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Here Are the 13 Teams Who Can Win a College Football Title in 2021

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 24 of the past 25 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 in the past 13 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. (Each of those schools had two top ten classes.)

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 star athletes your team signs, the better they’ll be.

What’s more, with all the recruiting competition and the focus being brought to bear on top recruits from a variety of competing services, recruiting analysis is arguably becoming even better each year. Indeed, the past ten 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 class rankings 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)

2020 Alabama (#1 in 2017, #5 in 2018, #1 in 2019, #2 in 2020)

Add all this up and the past 25 national champions have averaged over 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, in the four years before they won the title.

So now that the 2021 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? Check it out below. There is, of course, two major caveats about this list in 2021: COVID has allowed rosters to burgeon even more substantially, meaning many more fifth year seniors will be on teams this coming fall than in past years. Transfers are also occurring more frequently, meaning top talent can move from one team to another much more easily than in past seasons. That means the talent level in college football may be even more stacked in 2021 than it has been in past years.

The past 25 years of recruiting data suggests your 2021 national champion will almost certainly be one of these 13 teams:

4 top ten classes: Alabama, Georgia, Clemson

3 top ten classes: Ohio State, LSU, Texas, Texas A&M

2 top ten classes: Oklahoma, Michigan, USC, Notre Dame, Florida, Oregon

So if you want to place some wagers on who is going to win the 2021 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? Yep, especially at the top, where Iowa State, which hasn’t even had a top 40 class in any year in the previous four, is the only school to parachute into the title conversation without racking up a bevy of top ten caliber recruiting talent.

Here are FanDuel’s 2021 title odds:

Alabama +250
Clemson +400
Georgia +450
Ohio State +600
Oklahoma +800
Iowa State +2000
Florida +4000
Oregon +4000
USC +4000
Penn State +5000
Texas +5000
Texas A&M +5000
LSU +6000
Miami +6000
North Carolina +6000
Notre Dame +6000
Wisconsin +6000
Michigan +8000

Not surprisingly, all 13 of our most talented teams are included in the top 18 teams most likely to win the title.

So if you still have a buddy who claims recruiting class rankings don’t matter? Show him this data. He’s an imbecile.

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.

6 Comments

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  1. It’ll be either Alabama or Clemson again. Ohio State will be up there as a potential spoiler and Georgia to be the #4 to be the warmup chud…Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, and Michigan will once again be way overrated and probably lose 2-3 games. Meet the new boss same as the old boss.

  2. Facts do not lie. I will say that correlation isn’t necessarily causation. I’m not going to be the guy that says it doesn’t matter it clearly does. I do think once you get past the top 4/5 classes you can put them in a pile. There is little difference between 7 and 20. I think there is something to be said for some of the rankings to be skewed by the services toward the larger fan bases to help sell premium content, ie making a couple of adjustments to bump Tennessee to a top15 class instead of where it probably should have been during the Pruitt era 40th.

    The best coaches at the best programs tend to get the best players. Right now it’s not hard to rank recruits. Is Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, UGA, Florida, LSU, or Texas A&M interested in them? If yes automatically a 3.5 star, then see how many of the top teams are interested to see if they are 4 or 5 star.

  3. Look at UNC breaking into the conversation. Looks like they’re more of a football school of late. I wonder if the same formula holds true for NCAA basketball championship teams? I’m sure top recruiting classes have tremendous impact there too.

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