day, along with average four- and five-star recruits, all per the 247Sports Composite. These numbers are subject to change just a tad in the weeks, months, and even years to come, but at this point, they’re plenty fine to evaluate teams and trends.
- SEC — average class 18.5, average blue-chips 11.3
- Big 12 — average class 33, average blue-chips 4.6
- Big Ten — average class 35, average blue-chips 5.1
- Pac-12 — average class 38, average blue-chips 4.5
- ACC — average class 40.6, average blue-chips 3.6
- AAC — average class 87.9
- Conference USA — average class 89.2
- Mountain West — average class 97.3
- MAC — average class 104
- Sun Belt — average class 106.5
The only Group of 5 team to sign a blue-chip recruit was Boise State, which signed three. The Broncos have arguably the best mid-major class in the rankings era.
Here’s a four-year outlook from Bill Connelly, featuring weighted averages and national percentiles. Remember that rankings are still wiggling around somewhat.
The eight teams that did the best relative to their leagues in 2019
The first one, then, won’t be surprising.
1. Boise State (48.3 ranking spots better than average Mountain West team)
The Broncos are the most reliable “non-power” in part because they develop players well and win a lot of big games, but also because they recruit like gangbusters. They’ve put together a No. 49 class that so thoroughly laps their peers that it should further guarantee their ownership of the Mountain West Mountain for years to come. The involved four-stars are QB Hank Bachmeier (the No. 6 pro-style passer), possible linebacker Casey Kline (the No. 16 ATH), and Austin Griffin (the No. 1 JUCO tight end). All three come from California.
2. UL Lafayette (34.5 spots better than average Sun Belt team)
Former Nick Saban assistant Billy Napier is building the Ragin’ Cajuns into a serious Sun Belt contender, continuing by signing up 2019’s No. 71 class. The league’s West division is probably the worst in FBS, and ULL — which won it last year, in Napier’s first season — is poised to built a mini-dynasty there. Getting past App State, Troy, or whoever emerges from the other side of the league is still going to be a task. But recruiting at a solidly above-average AAC level is a hell of a good start if you’re trying to win the SBC.
3. Toledo (33 spots better than average MAC team)
The Rockets signed the No. 78 class. This is already the best program in the MAC, with a comfortably league-best No. 48 average S&P+ rating over the last five years. Jason Candle, who replaced Matt Campbell when Campbell left for Iowa State, has quietly continued to do a really good job. Toledo and Western Michigan have been the top two recruiters in the league, but Toledo has started to open up a talent gap on everyone with this class.
4. FAU (32.2 spots better than average Conference USA team)
The Owls’ No. 57 class is a nice feather in Lane Kiffin’s cap. After a great debut in 2017, his team declined badly in 2018. That he was able to convince so many solid players to #ComeToTheFAU suggests a quick bounce back is plenty possible.
5. UCF (31.8 spots better than average AAC team)
It pays to lose one game in two years and have one of the best stadium environments in the sport. UCF’s No. 56 class is a ways ahead of several Power 5 teams, and it’s just the latest establishing point for the Knights as the best program in their league. Hopefully, McKenzie Milton heals quickly and gets back to dominating for this team. But the Knights have masterfully converted a few great seasons into a long-term recruiting edge that’s going to outlast any one player (and maybe any number of coaches, too).
6. Oregon (1 spots, 7.5 blue-chips better than average Pac-12 team)
The Ducks, at No. 7 nationally, were the best recruiting team in California this year, as both USC and UCLA recruited well below their norms. Combine the Ducks cleaning up in one of the two talent-richest states in the union with the two teams in L.A. underperforming and Washington doing just OK (rankings-wise), and you’ve got a recipe for a rout. Oregon will get a good deal of 2019 hype with Justin Herbert back at QB, but the future beyond that is brighter. (I should have noted here off the top that Washington signing a smallish class contributed, too. The Huskies have a lot of quality but not much quantity, which factors into rankings.)
7. Clemson (30.6 spots, 9.4 blue-chips better than average ACC team)
Pretty soon, it’s time to sit down and have a serious talk about the non-Clemson ACC. (The Tigers finished at No. 10.)
8. Texas (30 spots, 12.4 blue-chips better than average Big 12 team)
The Big 12 has two prestige programs, and it should be a two-horse race most years. Oklahoma’s starting from a bit ahead, but this Longhorns class only makes it more likely that the two will have annual rematches in the Big 12 Championship. (So does Oklahoma coming in 10th on this list of biggest differences.)
At No. 3, it’s Texas’ second top-three class in a row. Last year’s was strongest in the secondary. This year’s is most loaded at receiver and the defensive front positions.
The six teams that did the worst relative to their leagues in 2019
1. Vanderbilt (39.5 spots, 11.5 blue-chips worse than average SEC team)
It’s not anything all that new, but Vandy’s even worse off now than it usually is. The SEC just had the best conference recruiting year in the rankings era, one in which most of its teams did somehow better than usual. But Vandy, which entered with a four-year recruiting ranking of 51, had the No. 57 class. When you’re Vandy, you can’t go backward while all your peers are charging forward. Derek Mason could be at serious firing risk in 2019, but unless his replacement’s name is “James Franklin,” the needle may not move that much.
2. UConn (36.1 spots worse than average AAC team)
The Huskies (No. 124) should probably not be playing FBS football, exhibit 1,008.
3. Charlotte (35.8 spots worse than average Conference USA team)
Give new coach Will Healy some time. This startup job has upside:
Charlotte is the rarest of jobs: a high-ceiling Group of 5 with no baggage, expectation, or obvious obstacles, with good facilities in a major metro in the South. That is an aspiring head coach’s dream and a vision for beleaguered vets too.
For now, the 49ers have the No. 125 class, but check back in a year.
4. Navy (35.1 spots worse than average AAC team)
The Mids (No. 123) are always going to recruit behind their conference’s pace, because they’re a service academy that runs the triple option. That’s not cause for concern on its own. But, they were legitimately bad in 2018, and another down year in 2019 would erode a lot of the good faith the program’s built up as one you should just trust to figure things out.
5. Texas Tech (34 spots, 4.5 blue-chips worse than average Big 12 team)
Tech typically recruits in the lower middle of the Big 12, and its typical struggles on the trail were likely exacerbated amid a coaching transition. Matt Wells still seems like a smart hire, and Kliff Kingsbury’s going to be better off in a league that has a draft.
6. Louisville (32.6 spots, 2.6 blue-chips worse than average ACC team)
The ACC’s bad recruiting year didn’t prevent Louisville from getting lapped by the field. The Cardinals finished at No. 73, but they were an incredible 117th before the February Signing Day. Bobby Petrino left Scott Satterfield a smoldering pile of ash. The good news is that if any coach can win quickly despite a talent shortcoming, it’s Satterfield.
7. Kansas (32 spots, 3.5 blue-chips worse than average Big 12 team)
KU is betting on Les Miles being able to recruit above the school’s standard by the sheer force of his personality. We’ll see how that goes in the long run, but this class is confirmation that it’s harder to recruit to Kansas than it is to LSU. Who knew?
8. Oregon State (29.1 spots, 4.5 blue-chips worse than average Pac-12 team)
The Beavers are going to stay doormats unless former Washington OC Johnathan Smith can pull many rabbits out of his hat. A No. 67 class is behind even the Beavs’ low four-year average of 59th. Maybe some of that’s attributable to Oregon’s good year, but then, the big L.A. teams won’t recruit this mediocrely forever. Where’s OSU’s pipeline that’s going to get this program to contention in the North? That is a rhetorical question.
Here’s a table you can play around with to see how your team fared.
In table form: the best and worst recruiters relative to their conferences
|School||Conference||Ranking||Ranking vs. conf. avg.|
|School||Conference||Ranking||Ranking vs. conf. avg.|
|Air Force||Mountain West||103||-5.7|
|Appalachian State||Sun Belt||101||5.5|
|Arkansas State||Sun Belt||92||14.5|
|Boise State||Mountain West||49||48.3|
|Coastal Carolina||Sun Belt||126||-19.5|
|Colorado State||Mountain West||86||11.3|
|Fresno State||Mountain West||100||-2.7|
|Georgia Southern||Sun Belt||121||-14.5|
|Georgia State||Sun Belt||105||1.5|
|Iowa State||Big 12||47||-14.0|
|Kansas State||Big 12||62||-29.0|
|Michigan State||Big Ten||30||5.0|
|New Mexico||Mountain West||116||-18.7|
|New Mexico State||Independent||117||-24.7|
|Ohio State||Big Ten||14||21.0|
|Oklahoma State||Big 12||37||-4.0|
|Penn State||Big Ten||13||22.0|
|San Diego State||Mountain West||95||2.3|
|San Jose State||Mountain West||120||-22.7|
|South Alabama||Sun Belt||112||-5.5|
|Texas State||Sun Belt||130||-23.5|
|Texas Tech||Big 12||67||-34.0|
|UL Lafayette||Sun Belt||72||34.5|
|UL Monroe||Sun Belt||128||-21.5|
|Utah State||Mountain West||89||8.3|
|West Virginia||Big 12||48||-15.0|