Do Top 10 Recruiting Classes Really Equal Championships?

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterFebruary 2, 2016

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Kenyan Drake #17 of the Alabama Crimson Tide returns a punt for a 95 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Whether you want to admit it or not, recruiting at an elite level is critical in competing for and winning a national championship. Yes, coaching matters, too. So does player development. We can be nuanced and honest enough to understand there's not one factor that overrides all else when it comes to putting together a championship-caliber team. If you want to head down that road, lucky breaks play a role, too. 

However, combining individual factors like those can't lead to blanket statements like "recruiting stars don't matter." Of course they do. The star system is an inexact science, but it matters all the same. 

Just look at the string of recent national champions. Every single one recruited annually at a high level. Alabama, in fact, has taken its dynasty and made it twofold. There's the dynasty on the field and the dynasty on the recruiting trail. 

"Nobody has had a recruiting dynasty like this in college football," Mike Farrell, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals, told Bleacher Report's Lars Anderson last year. 

In the table below are the last 10 national title winners and their previous four recruiting classes dating from four years before (Year -4) to the year immediately preceding (Year -1).

Recruiting For National Championship Winners
Team (Title Year)Year -1Year -2Year -3Year -4Average
Alabama (2015)No. 1No. 1No. 1No. 11
Ohio State (2014)No. 3No. 2No. 5No. 74.25
Florida State (2013)No. 11No. 3No. 2No. 75.75
Alabama (2012)No. 1No. 1No. 5No. 22.25
Alabama (2011)No. 1No. 5No. 2No. 32.75
Auburn (2010)No. 6No. 23No. 24No. 715
Alabama (2009)No. 2No. 3No. 13No. 158.25
Florida (2008)No. 6No. 1No. 2No. 125.25
LSU (2007)No. 5No. 9No. 13No. 37.5
Florida (2006)No. 2No. 12No. 5No. 15

With the exception of Auburn in 2010, every single championship winner averaged a top-10 class in the four years leading up to their big win.

However, the Tigers had a once-in-a-lifetime player in quarterback Cam Newton—who, by the way, is likely going to be this year's NFL MVP, is playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday and who is, according to B/R's Mike Freeman, "the most dangerous quarterback weapon we've ever seen." Still, Auburn averaged a top-15 class for this exercise. 

There are variances, of course. First of all, not all recruiting services rank players and classes the same. Where 247Sports and Rivals rank the same class could vary. Secondly, as Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports rightly explained, "whether your favorite school finishes fourth or seventh is a largely arbitrary distinction. ... ultimately those are both really good classes." 

The distinction, as Mandel goes on to write, is "between fifth and 35th." 

Additionally, claiming that recruiting matters doesn't instantly mean a program is going to win a national championship. LSU, Texas and USC are recent examples of underachieving programs in the star-system era. Conversely, one could look at programs like Baylor, Michigan State and Stanford as overachievers. 

These are outliers, though. And, for the record, the aforementioned overachievers have a whopping zero national championships in the star-system era among them.

The point is if a program routinely recruits at a top-10 level, it puts itself in a better position to win a national title. This is what Josh McCuistion of firmly believes:  

Based on the above chart, McCuistion isn't wrong. Paul Myerberg of USA Today, on the other hand, puts that magic number at 15: 

There's a large degree of truth in both statements. Auburn has already been discussed, but there's another example that somewhat supports Myerberg's assertion: Clemson, which was No. 1 in the eyes of the College Football Playoff selection committee last season.

Over the last four recruiting cycles, the Tigers averaged a recruiting rank of 14th, which puts them just inside the cutoff point. Clemson, of course, came oh so close to winning it all. 

In short, top-10 classes are as close as you're going to get to a sure thing when it comes to translating raw talent to national championships. Top-15 classes are probably the limit. 

With that in mind, who fits the mold for 2016-17?

A quick glance across this year's 247Sports recruiting rankings shows a lot of the usual suspects: LSU, Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, etc.

Historically speaking, those are the types of programs capable of putting together top-10 to top-15 classes. In other words, don't be surprised if one of those teams hoists the playoff trophy next January. 

As Gerry Hamilton of notes, national title-winning teams have a history of recruiting extremely well in the year leading right up to the championship: 

So the next time you hear someone say national signing day is overrated or that stars don't matter, tell them to look at the numbers, because they say something different entirely.

Is recruiting a perfect formula? Absolutely not. Nothing in sports is predicted with 100 percent accuracy. 

But the correlation is there. That's what matters.  

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports