We already know the next national champ will come from this group
Good morning, or good whenever you’re reading this newsletter. Maybe that’s the afternoon. Or the evening. Or you got up at 2 AM to change a diaper and now you can’t go back to sleep. Whenever you read it, if you like it, maybe tell some friends? I deeply appreciate every reader who has tweeted nice things about this project, or encouraged others to subscribe. Those growing subscriber counts keep me pouring through journals and books at 11 at night to give you an email that you won’t automatically delete.
Let’s talk about college football, shall we? I promise we won’t talk about Kelly Bryant’s championship ring situation. We’ll leave that story to your dad’s Facebook friends.
Your national champ will come from this group
One of my favorite contributions to the college football discourse to come from my Vox Media colleagues has been the Blue Chip Ratio, pioneered by Bud Elliott.
The Blue Chip Ratio theory tells us that only teams who sign at least 50% blue-chip (consensus four or five star) recruits will win a national title. Every year, Bud manually combs through all the recruiting data, and tracks which schools hit that metric, which comes come close, and who is falling away.
Without looking it up, I imagine you could probably guess most of the Blue Chip Ratio schools, but maybe not all of them. Bud broke down the full list in the latest edition of the Read Option, the college football newsletter from my pals at Banner Society.
If you have room in your heart and your inbox for two college football newsletters, you should absolutely also subscribe to the Read Option. If you don’t…screw those rat bastards. Just read Extra Points.
Please don’t show that paragraph to Jason Kirk.
Anyway, I can’t link to the full text here, but your 2019 Blue Chip Ratio teams are:
- Ohio State 81%
- Alabama 80%
- Georgia 79%
- LSU 64%
- Florida State 61%
- Clemson 60%
- USC 60%
- Penn State 60%
- Michigan 60%
- Texas 60%
- Oklahoma 60%
- Auburn 58%
- Washington 54%
- Notre Dame 54%
- Florida 53%
- Miami 51%
Note, this is just telling us which teams recruited blue chip kids. It doesn’t account for transfers (in or out), folks who sign but didn’t qualify academically, etc. I’d wager the actual blue chip percentage of kids on the roster might look slightly different, but not by much.
Now, college football doesn’t even pretend to be an egalitarian sport. That most schools don’t have a chance from the word Go should not be a surprise, and that’s before we even get to factors like playoff selection criteria. You don’t need to email me, UCF fans.
We can also probably eliminate some of these schools from national title contention right off the bat. USC seems more likely to start the season 1-4 than make the playoff, for example, and Florida State is much closer to a seven- or eight-win team than a 10+ team team this year. Trying to guess what Auburn will be, ever, is an impossibility. For it is written, no man shall know the hour of the return of Christ, and so shall it be with Auburn football. They will remain a mystery. Maybe they win ten games! Maybe they win three! Maybe they’ll pivot to video! Only the Lord knows.
It’s worth pointing out that you don’t need to be a Blue Chip Ratio team to potentially make the playoff. Michigan State wasn’t, and neither was Oregon. A team with several blue chips, a great coach, and perhaps either a really good QB or a really good pass rush (or both) could still crack the field. This year, maybe that’s Utah, or Oregon, or maaaaaaybe somebody else. But to do that and then beat two teams, who almost certainly have more talent, to win the title? Probably not going to happen.
It’s interesting to me that this is a relatively static club. Only so many schools have the geography, budget, history, admissions flexibility, etc. to sign this many elite kids. Real life isn’t NCAA 14…you can’t just automatically win your way to progressively better recruits. Over the last few years, UCLA has fallen out of this group, and Oregon, Texas A&M and Tennessee are within shouting distance of joining. But it’s hard to think of many other schools that have the potential of getting to this level.
Some might argue that’s a bad thing, since it kills any chance of parity in the sport. Of course, parity in college football has been a historical aberration, rather than the norm, over the last 150 years, but short of decreasing the scholarship limit, I’m not sure how you’d legislate a more equal distribution of recruits. That’s a different newsletter.
At the end of the day, I think if you define your college football experience as just the race for the national title, you’re going to miss out on most of what makes the sport great. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma or Ohio State will probably win it all. That group will probably account for three of the four playoff spots. But there’s going to be a lot of fun everywhere else too.
Who overachieves the most with their recruiting?
There’s a strong relationship between recruiting and wins. Teams that sign numerous four star players usually beat teams that sign a batch of three stars. Teams that sign lots of three stars usually beat teams full of two stars.
But recruiting rankings, while predictive, are not gospel. Players flunk out of school or get kicked off the team. Maybe they gain weight but retain quickness, or change positions, or just get excellent coaching. And great coaches can recruit certain kinds of players to particular systems and regularly beat teams with superior athletes.
The folks at CougCenter put together a table that calculates how well every team in the country performed against their recruiting rankings. Washington State, led by Air Raid loving Mike Leach, would be an excellent example of a school that has managed to enjoy on the field successes with comparatively marginal recruits.
Other schools from 2018 that jumped out would include Syracuse, Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky, although schools like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State still ranked high on the list. Army, App State and Troy were some of the top schools to win despite their recruiting in the G5, while BYU, Colorado State and San Jose State were near the bottom.
This isn’t a perfect analysis, since I don’t think it exactly adjusts for schedule, but looking at the sorts of teams who overachieved across multiple seasons, you generally find programs with very good head coaches who can recruit to a specific identity. With Iowa, you know you’re not going to have as athletic linebacking or wide receiver units, but you know you can get and develop offensive linemen better than most schools in the country, so you can run power on people to death. Syracuse, Army and App State fall into similar boats.
There are lots of ways to win lots of college football games, and not every school can win every single way. How individual programs try to overcome their weaknesses, either in recruiting, money, scheme, etc. is one of the most interesting storylines in the entire sport.
Let’s close out this week by kicking the tires on a great college football debate.
One of the great inspirations for Extra Points is my favorite college football podcast, Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody. And a segment from the most recent episode brings up a particularly interesting question to me.
Host Steven Godfrey asked his guest, Richard Johnson, if he’d rather be the head coach at Colorado State or UNLV. I was listening to the segment in my car and nearly audibly said “oh, Colorado State, duh”, but before I could even verbalize the thought in my head, Richard so rudely interrupted my inner monologue by emphatically arguing for UNLV.
The case for UNLV as a G5 program with big potential is not dissimilar from that of a few other “sleeping giants” in college football. To paraphrase both Richard’s case, and others I’ve seen about UNLV, the appeal is based on the city. Las Vegas is a top 30 metro area in the US (bigger than Columbus, Austin or Nashville!) and while the growth curve has slowed a little relative to earlier in this decade, it could surpass even more metros in size over the 2020s. UNLV is about to share a massive, awesome new NFL stadium with the Raiders, in what should be an incredible upgrade over their old digs. They have one of the best HS football factories, Bishop Gorman, in the same city. And hey, how hard should it really be to convince 18 year olds to spend a few years in Las Vegas?
If you squint, the broad case for UNLV isn’t that different from that of say, Georgia State, or Charlotte, two other programs that some in college football are bullish about.
I understand those arguments. I really do! But man, I am skeptical.
For one, UNLV is a hard job. Guess how many times UNLV has finished with an S&P+ ranking in the national top 50? Twice, and both of those times were before 1987. They’ve made four bowl games, ever. Since 1995, their best finish in S&P+ was 90th.
There are lots of reasons for that. Even with Bishop Gorman, Nevada doesn’t produce a ton of great high school talent yet. The athletic department has historically trailed peer institutions in the facility race. And in a city where most folks are transplants, and with a bevy of other distractions, actually getting folks to care is going to be difficult!
Also, I’ll just say this, playing in an NFL stadium when you aren’t an NFL team is only cool for a few seasons. If you’re a power program that can sell tickets, like Miami or Pitt, then it’s tolerable, but not great. But if you’re a G5 team, playing in a stadium with 25,000+ empty seats is a miserable experience. I’ve watched Tulane in the Superdome. Ask UAB or USF fans about what playing in a stadium that’s too big for you is like. It makes building stuff really hard.
Compare that to Colorado State, a school with some recent success (five bowls in seven seasons, including a 10-win campaign in 2014), a cool town, a new, appropriately sized stadium, and some actual fan support…I’d take the Rams.
The point of this wasn’t specifically to gas up Colorado State or take shots at UNLV. But I think it’s worth thinking about the reasons that proverbial sleeping giant is asleep! The programs that get talked up because of a perceived potential demographic advantage, including some power conference teams (Rutgers, Maryland, North Carolina, Arizona State, etc), don’t historically have great wake-up rates.
My working theory? I think fan support is actually more important than pure location. Fans who actually care about your program will demand accountability from your athletic department. They’ll help fundraise and ensure you have at least minimal facility needs taken care of. They’ll give you a home field advantage. They’ll create a reason for media to care about your program. Geographic proximity to potential recruits, or television market, or location in a cool city…these things matter less, in my humble opinion, if they’re not translating to fans.
Class mobility in college football is really rare, and usually requires a ton of money. But if I had to guess which school had the best chance of making a leap forward, I wouldn’t pick UNLV or Georgia State or UTSA or Tulane. I think I’d pick Old Dominion. Not only do they enjoy some of those population and recruiting location advantages that others potentially may enjoy, but they’ll also have a remodeled stadium, one that should be close to filled with fans who are already invested in the program.
But that’s only a guess. Maybe you feel differently. And if you do, maybe drop me a line.
Thanks again for your support of Extra Points. Questions, comments, business requests, or missives on why actually,,,,Utah State is the next TEAM OF THE FUTURE should be sent to [email protected], or @MattSBN on Twitter dot com.