Rob Oller | Recruiting winners, like Ohio State, shown to be College Football Playoff contenders
Entering Wednesday — the second of two national signing dates; the first was Dec. 18 — the usual suspects are seated at the head of the class: 1. Georgia; 2. Alabama; 3. Clemson; 4. LSU; 5. Ohio State.
Come next season’s final College Football Playoff rankings, those five, along with perpetual third wheel Oklahoma, likely will occupy the chairs up front.
For anyone insisting that recruiting is overrated, or who is suspicious of its direct connection to success — as in, forget how recruits look on paper, let’s see how they play in the games — history offers the hard truth that first-class recruiting wins national championships.
A look at champions over the six seasons of the playoff shows a correlation between talent and trophies. By averaging the six title winners’ 247Sports recruiting rankings over a five-year period (to include fifth-year seniors) leading up to and including the championship season, the results read: 2014, Ohio State (No. 7); 2015, Alabama (No. 1); 2016, Clemson (No. 16); 2017, Alabama (No. 1); 2018, Clemson (No. 12); 2019, LSU (No. 7).
Top-10 recruiting does not guarantee playoff entry. Texas, Florida and Michigan have done less with more. But consider the alternative, that unless Dabo Swinney is your coach, no team finishing outside the composite top-seven has won a championship. Clemson is the exception, but Swinney is the master of turning high school lemons, relatively speaking, into lemonade. No one develops talent better, largely because few top-tier teams have kept their staffs intact like Clemson.
For most Power 5 schools, the “Hey, I’m officially a Buckeye” … or Boilermaker … or Bruin ... was in the barn before this second signing day. Ohio State signed 24 players in December and is expected to add only one more in defensive back Cameron Martinez.
The Buckeyes have compiled another elite class, which means they’ll be a playoff contender for at least the next three or four years. Simple cause and effect.
Using Georgia as an example, per 247Sports’ ratings, the Bulldogs took recruiting up a notch four years ago, jumping from No. 16 in 2015 to No. 6 in 2016, then followed with classes ranked No. 2, No. 1 and again No. 2 in 2019. Georgia made the playoff in 2017, coming within a hair of winning the national title and placed fifth each of the past two seasons. Clearly, no team is guaranteed a playoff invitation just because it recruits well, but the Bulldogs would be guaranteed of missing if their recruiting went off a cliff.
There’s a reason Ohio State coach Ryan Day describes recruiting as the lifeblood of a program, a declaration he picked up from Urban Meyer. Lose a pint of blood — i.e. one substandard recruiting class — and a program can recover relatively quickly. But hemorrhage back-to-back recruiting blunders, and the program can bleed out. Effective coaching is crucial, but exceptional recruiting is essential.
Ohio State receivers coach Brian Hartline has made Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson better on the field. But first he had to help get those guys on the field. Buckeyes defensive line coach Larry Johnson is hailed as a technician, but it helps to work with the best — Joey and Nick Bosa and Chase Young — and not store brands.
Day is earning a reputation as a QB magnet for recruits (and transfers, as was the case with Justin Fields). It generally takes quarterbacks longer than other position players to adjust to the NFL, and Day’s experience as a quarterbacks coach at San Francisco and Philadelphia gives him a recruiting advantage.
One would suppose that Jim Harbaugh would have the same advantage at Michigan, considering he played quarterback in the NFL. But sometimes cause and effect comes up empty.