How much does recruiting impact who makes the College Football Playoff?

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /
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We always hear that recruiting drives success and failure in college football. How much does it impact who makes the College Football Playoff each year?

Alabama and Ohio State are slated to meet on Monday night for the College Football Playoff national championship. If the Crimson Tide win, it will be the team’s third title in the seven-year history of the current postseason system. Should the Buckeyes pull off the upset in Miami, it will give Ohio State fans their second national title since the BCS ended after the 2013 season.

Both teams have been recruiting juggernauts, regularly featuring among the top five in the 247Sports team composite recruiting rankings. But can recruiting alone help explain who makes the College Football Playoff from year to year?

In this week’s Sunday Morning Quarterback, let’s look deeper at recruiting rankings and see what they might tell us about the College Football Playoff field since 2014.

Setting the terms of the analysis

For today’s undertaking, the methodology is simple. To obtain workable data, average recruiting rankings from 247Sports were compiled from 2010 through 2021. From these numbers, a median was determine for each season. Using this median, each team’s season recruiting averages were subtracted from the median to determine how much better or worse a team’s average recruit was from the median recruit.

From there, a five-year recruiting average above the median was established for each College Football Playoff season from 2014 through 2020. In addition, this average was established for the available data to date from 2021 recruiting.

To better explain this data, let’s look at the numbers themselves:

This can certainly look like a bunch of numbers thrown at a wall, so let’s get to understanding what they mean before moving on to look at each College Football Playoff season in retrospect.

Since it is the first data point on the board, let’s look at Alabama’s 2014 season. The 10.68 figure is determined using a curved average of Alabama’s recruiting classes from 2010 to 2014, with players from the 2012 class (i.e. in their third year of eligibility) weighted most heavily. What this ultimately means is that the players contributing to the Crimson Tide’s run to the semifinals in 2014 were on average graded 10.68 points higher coming out of high school than the median recruit at the FBS level for that season.

One final point of note is the color coding. The first set of coding, in various shades of blue, notes teams that were selected by the committee to play in the College Football Playoff each year.

  • Numbers highlighted in light blue with bold and italicized numerals are teams that reached the semifinals of the College Football Playoff that season.
  • Spots marked in medium blue with bold white text signify the losing finalists.
  • Numbers marked in navy blue with bold white text denote the team that won it all that year.

The other colors are teams that did not reach the College Football Playoff but met certain thresholds.

  • In green are teams whose five-year recruiting average fell at least 8.14 points higher than the median. This is the average above the median for the 14 teams (including Alabama and Ohio State this season) that have reached the College Football Playoff championship game over the past seven years.
  • In yellow are teams with a recruiting average at least 6.47 points higher than the median. This benchmark represents the five-year recruiting average of the 2014 Oregon Ducks, who remain the team with the lowest average compared to the median to reach the College Football Playoff final.
  • In pink are teams whose recruiting average grades at least 3.78 points higher than the median. This mark is equivalent to Washington’s 2016 team, and is the lowest recruiting average against the median of any team to make the four-team field.

Taken as a whole, this illustrates that recruiting more talented players on aggregate plays a significant role in which teams make the College Football Playoff. Aside from Michigan State in 2015, Washington in 2016, and Oklahoma in 2017, 25 of the 28 teams to reach the College Football Playoff recruited players that ranked on average at least six points higher than the median.

What can this tell us about each season of the College Football Playoff, and what might it help us understand about the situation for 2021 and beyond? Let’s dive in further to each campaign and parse out these figures further against these benchmarks.