Quantifying the Impact of Recruiting on BCS Champions over the Last Decade

Amy DaughtersFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 06:  The Coaches' Trophy is seen at media day for the BCS National Championship at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 6, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  LSU and Alabama will play in the BCS National Championship on January 9th.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Though some people say defense wins championships, what’s even more effective is signing the most talented athletes in the nation.

Yes, you’ve heard it all before, and though sayings, such as, “Recruiting is the backbone of college football,” are as cliché as it gets, the worn-out quips are based on rock-solid fact.

To prove this point, we’ve analyzed the team recruiting rankings for the last 10 BCS champions, according to Sports Illustrated and Yahoo's Rivals.com.

The results?

Well, they make national signing day look more important than a goal-line fumble late in the fourth quarter.


The Five-Year Plan

The common recruiting thread that links the last 10 BCS champions are five successful recruiting campaigns leading to the national title year.

Here’s what it looks like.

BCS Champs Since 2003: Class Recruiting Rankings
5-Years Out4-Years Out3-Years Out2-Years Out1-Year Out
2013Florida St.7102610
Sports Illustrated/Rivals

The message is clear: Recruiting is not a one-and-done process.  It takes time to build a solid base and reap the rewards.

To illustrate, check out what JC Shurburtt of 247Sports observed about Florida State this November.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is a difference-maker for sure and deserves the credit he gets for taking the Seminoles from very good to dominant this season.  A closer look at the Seminoles’ roster, though, reveals an outstanding supporting cast built on a foundation of roster-building four years in the making.

Based on the numbers, the average recruiting ranking for the last 10 champions is 7.4.  

Furthermore, only four times since 2003 has a BCS champion had a recruiting class ranked No. 20 or worse five years before they won the title.

The exceptions are the 2005 Texas Longhorns (No. 20 in 2005), the 2006 Florida Gators (No. 20 in 2002), the 2007 LSU Tigers (No. 22 in 2005) and the 2010 Auburn Tigers (No. 20 in 2008).

No BCS champ has signed a class lower than No. 22 in the five-year period leading up to the title.

With 10 champions and five recruiting classes each, only four of 50 times—or 8 percent—have title winners inked classes with a No. 20 or worse ranking.

A full 92 percent had signing classes ranked No. 20 or better.

It’s important to note that, while the five-year window is crucial, it’s okay if a program struggled to sign top-20 rated classes before the clock started ticking on that time frame.

To illustrate, take a look at Alabama’s team rankings since 2002.

Alabama Recruiting Rankings Since 2002
*BCS Title Season

So, while the Crimson Tide struggled at recruiting in the early 2000s, they began to build momentum, which exploded when Nick Saban arrived in 2007. 

Either way, Alabama was signing top-20 ranked talent within five years of its dominant run.

What’s also worth noting is how well the BCS champions recruited the year they won the title.  Eight out of 10—or 80 percent—of the teams hauled in top-five ranked freshman classes the year they won the championship.

This goes a long way in gauging the cultural barometer of the program just before it made its run.  In other words, the attitude was “we ARE a program with which to be reckoned.”

Does a big signing day equal a national title seven months later?
Does a big signing day equal a national title seven months later?Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Recruiting may be an underrated factor in attitude, a claim that is backed up by the numbers.  Think about it; why else would so many BCS champs have a stellar freshman class in common?

Most of those kids didn’t have a significant impact on the playing field, so their influence must have been more subtle—like amping up the winning culture of the program.


The Upperclassmen

What’s also intriguing about the data is how each champions’ senior class ranks against the other age groups.

To illustrate, in 2005, Texas was led by a senior class that had been signed as the No. 1-ranked group of 2002.  The Longhorns lost momentum after that season, signing the No. 15-ranked class of 2003 (the juniors), the No. 18 class of 2004 (the sophomores) and the No. 20 class of 2005 (the freshmen).

Despite the drop-off, Texas still managed to win it all in ’05.

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 04:  Head coach Mack Brown of the Texas Longhorns celebrates with the National Championship trophy after defeating the USC Trojans 41-38 to win the BCS National Championship Rose Bowl Game on January 4, 2006 in Pasadena, California.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

To explain how this works, the senior class of each title team had an average ranking of 5.9.  This is 3.3 places better than the junior class average of 9.2 and 2.3 places better than the sophomore average of 8.2.

The point here is that the ranking of the senior class is more important in a championship run than that of the younger guys.  This makes sense from a leadership, experience and maturity standpoint.

Since 2003, no program has won the BCS with a senior class that was ranked worse than No. 15.


The After Burn

A logical result of winning a national championship is that the title program either sustains or improves its recruiting efforts after the victory.

To illustrate, take a look at Auburn’s recruiting numbers since 2002.

Auburn Recruiting Rankings Since 2002
*BCS Title Season

Though Auburn has had good success recruiting throughout the last decade, it inked only four top-10 classes in the eight years leading to its 2010 BCS title.

Since then—and despite going 3-9 in 2012—it has hauled in top-10 ranked classes every season.

In fact, only two of the last 10 BCS champions have signed a class ranked out of the top 20 since winning the title. 

The exceptions are the 2005 Longhorns and the 2013 Seminoles.

That’s only 4 percent, meaning the other 96 percent have gone on to haul in top-20 ranked classes every season.

It’s the gift that keeps on giving, and the reason that recruiting is the key to building and sustaining championship-caliber college football programs.


Using the Data to Predict the Future

While looking to the past to understand that what has already happened is all well and good, what’s more exciting is using what’s been learned to predict the future.

Based on all of this, which teams will win a national title moving forward?

Here’s the criteria for the 2014 national championship:

  • A senior class signed in 2011 that was ranked no worse than No. 15.
  • A run of recruiting classes from 2010-2014 ranked no worse than No. 22.

Who fits the bill? Check it out.

Teams That Could Win The 2014 National Title/Recruiting Rankings
Florida St.1026104
Notre Dame14102037
*2014 Senior Class

It’s no coincidence that six of the 11 teams listed—or 55 percent—are from the SEC.

Notable omissions from the list are Texas (No. 23-ranked class in 2013), Ohio State (No. 25 in 2010), Nebraska (No. 25 in 2012), Michigan (No. 21 in 2011), Stanford (No. 26 in 2010, No. 22 in 2011 and No. 63 in 2013), South Carolina (No. 24 in 2010 and No. 18 in 2011) and Texas A&M (No. 27 in 2011).

Out for now but with an opportunity to get back into the mix is USC, which has a 2014 signing class—according to Rivals—ranked at No. 24.

Are these guys the next national champions?
Are these guys the next national champions?Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Since 80 percent of the past 10 BCS title teams also had a freshman recruiting class ranked in the top five, the list can be whittled down further based on Rivals’ 2014 rankings.

Using this additional criteria, the teams with the absolute best odds of walking away with the 2014 national championship are Alabama, Florida State and—believe it or not—Tennessee.


Team recruiting rankings from 1998, 1999 and 2000-2001 are from Sports Illustrated.  Team recruiting rankings from 2002 to 2014 are from Rivals.  Statistics are courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football.


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