My guys Paul Wadlington (Scipio Tex) and Kevin Dunn have a very good podcast going these days called “Everyone gets a trophy!” that I recommend. It’s a weekly listen for me. In the most recent episode, Paul (in so many words) basically describes how college football is starting to experience something like the Matthew principle in terms of recruiting.
Paul notes that the biggest schools in the SEC are now pursuing a national recruiting strategy, which has a bunch of second order effects. Instead of being content with a bunch of local 3/4-stars, LSU, Alabama, or Georgia will go into New Jersey, Texas, or California to have a shot at getting more blue chip 4/5 stars. Consequently, the extremely talent-rich South has some high 3/4-star recruits available to the rest of the SEC or whomever is positioned to clean up (generally the rest of the SEC).
The result is a clustering of talent within the SEC and tremendous disparities between the conferences. I looked up the numbers at 247 and accumulated it into a table for easy consumption:
I added some of the Big 12 adjacent AAC programs to fill out the chart since the B1G and SEC each have 14 schools while the Big 12 has 10. I used blue chip ratio because it’s such an easy number to qualify the degree to which teams are loading up their rosters with the most sought after talent. I have major, noted reservations on the degree to which it is predictive but for broad strokes it’s useful. At the very least, it reveals where the HS players that are consensus talents are going to school and that’s far from meaningless.
Here’s what has to be acknowledged, the Big 12 is hopelessly behind on in many senses.
In my book, Flyover Football…
I noted the talent disparities and mention how that has helped turn the Big 12 into a main driver of tactical innovation. However, the recent increase in national recruiting is a game changer here that could direct where the sports goes in the future.
The blue-chip ratio truthers will argue that you have to be at 50% to win a National Championship. They get there mainly from the fact that 50% is a nice round number and you can fit it back on the list of teams that won the Championship since we had modern recruiting metrics and there aren’t any exceptions. Again, as I’ve demonstrated, if you go back to just a little before the modern recruiting era you find that one of the greatest teams in history wouldn’t have hit that 50% threshold. Those Nebraska teams had elite coaching and systems in place though to help them generate an edge.
Here’s how the leagues shook out in terms of how many programs were recruiting at a “championship level.”
Big 12: Texas, Oklahoma
Big 10: Ohio State, Michigan
SEC: Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M, Tennessee
This is pretty normal, since the early 2010s realignment the Big 12 has always only had two teams with nationally competitive resources while the Big 10 generally has 2-3 (with only one really putting it together) and the SEC has had five or more.
What’s a little more new is the degree to which the middle and bottom of the SEC is beating out the middle and bottom of the B1G or particularly the Big 12. Many would look at this and say that schools like Nebraska, Missouri, and Arkansas should really be back with their old brethren in the Big 12, but they’re making way more money from the TV contracts in their new leagues and that figures to continue in the coming years.
If you look at recruiting and NFL draft results, the Big 12 right now is basically comparable to the AAC in terms of player talent (obviously higher but not by much) and yet the TV money the league does generate combined with the highly skilled talent from Texas tends to result in the Big 12 having arguably the best coaching in the country. The league’s identity as a place of strategic innovation is likely to continue at least to some degree, the concern is that if college football consolidates in the future that the league will be left behind. I think that concern is a factor in why Baylor has been beefing up their investment into the football program. They want to show that they should have a place at the big table if we end up with four super conferences or else that the Big 12 can still be viable when Texas and Oklahoma are considering what’s next.
So what’s next?
I foresee a few consequences of this trend that are perhaps under appreciated right now.
Consequence 1: NSD2 isn’t the final word, beware the transfer portal!
How many of these blue chips are going to stick in the SEC and how many are going to end up transferring to Big 12/10 schools to find more playing time? Particularly amongst teams that load up at the skill positions or QB and then can’t distribute the ball to all of their 4-star WRs or RBs or get these increasingly highly skilled QBs some snaps?
They’ll end up at West Virginia or Oklahoma State, I reckon, and this will even out juuuuust a little. If these kids are all seeking the best path to getting into the NFL or getting on the field then they won’t stay clustered given today’s transfer rules.
Consequence 2: Flyover football is going to take hold even faster…
LSU ran a pass-first spread offense last year and wiped out the rest of the SEC and college football at large. That’s the future. Having a savvy QB playing behind a good line and distributing the ball to NFL WRs trumps pounding the ball to NFL RBs behind a good line with a less savvy or else underutilized QB that has a strong arm and tries to throw up some play-action now and again.
Running a pass-first system actually lends itself to the portal, because if your offense starts to come down to isolating a few WRs in space and protecting your QB to get them the ball then a single offseason is often enough to build the necessary chemistry between thrower and catcher if you have a savvy distributor as your trigger-man.
Teams that aren’t running these sorts of spread passing systems are going to be at a major disadvantage in the portal wars in trying to nab top pass-catchers or grad transfer OL/QBs.
Alabama’s idea previously was that by fielding consistently great defense and run game they could be more consistently great than teams that depended on having NFL-caliber QB/WR tandems. The increasing amount of skill that these kids have out of HS and the portal have erased that advantage. The Tide can no longer count on being able to avoid playing a team with high level talent and pro-style passing in the playoffs. Of course, they can also no longer count on being able to win the SEC without having to beat such a team.
Consequence 3: The sorts of players that teams value in recruiting will change
This is already happening but it’ll move along faster now. If I were to try and build a team to win a national championship but I could only expect to recruit at a 5-10% blue chip ratio then that would change which sorts of players I would prioritize.
The other day I rewatched the 2014 battle between the Kansas State Wildcats and the Baylor Bears to get a sense of the degree to which K-State was a pro-spread squad that year with slot WR Curry Sexton and WR Tyler Lockett both going over 1k yards. What I found was that they were totally swamped because A) they couldn’t stop Baylor’s O at all and B) they had to spend a lot of the game in 21 personnel because their line couldn’t block Shawn Oakman and Andrew Billings. Actually, they couldn’t block Beau Blackshear either. Oakman was a former bluechip they got on discount from Penn State because of off field troubles (yikes) while Billings was a 4-star local kid that they managed to snag in recruiting as one of their few blue chip signees.
Here were the blue-chips (4/5 stars) that 2014 Baylor had for their second straight B12 title winning squad: WRs Corey Coleman and KD Cannon, LT Spencer Drango, WDE Shawn Oakman, NT Andrew Billings, and CB Ryan Reid. Watching that game, Reid was matched up on Tyler Lockett a lot, often in single coverage. Lockett had 14 catches for 185 yards, some of it late with the game over, and Reid had three pass break-ups. In other words, Lockett did real damage but Reid made a difference in that game that allowed Baylor to survive a 1-on-1 matchup there.
That’s essentially where you need the high level talent in today’s game. Tackle, DL, WR, and CB. Everywhere else? You can find value-add but you can also get by with lower rated players that you developed. If you’re a team that simply can’t recruit blue chips at any position? You’d better have some ways to find NFL type talent at OT, DL, CB, and WR if you’re expecting to win at the highest levels.
In the near future we’ll look at how the Big 12 approached those positions with their 2020 recruiting classes and note which teams are in good shape and which teams are not.