Clemson beat Alabama for the national championship. Clemson does not always sign recruiting classes ranked in the top 5. Therefore, national championship teams can be built through non-elite recruiting classes. That’s a popular sentiment among Florida Gators fans, particularly after the Clemson win.
The thinking is that Jim McElwain is a good enough coach to overcome his second-tier recruiting. This is important because the 247Sports composite ranked the Gators’ 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes at No. 21 and 12, respectively. (Florida currently ranks at No. 19.)
The problem with this thinking is twofold. First, Clemson has excelled at recruiting, especially considering the difference in home-state talent between Florida and South Carolina. The 247Sports composite ranked Clemson’s classes from 2012-16 at No. 15, 15, 17, 9 and 11.
Four teams won a national championship during those five years: Alabama (2012, 2015), Ohio State (2014) and Florida State (2013). Those three teams’ recruiting rankings from 2012-16, according to Rivals.com?
First, second and third.
The above chart gives the gory details. Teams in the black whose recruiting rankings have closely matched their final average in the AP poll won national championships. Teams highlighted in red have vastly underperformed their recruiting rankings and experienced a change in head coach. This is the reason that Les Miles, Gene Chizik, Lane Kiffin, Mark Richt and Will Muschamp had to look for other work.
The smart wager for 2018 is that the Fighting Irish will be saying goodbye to Brian Kelly. Even with a second-place finish in 2012, Kelly’s teams have underperformed Notre Dame’s recruiting rankings.
The chart also indicates that Florida is further from winning a national championship with every recruiting class it puts together that ranks outside the top 10. Furthermore, Florida only occupies the ninth spot in the above list because of Will Muschamp’s recruiting.
It’s no surprise that excellent recruiting leads to titles. But it’s shocking how closely the two things correlate. Since 2006, the national champions averaged a top 10 Rivals.com recruiting ranking in the four previous years. The only exception: The 2010 Auburn team with transfer QB Cam Newton.
Clemson is on the “low end” of these rankings, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it played for the title the last two seasons.
Because football is such a violent sport, injuries always play a key role. This means that depth — which touted recruiting classes provide — becomes important. The college season has expanded from a maximum of an 11-game regular season with a bowl game to a maximum of a 12-game season, a conference championship game and two College Football Playoff games.
The sentiment that Florida is “only a QB away” is not accurate. The Gators’ quarterback play needs to improve. But in 2017, my worry is not that players like Vosean Joseph and Chauncey Gardner will play well. My worry is that if they suffer injuries, their backups will account for a significant drop-off in production.
Injuries even impacted mighty Alabama this season. The Tide played a walk-on at corner against Florida and then saw the offense tank against Clemson after running back Bo Scarbrough broke his leg.
Even with a decimated secondary, Alabama came within one stop of winning 5 championships in 8 years. Coming that close was a testament to Alabama’s depth.
Jim McElwain is a good in-game coach. Maybe even a great one. He’s 13-3 in the SEC. McElwain won the East Division in back-to-back seasons. But the statistics prove he must recruit better to contend for the national title.
And because Alabama doesn’t look like it is going to slow down, he needs to recruit better to compete for an SEC title as well.