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Let’s Expand the Playoff! Part 3 - Recruiting is an Oligopoly

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Underdog stories are cool, but you know what’s also cool? Not have 90% of blue-chip recruits being on one of eight rosters.

College Football Playoff Semifinal Head Coaches - News Conference Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Heading in to the 2021 college football season, Texas A&M - a team that has lost 10 games over the past 3 years - will boast a roster with 39 Top 300 prospects on its roster. The Florida Gators - fresh off of an 8-4 season - will have 42 Top 300 prospects on their roster in 2021. LSU will have 43. Texas - and their propensity to be in an unending state of “back” - will have 47. Dabo’s boys will be rolling with a roster of 53 Top 300 prospects. Ryan Day’s Buckeyes enter the 2021 season with 57 Top 300 Prospects. The SEC East’s current recruiting hegemon, Georgia, will be fielding 61 Top 300 prospects on their football roster. And Alabama - fresh off of yet another Playoff victory - will have 70 Top 300 prospects on a football roster of 85 players.

Entering 2021, no other team in the nation has more than 30.

Yes, 2021 features the wonky super-senior class that gets an extra year to stick around, but look at the overall point again: out of all 130 FBS teams, eight have 39 or more blue-chip players on their roster and the other 122 don’t.

And it just so happens that, of those eight teams, five have been in the Playoff, four have won a championship, and two have won multiple championships in the Playoff era.

Coincidence?

In 2021, Alabama, Ohio State, and Georgia signed 15 of the possible 34 5-star high school football players. North Carolina, Michigan, Maryland, Wisconsin, and USC signed one 5-star kid each, Miami signed 2, and all the rest went to southern schools (or Ohio State). And, to add further qualifying insult to injury, 10 of the 35 5-star athletes in the 2021 class were from Northern states; the other 25 played high school ball in The South.

Look, I’m not saying the Playoff is responsible for this ridiculous skew of blue-chip talent playing at a handful of schools, but it’s certainly not helping. Take the Blue-Chip Ratio, Bud Elliott’s metric for determining which teams have a chance at winning the championship by way of looking at the percentage of their roster that are former blue-chip recruits. In 2020, there were 15 teams that had 50% or more of their roster comprised of 4- and 5-star recruits. In 2019 there were 16, but from 2014-2018 the average was 12.

But keep in mind: in 2014 there wasn’t a single team that had more than 75% of their roster filled with blue-chip athletes. In 2015, 2016, and 2017 only Alabama was above 75%. In 2018, Ohio State finally joined Alabama in the “over 75% club”. In 2019, three of the highest blue-chip ratios ever were playing, while in 2020, Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio State had the first, second, and fourth highest blue-chip rates of all time, respectively.

If that’s a bunch of numerical mumbo jumbo, here’s the point: despite the recruiting cap put in place in 2011 as a hope to create more parity in signing classes, the elite teams are becoming more elite at the expense of the rest of the teams in the country.

So what gives? What happened in 2014 that sparked this mega-recruiting-arms-race between a handful of teams that helped them stock their roster with every talented kid possible while the rest of the proletariat scrambled to get one or two blue-chippers to come play for them?

Oh, the Playoff started in 2014, you say? Hmm.

HMMMMMMMMM.

In last week’s piece, I told the hypothetical story of a blue-chip quarterback from Arizona. That concept - elite talent moving to play on an established team that can make the Playoff - is a trend that started years ago. Since 2015, only 13 of the 23 5-stars produced in California stayed in California, with most heading to Alabama/Clemson/Ohio State. And Arizona, the only other population-heavy state in the PAC-12 footprint, had none of their 5-stars stay in Arizona or even on the West Coast, all opting to play for Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, or Texas A&M. If your elite talent is leaving the region then it makes it difficult to field a good enough team to compete nationally for one of the four Playoff spots available for the invitational that matters. Not only does your team need to be elite, but the competition played needs to be at least “very good”, or else you get “AIN’T PLAYED NOBODY”-d to hell and have no shot in the college football zeitgeist of getting ranked high enough to make it.

There needs to be more paths to the Playoff so that teams across the country can attract the type of talent needed to compete with all the other elite teams and bust up the talent-hoarding at the tippy-top of the sport. Having 8-teams with over half of their roster comprised of NFL-level talent means that no one else has a prayer at winning the National Championship. Take Notre Dame, for example. 56% of the 2020 roster was comprised of former blue-chip recruits, but they were detonated by Alabama’s roster of 83% blue-chip recruits. BUT LET’S SAY NOTRE DAME PULLED OFF THE UPSET. Their reward was going to be either a Clemson team at 63% blue-chip recruits or Ohio State with 80%. Maybe they win one of those games, but at such a massive talent deficit no way would they win two.

So now one might argue, “if that’s the case, why expand the Playoff? You just said they didn’t have a shot!”. You’re right, internet commenter in my head! But expanding the Playoff means that G5 teams and teams in the Big XII or PAC-12 now have a direct shot into the Playoff. That regional talent won’t have to export itself to the southeast or Ohio and can reasonably pick a school in their geographic footprint and have the same shot at the Playoff as everyone else. Over time, those 80% blue-chip rosters will be whittled down and the talent will be (slightly) more evenly distributed across conferences. The rich will still be rich, of course, but not nearly to the extent that it is at this point.

I had an exchange on Twitter this week with an individual who said the BCS was Missouri’s best friend because, if they ranked in the Top 2, they’d just have to beat one team to win the National Championship. This is true, but the Tigers have been in the Top 2 of the polls for a grand total of...what...two weeks in its entire history? An expanded Playoff benefits Missouri as they just need to be ranked high enough to make an at-large bid...or, you know, just win the conference and be automatically included. That’s a much more reasonable method than the BCS or our current setup...until Drinkwitz starts regularly bringing in Top 5 Recruiting classes, that is.

Recruiting is the most important thing about college football and, currently, the best recruits want to play for teams that make it in the Playoff. Expand the Playoff to conference champions and at-large bids to help diversify the schools those recruits go to and introduce some parity and chaos into an increasingly predictable sport.