Who Can Win a National Title In 2020?

Since 1996 every team that has won an undisputed national title except for Oklahoma in 2000 has had at least two top ten national recruiting classes in the four years before a title. So while signing a top ten recruiting class doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to win a national title — indeed, there are plenty of teams that don’t — for 23 of the past 24 years, you can’t win a title without at least two top ten recruiting classes.

And instead of becoming less of a factor, recruiting seems to matter more in the playoff era. Indeed, every champion from the past 12 years with the exception of Auburn in 2010 and Clemson in 2016 has had at least three top ten recruiting classes in the four years before it won a title.

Every year there are tons of Tweets about how “stars don’t matter,” and random social media examples of two and three star athletes who have become stars in the NFL. Sure, stars may not matter for individual players — that is, being a five star doesn’t guarantee that a specific player will be a high draft pick — but the teams that sign the most four and five stars are typically the best in the country. That’s because recruiting is essentially a game of probability. the more top players you get into your program the more chances you have to develop elite first round talent. Nearly half of all five stars will be drafted. Around one percent of all two stars will be drafted. All things being equal, the more four and five stars your team signs, the better they’ll be. (If you want an in depth analysis of why recruiting matters, check out what Stu Mandel wrote several years ago.)

What’s more, with all the recruiting competition and the focus being brought to bear on top recruits from a variety of competing services, arguably recruiting analysis is becoming even better each year. Indeed, the past nine champions have had four consecutive top 16 classes in the four years before they won titles.

So how have the national title teams recruited since 1996, here’s the data (A reader provided me with the recruiting data prior to 2002 based on spreadsheets he kept. Gotta love the South. The rest of our rankings are based on the Rivals data early on and then the 24/7 recruiting class composite rankings in the past several years to ensure the most consensus top ten possible):

1996 Florida (#6 in 1993, #2 in 1995)

1997 Nebraska/Michigan (Nebraska #5 in 1995 and number #9 in 1996 Michigan: #4 in 1994, #7 in 1995, #8 in 1996, #4 in 1997)

1998 Tennessee (#7 in 1998, #5 in 1997, #3 in 1996)

1999 Florida State (#5 in 1998, #1 in 1997, #5 in 1996)

2000 Oklahoma (#13 in 2000, and #25 in both 1997 and 1998 Rivals) *OU is the only program without a top ten class to win the title in Rivals history. But it did have 3 top 25 classes

2001 Miami (#2 in 2001, #9 in 2000, #8 in 1999)

2002 Ohio State (#7 in 2002, #4 in 2000, #2 in 1999)

2003 LSU/USC (LSU #1 class in 2003, #4 in 2001 USC #3 in 2003, #14 in 2000, #21 in 2001)

2004 USC (#3 class in 2003, #1 class in 2004)

2005 Texas (#1 class in 2002, #15 class in 2003 with only 18 recruits, which averaged the highest star rating in country, #18 class in 2004 — only signed 15 players.) If Texas had signed 20 players in either of these classes, they would have ranked in the top five both years. The #1 class in 2002 was simply too large, with over 30 players).

2006 Florida (#2 in 2003, #10 in 2004, #2 in 2006)

2007 LSU (#1 in 2003, #1 in 2004, #7 in 2006, #4 in 2007)

2008 Florida (#2 in 2006, #1 in 2007, #3 in 2008)

2009 Alabama (#10 in 2007, #1 in 2008, #1 in 2009)

2010 Auburn (#10 in 2006, #7 in 2007, #4 in 2010) Auburn was #20 in 2008 and #19 in 2009

2011 Alabama (#1 in 2008, #1 in 2009, #5 in 2010, #1 in 2011)

2012 Alabama (#1 in 2009, #5 in 2010, #1 in 2011, #1 in 2012)

2013 Florida State (#7 in 2009, #10 in 2010, #2 in 2011, #6 in 2012, #10 in 2013)

2014 Ohio State (#11 in 2011, #4 in 2012, #2 in 2013, #3 in 2014)

2015 Alabama (#1 in 2012, #1 in 2013, #1 in 2014, #1 in 2015)

2016 Clemson (#14 in 2013, #13 in 2014, #4 in 2015, #6 in 2016)

2017 Alabama (#1 in 2014, #1 in 2015, #1 in 2016 #1 in 2017)

2018 Clemson (#4 in 2015, #6 in 2016, #16 in 2017 (but they only had 14 scholarships) #8 in 2018)

2019 LSU (#2 in 2016, #7 in 2017, #15 in 2018, #5 in 2019)

Add all this up and the past 24 national champions have averaged 3 top ten classes in the four years before they won a title.

Interestingly, and perhaps this makes sense because you have to win two tough games in a four team playoff, every team that has won the playoff, with the exception of Clemson in 2016, has had at least three top ten classes in the four years before they won the title. And that year's Clemson team had four top 14 classes, which is pretty close to four top ten classes.

Indeed, no team that has won a national title in the playoff era has ever finished lower than 16 in the recruiting class rankings, 15 when they've signed a full class.

So now that the 2020 recruiting classes are (virtually) complete, which teams have two or more top ten recruiting classes in the four years before the start of the 2020 season?

Well, the past 24 years of recruiting data suggests your national champion will be one of these 13 teams:

4 top ten classes: Alabama, Georgia

3 top ten classes: Ohio State, LSU, Clemson, Oklahoma, Texas  

2 top ten classes: Auburn, Michigan, USC, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Florida 

So if you want to place some wagers on who is going to win the 2020 national title, it will almost certainly be one of these 13 schools. (And, to be fair, probably one of the seven schools with either three or four top ten classes).

So do the odds market agree with our analysis here? Almost perfectly.

Here are FoxBet's 2020 title odds (I have bolded the teams that fit our title criteria and, no surprise, they are 13 of the top 15 most likely teams to win the 2020 title according to Fox Bet):

Clemson +215 (3 top ten classes)

Ohio State +300 (3 top ten classes)

Alabama +550 (4 top ten classes)

LSU +750 (3 top ten classes)

Georgia +1000 (4 top ten classes)

Florida +2000 (2 top ten classes)

Notre Dame +2500 (2 top ten classes)

Oklahoma +2800 (3 top ten classes)

Penn State +3500 (The Nittany Lions barely miss our criteria: 2017: 15 2018: 6 2019: 12 2020: 15)

Texas +4000 (3 top ten classes)

Wisconsin +4500 (The Badgers last four class rankings: 39, 45, 29, and 25. Our data tells us, they have no chance.)

USC +5000 (2 top ten classes)

Texas A&M +5000 (2 top ten classes)

Michigan +5500 (2 top ten classes)

Auburn +6000 (2 top ten classes)

Based entirely on recruiting class rankings the best value here is probably Georgia at 10-1, since they have four straight top three recruiting classes. (The Bulldogs have finished third, first, second, and first in the past four years. Based on recruiting class rankings Georgia will be the most talented college football team in the country in 2020.) The best longshot value play is probably Texas, since the Longhorns have finished third, third and ninth in the past three years. Based on our rankings, Texas should be more talented than Oklahoma in 2020.

Regardless of who wins a title, one thing is clear, if you're still one of the people arguing recruiting class rankings don't matter, you might as well be arguing the earth is flat too.

Written by
Clay Travis is the founder of the fastest growing national multimedia platform, OutKick, that produces and distributes engaging content across sports and pop culture to millions of fans across the country. OutKick was created by Travis in 2011 and sold to the Fox Corporation in 2021. One of the most electrifying and outspoken personalities in the industry, Travis hosts OutKick The Show where he provides his unfiltered opinion on the most compelling headlines throughout sports, culture, and politics. He also makes regular appearances on FOX News Media as a contributor providing analysis on a variety of subjects ranging from sports news to the cultural landscape. Throughout the college football season, Travis is on Big Noon Kickoff for Fox Sports breaking down the game and the latest storylines. Additionally, Travis serves as a co-host of The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show, a three-hour conservative radio talk program syndicated across Premiere Networks radio stations nationwide. Previously, he launched OutKick The Coverage on Fox Sports Radio that included interviews and listener interactions and was on Fox Sports Bet for four years. Additionally, Travis started an iHeartRadio Original Podcast called Wins & Losses that featured in-depth conversations with the biggest names in sports. Travis is a graduate of George Washington University as well as Vanderbilt Law School. Based in Nashville, he is the author of Dixieland Delight, On Rocky Top, and Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.