Last Monday on ESPN's College Football Live, college football analysts Danny Kanell and Joe Schad were discussing the best teams in college football. There are currently four SEC West teams in the top five of the Associated Press Poll and the host of the show asked whether it was accurate that four of the top five teams in the country hail from one division in one conference. Danny Kanell said no, pointing out that the reason Mississippi State and Ole Miss rose so high so quickly was that the SEC started with more teams (an unprecedented eight) in the preseason poll than any other conference. As these teams beat each other up in conference play, they switch spots at the top of the rankings.
Joe Schad countered by saying the reason that the SEC, and specifically the SEC West, deserves to have four teams in the top five of the AP poll is that they have the best players in the country. He went on to cite the SEC's recruiting dominance and the high number of SEC teams with top recruiting rankings.
Recruiting rankings have been used as a metric to distinguish teams with similar records for as long as we've had the BCS. Earlier this year, SB Nation Recruiting Analyst Bud Elliott published a study arguing that a national champion had to have at least a 50% majority of 4-star or higher recruits in order to win a national championship. He collected data going back 10 years and found that every National Champion had a majority of 4-star or higher rated recruits in the previous four recruiting classes, based on Rivals recruiting rankings.
According to Elliott's data, the current "blue chip" programs with a majority of 4-star rated recruits are: Alabama, Ohio State, USC, Notre Dame, LSU, Texas, Florida State, Michigan, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia. Teams with less than a 50% majority of 4-star recruits, the argument goes, are not championship caliber. The next six programs, with just under 50%, are: Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Clemson, Oregon, UCLA, and Stanford.
Similar thought processes to those above likely motivated Joe Schad's comments about the SEC West placing four teams in the top five of the AP college poll. And yet two SEC teams in last week's top three are noticeably absent from the list of "blue chip" programs above: Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Ole Miss has since lost to #23 LSU, but only dropped four spots to #7 in the AP poll, re-enforcing Kanell's argument that the SEC just rotates places atop the poll based on in-conference results.
Contrary to Schad's contention that the SEC has the best players, the #1 team in the country, Mississippi State, has finished outside the top 25 in recruiting in two of the last four years and has an average recruiting class ranking of 29 in the past four years, according to the 247composite ranking, which aggregates the recruiting rankings of all the top recruiting services. In-state rival Ole Miss has had an average recruiting class ranking of 23 during the past four years with only 25% of those recruits rated four stars or higher. Mississippi State's percentage of four star rated recruits is even lower.
There are serious drawbacks to relying on recruiting rankings when evaluating the best teams in college football. Recruiting rankings are generally compiled by people who aren't qualified to coach major college football and can unduly influence preseason rankings, which have a direct effect on the rest of the season. As Kanell pointed out on College Football Live, teams are ranked arbitrarily heading into the season. Other teams are then rewarded for beating highly ranked preseason teams.
The SEC is the biggest beneficiary of this phenomenon. This season #21 Texas A&M thrashed #9 South Carolina and shot up to #6 in the nation after wins over college football lightweights Lamar, Rice, SMU, and Arkansas (which has lost 15 straight SEC games). Meanwhile, South Carolina was exposed as a top-10 fraud after losses to Missouri and Kentucky. For its part, Texas A&M has since lost three games in a row by 15+ points and only fell out of the rankings after a 59-0 drubbing by Alabama. Meanwhile, teams like Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama are rewarded for beating a ranked Texas A&M. Add to that the fact that the SEC only plays eight conference games, unlike the nine games played by the Big 12 and Pac-12, along with a relatively weak non-conference schedule, and the SEC has a built-in advantage for keeping teams at the top of the rankings throughout the season.
Yes, the SEC has highly ranked recruiting classes year in and year out, but as Mississippi State and Ole Miss are showing us, highly ranked recruiting classes are not the only predictor of success in the SEC or in college football generally. Stanford, Oregon, Michigan State, Kansas State, and Baylor are other examples of teams who are regularly out of the top 10 in recruiting rankings but nonetheless frequent the top of the polls once the games are played.
With the advent of the College Football Playoff, the hope is that on-field results and schedule strength, particularly non-conference scheduling, will trump preseason hype, recruiting rankings, and other subjective factors. Because the playoff committee is basing their initial rankings on more than half a season's results, they have the opportunity to rely on statistics and on-field performance. But it's hard to think they won't also be swayed by already established narratives and rankings. Whatever the playoff committee's metrics, we'll know a lot more on Tuesday night when the first College Football Playoff rankings are released.