A Brief Rumination on Recruiting Rankings

Note: all data is sourced from 247Sports.

Yesterday we posed a question — is Notre Dame recruiting at a high enough level to win a national championship? Seeing as the Irish reached the college football playoff as recently as (checks notes) last month, the question might seem silly or greedy on its face. Or at least it might to fanbases such as, I don’t know, Michigan or USC, teams that also recruit at high levels but have never really sniffed actual playoff contention. Hate to see it.

To date, in the playoffs’ five year existence, only ten programs have made the field, while five have advanced to the final, and most importantly, three have won the title. The Irish can now claim membership in one of those groups — they’re definitely not 1A, but have been generally around the top tier ever since 2016’s trainwreck. This is backed up not only by on the field results but another recruiting metric — blue chip ratio, with true title contenders needing at least 50% of their incoming players to be four or five stars.

One simple way to evaluate these teams’ respective talent levels, and where the Irish stand, is to average out their recruiting class rankings four years in arrears (that’s fun) of each playoff appearance — in other words, look at the players who, transfers etc. aside, made up each 85 scholarship squad. We won’t break down who’s getting the most five-star commitments here, although locking down that top tier talent certainly plays an important (arguably the most important) role in winning championships. You can check out my basic spreadsheet work here. This chart below shows the average 247 ranking for each program, taking into account the classes within four years of their appearance(s).

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It’s not quite accurate to say the data is tainted by Alabama — someone’s gotta be #1 — but goddamn, if you average out the rankings of each class that’s had a chance to participate in the playoff (which just happens to be every one), it’s 1.5. The only reason it isn’t an even 1 is their precipitous drop to fifth nationally in 2018. They’re an insane outlier and I am extremely tired of them.

Ohio State won the inaugural contest and has been back once more — in the crootin’ run-up to those two appearances, they’ve been second to only Bama, with an average finish of 4.5. Almost definitely the most shocking number in this whole dataset is where Clemson, the existential and also very real threat to the Bama dynasty, ends up — their average class finish from 2012-2018 is an underwhelming 13.4, which is actually below ND’s average (12) in the four years preceding its first appearance. Even the classes making up this year’s 15-0 juggernaut averaged a finish of 11. Really weird!

On the whole, accounting for duplicate appearances by Bama and crew, the top four have averaged a recruiting ranking a tick under 12. When looking at the final matchup each year, those teams have averaged a finish of 7. And when we narrow down to only the champions, they average just under 6. Weird how that works!

Remember that from 2015-2018, the Irish averaged a finish of 12, which according to the data is exactly how good you should be to grab a playoff spot, but not much more. And with a good-not-great incoming class, one that’s currently ranked anywhere from 10-15 nationally, the answer to our initial question might just be no (sorry).

However! The one bright spot, if you want to call it that, is that Clemson built a modern day college football superpower with good but unspectacular recruiting results. Their aspirational peer was clearly Alabama, and they married a bunch of good classes (including some big really hits on five stars) with great coaching and retention and clutch performances, and they did the damn thing. Maybe the path is there for Notre Dame after all — we just need to sign the next Trevor Lawrence.

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