We love college football for the crazy upsets and the drama. But when it comes to the overall prize, you need a baseline of elite talent to take home the trophy. A lot of elite talent.
If you’re an avid college football fan, you might have heard of the Blue-Chip Ratio. Since its first annual appearance at SB Nation in 2013, it’s been discussed on Sirius XM and ESPN Radio, podcasts, forums, blogs, and elsewhere.
Put simply, teams who win the title have signed more four- and five-star recruits than two- and three-stars over their previous four signing classes.
This has been 100% true for essentially as far back as modern recruiting rankings have existed (depending on how you define “modern,” or roughly back to the classes that led to super-talented USC and Texas national champs of the mid-2000s).
Generally, teams whose signees have been fewer than 50% blue-chips over the previous four years can’t be considered national title contenders.
“Are you saying this is all teams need to do to win a national championship?”
Absolutely not. Think of this as a necessary but not sufficient condition. You need difference makers. And you either need great injury luck, or depth of talent to maintain a high level of play throughout the season.
Blue chips are almost 1,000% more likely to be drafted in the first round. And five-stars are about 33 times as likely to be All-Americans as two-stars are. Sure, there are outliers on an individual player basis. But the overwhelming majority of three-star players are going pro in something other than sports.
Some teams simply do not have a shot of signing elite prospects and must instead find diamonds in the rough. That’s a strategy that can produce wins and conference titles, though perhaps not Playoff rings.
Coaching and development are extremely important. But by NCAA rule, coaches get just 20 hours per week with their players. Only so much development is possible. Talent acquisition is by far the most important element, especially when trying to compete for the biggest prize.
“Do all recruits count? What data do you use for this?”
All signees count. Transfers and walk-ons do not. Non-JUCO transfers are not governed by recruit rules, are not rated anew and — though they’re important — are rarely consequential enough to turn a non-contender into a contender. Walk-ons are almost never rated.
Sticking with signees helps to standardize the process. If a player signs, is released from his National Letter of Intent, and signs with a new school, as opposed to transferring, I count that player toward the new school.
I use the 247Sports Composite, which blends the major rankings by 247Sports, Rivals, and ESPN. It formerly used Scout as well, but 247Sports bought Scout.
I manually curate it because some team sites erroneously list walk-ons as signees. Removing non-scholarship players is by far the most time-consuming element. Also, older classes are fraught with errors. For data in this decade, it has improved, but more than a handful of team sites still lump in zero-star walk-ons.
I also do not remove signees who fail to qualify academically or who are denied admission due to off-field reasons. It’s difficult to track, with so many signees on so many teams.
Entering 2019, 16 teams met the Blue-Chip Ratio mark.
2019 teams who’ve signed mostly blue-chip recruits over the previous 4 classes
None of these teams is a surprise.
If you were asked to name the top 20 programs, you would have most or all of these on the list. And every team on this list has won a title in the last 40 years.
The SEC has the most 2019 BCR teams (five), followed by the ACC and Big Ten (three each), Big 12 (two), and Pac-12 (two). Notre Dame also made it. Due to the number of teams meeting the threshold this year, this looks much more balanced than previous seasons.
Still, 16 teams is a lot. The average number of BCR teams in the previous five seasons was 12.
There might not be anything to this. Let’s look next year to see if it continues, though I do have a theory that teams are signing fewer non-qualifiers, thus reducing the total number of signees (the denominator) in the calculation.
The increasing number of teams might not be a trend, but increasing separation between the haves and have-nots? That could be.
In 2014, no team was above 75%. In 2015, only Alabama was. In 2016 and 2017, it was still just Alabama. 2018 saw Ohio State get into that super elite class.
Now 2019 has three of the four highest Blue-Chip Ratios ever (Alabama in 2017 was at 80%). Frequently, a team comes close to the 80% mark, but never have the top three all been anywhere near this high. And Georgia is fractions of a percentage point from also cracking the 80% barrier.
Of course, Clemson took home the Playoff title with a 61% BCR in 2018, so fans whose teams make the list should be happy, not overly worried about the trio at the very top.
Equally as interesting (to me) is the lack of teams in the 38-49 range, a mark that usually suggests a team might be just one class away from making the jump. Texas A&M, Stanford, Tennessee, and Oregon are the only four right now.
The days of discussing whether South Carolina, Ole Miss, Michigan State, TCU, etc. can make a jump into the upper tier of talent are shelved for a few years. Those teams were winning a lot and scoring some wins against the CFB goliaths, which left us to wonder if they could turn wins into a few more elite recruits.
This list matches up extremely well with Vegas’ expectations. The top 10 teams in the odds are all BCR schools.
Among the non-BCR teams, Oregon, Nebraska, and Utah have the best odds at 33/1, while Texas A&M is at 50/1, the same as Auburn, Notre Dame, and Penn State.
The Ducks make sense in some ways, since Oregon has a Heisman Trophy candidate QB, Justin Herbert, who will need to play more like his 2017 self. I’ve theorized that the first non-BCR team to win a title will do so due to having a special quarterback, and Oregon was the most recent non-BCR team to come close, thanks to Marcus Mariota.
Teams like Nebraska and Wisconsin could rack up wins thanks to easy schedules, but would face real questions about their ability to win three straight games against presumably BCR schools, in the Big Ten Championship and two Playoff games.
But for the most part, non-BCR teams do not make the Playoff. And when they do, they get outplayed a majority of the time. See Michigan State vs. Alabama.
Washington, Florida, and Miami are new to the Blue-Chip Ratio club this year.
And each team arrived in a slightly different way.
- Chris Petersen has slowly built Washington from a 22% BCR in 2014 to 23, 26, 30, 40, and finally 54 this year.
- Florida was last a member of the club in 2014, dropped out for four seasons, and is back thanks to a strong 2019 class.
- Miami’s 2019 class was not great, but having the destitute 2015 class drop off is enough to boost the Hurricanes’ four-year average over the mark.
Here are the biggest risers and fallers in the Ratio since 2018:
Note: this doesn’t include every team in FBS. The pool of teams examined here are those who had at least a 20 percent BCR in the previous year. That cutoff is useful because teams who are below that mark do not have serious championship aspirations.
- Up: Washington (14%), Florida (11%), Georgia (10%), Oklahoma (7%), Penn State (7%)
Petersen’s Huskies are this year’s best example of how winning games can turn into better recruits.
- Down: UCLA (-13%), USC (-11%), Florida State (-6%)
Chip Kelly failed to recruit well in Year 1. It’s especially damaging due to cross-town USC being down. And FSU’s number dropping, while its in-state rivals are rising, has to be concerning for FSU fans.
In the Playoff era, UCLA is now the team to have fallen the farthest out of the club. Here are all the programs to have achieved the 50% mark at any point from 2014 onward:
Believe it or not. the next to join is probably going to be another SEC school. The Aggies are at 44%, and another elite class could do it.
Oregon could, in theory, make the jump in 2020, but that would require going from 38% to 50%, an enormous jump in one year. It would not be a shock to see the Ducks and Volunteers creep up in 2021, though.
“How has this stat performed in the past?”
- Clemson, with a 61% mark, took it home in 2018. And all four Playoff teams were BCR schools, plus the school (Georgia) which some clamored for as a top-four team.
- Alabama won it all in 2017 with an incredible 80% mark.
- Clemson took home the title in 2016 after signing 52% blue chips in the 2013-16 classes.
- In 2015, Alabama had a 77% mark.
- In 2014, it was Ohio State at 68%.
- In 2013, Florida State was at 53%.
- In 2012, Alabama was at 71% ...
- ... just as Bama was in 2011.
And so on.
“How far back can you count this?”
Back to the 2002 signing class that played in 2005’s season, if you include 2010 Auburn (see note below). And likely 2004 USC and 2003 LSU, since Pete Carroll and Nick Saban are two of the greatest recruiters ever, and further back as well.
For the last eight champions (12 signing classes), I have relied on the Composite. Before that, I had to rely on Rivals, Scout, or ESPN. Data from this time period is sketchier, and the recruiting rules were different.
Using Rivals, Florida in 2006 (61 percent) and 2008 (72 percent) easily make the list, thanks to the excellent recruiting of Urban Meyer and Ron Zook. And LSU’s 2007 squad (64 percent) is also high, thanks to recruits brought in by Nick Saban and Les Miles. Texas in 2005 was at 64 percent.
“Should I expect a 30 percent Blue-Chip Ratio team to always beat a 20 percenter?”
The ratio is a baseline for the minimum talent needed to win a title. But it should not be used to pick games at the weekly level. Winning the title is a season-long endeavor.
If you want to use it for betting purposes, cross-reference your title wagers with it. If your title pick is not on this list, you had better have a great reason for making it. If you want picks, I am also Banner Society’s primary gambling writer, and my picks can be found here.
“How has the change from the BCS to the Playoff impacted this?”
It has strengthened my confidence in the BCR. The Playoff usually means that the champ must defeat two elite recruiters in a row.
It is likely going to be easier for a sub-50% recruiter to get a shot at a title, such as Michigan State in 2015 or Washington in 2016, but tougher to actually win. Non-BCR teams are 2-6 so far in Playoff games, including four losses by three or more scores. The only Playoff win by a non-BCR team over a BCR team was 2014, when Oregon beat FSU.
“So what was that about 2010 Auburn?”
Either due to data changing after the fact, via industry contraction/expansion/merger, or perhaps due to an error of my own, 2010 Auburn no longer seems to meet 50 percent in the BCR.
Absent using the Wayback Machine, Scout rankings are no longer available. For some Auburn signees, like Jonathon Mincy, the Composite shows that he did not have a star rating from any service, but I know that is not true because Rivals, Scout, and ESPN had him as a graded prospect. There is something going on with the data.
Auburn also was one of the teams who took advantage of the old rules governing the number of signees allowed in a year. Auburn would sign lots of players who had little chance of qualifying, likely to give the player some motivation to complete junior college and come back in two years.
The 2007 Auburn press release has six such examples, using the following phrase:
“Expected to enroll in junior college/prep school before entering Auburn.”
Those letters are not binding. From 2007-09, Auburn had 17 such signees not enroll. It signed an incredible 117 prospects in that span, a brilliant exploitation of the loophole, which really throws my data out of whack. Under newer NCAA oversigning rules, teams cannot hand out actual Letters of Intent like candy.
In any case, while I am confident that Auburn did meet the threshold when I was back-testing the model a half-decade ago, I can no longer back it up with proof.
“Do you think the BCR club’s championship monopoly will hold up forever?”
No. At some point a team with maybe a high 40s number, a transcendent QB, and great injury luck will bust this. It’s bound to happen.