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Since 1998 every team that has won a national title except for Oklahoma in 2000 has had at least two top ten national signing 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 most of the past generation, you can’t win a title without at least two top ten recruiting classes. More interestingly, every champion from the past nine years with the exception of Auburn in 2010 has had at least three top ten recruiting classes in the four years before it won a title.
I used Rivals recruiting rankings because the class rankings database is available going back to 2002. Then I tried to Google search to find class rankings for the teams before the database existed. (For instance, I was able to find that 1998 champion Tennessee’s 1994 class ranked second overall, that its 1996 class ranked third and that its 1997 class ranked fifth.) I stopped at 1998 because the data was hard to come by and because my assumption — which I couldn’t verify through online research — was that Nebraska’s title teams didn’t rank that highly when it came to recruiting. That’s because Nebraska under Tom Osborne ran a unique attack that wasn’t reliant upon the same kind of players that the rest of the top teams were recruiting. If anyone has access to old recruiting class rankings, I’d love to be more specific with my data from before 2002.
I went back and did this research because of all the Tweets about how “stars don’t matter,” and random Twitter 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.
While much was made of the fact that no five stars played in this year’s Super Bowl, there were 15 five stars playing in college football’s title game. Put simply, stars matter. And with all the recruiting competition and the focus being brought to bear on top players, arguably recruiting analysis is becoming even better. Each of the last four champions, Alabama twice, Florida State, and Ohio State have had four consecutive top ten classes (Ohio State’s 2009 class was a composite top ten) in the year before they won a national title.
So how have the title teams recruited in the BCS era. Here’s the best data I could cobble together. If you have additional information on the older classes, I’d love to see it:
(UPDATE: One of our readers, Larry Smith, has stored Rivals recruiting rankings going all the way back to 1993, the first year they ever existed. It turns out, even Nebraska recruited well.)
1995 Nebraska (#15 in 1993,#5 in 1995)
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 highest star rating in country, #18 class in 2004 — only signed 15) If Texas had signed 20 players in either of these classes, they would have ranked in the top five. 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)
As you can see, football success has followed recruiting success.
Add all this up and the past twenty national champions have averaged 2.8 top ten classes in the four years before they won a title. So now that the 2015 recruiting classes are complete, which teams have two or more top ten recruiting classes in the four years before the start of the 2015 season? Recent history suggests your national champion will be one of these eleven teams:
4 top ten classes: Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, and Auburn
3 top ten classes: USC, Florida, and LSU
2 top ten classes: Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan and Texas A&M
The next time someone tells you stars don’t matter, just reply: You’re right, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that all but one team that’s won a national title since 1995 has had at least two top ten classes in the four years before its title.