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Recruiting data can predict college football’s next championship

Signing day matters. All five national champions in the College Football Playoff era assembled a top-10 recruiting class for the season they won the title. It’s hardly a surprise that teams boasting the best players reach the pinnacle of the pigskin pantheon. But with true freshmen contributing now more than ever, championship contenders need to recruit players who can make an instant impact out of high school every year.

In an era in which star rankings define every prospect group, a top-notch recruiting class has come to separate elite teams from the rest of the pack before any games are even played. Using recruiting trends of the past 10 years, we have put together a formula to predict who will win next year’s College Football Playoff National championship in New Orleans.

Sorry, you don’t have a direct line to Rob Mullens. The selection committee won’t help here. Think you can guess which team comes out on top?

1. Do you have an ESPN 300 quarterback on your roster?

All five College Football Playoff champions have had an ESPN 300 quarterback on their roster (though not necessarily playing in the championship game).

Out of 130 FBS teams, 62 currently have at least one ESPN 300 quarterback on the roster. Notable teams that don’t include Florida State, Arizona, Iowa, Vanderbilt and Texas Tech.

2. Did you sign at least one five-star recruit in the previous three classes?

The first five playoff champions have all had multiple five-star players on their roster.

There are 16 schools that signed at least one five-star player from 2017 to 2019: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M and UCLA.

3. Have you averaged a top-10 class over the past four recruiting cycles?

Each of the five playoff champions consistently finished with top-10 classes on the signing days leading up to their national title. Alabama landed the top class in each of the four cycles before its 2015 championship. The weakest of the five champions was 2016 Clemson, whose average rank from 2013 to 2016 was 9.3.

This test knocks us down to six contenders: Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, LSU, Michigan and Ohio State.

4. Are you locking down the home state?

The five playoff champions have all landed at least one-third of in-state ESPN 300 recruits in the four years leading up to winning the title.

Georgia (39-of-136) falls short of that mark; though to be fair, the state of Georgia produced nearly twice as many ESPN 300 prospects (136) as Ohio, South Carolina and Michigan combined (74).

5. Are you bringing in top-tier defensive talent?

It’s often said that defense wins championships, and that has been the case for the playoff champions thus far. Each of the winners signed at least five defensive players ranked in the top 50 overall in the four recruiting cycles prior to their title.

Sorry, Michigan (four).

6. Do you have one of the best incoming classes in your conference?

Four of the five champions brought in the best recruiting class in their conference for the season they won the title, and Clemson brought in the second-best class in the ACC in 2016 (behind Florida State).

LSU currently has the fourth-best class in the SEC in 2019, while Ohio State’s ranks third in the Big Ten. Alabama and Clemson have the best classes in their respective conferences.

Conclusions

Clemson has been the thorn in Alabama’s side, beating the Crimson Tide twice in the past three seasons. The Tigers won it all last season after putting together the fifth-best recruiting class in 2018 — one spot better than Alabama. It doesn’t seem like the Tigers are going away anytime soon, either.

Based on our formula, it seems we’re staring down a fifth straight meeting between Alabama and Clemson in the College Football Playoff. Who wins the title? At least based on recruiting, it’s too close to call.

Nick Saban has crafted a masterful class in 2019. It is Alabama’s sixth top-tier group in eight years and the 11th top-three of Saban’s tenure. Saban and the Crimson Tide owned the nation’s top recruiting class in both 2015 and 2017 — both years they won the national championship. This year, Alabama has two five-star recruits — three who are top-rated at their positions — and altogether the Crimson Tide have a record 25 ESPN 300 prospects committed or signed.

The Tigers, meanwhile, solidified a fifth consecutive top-10 class by signing all 27 of their commitments during the early signing period. Dabo Swinney’s path to restocking a defense that ranked fifth in total defense in 2018 begins with Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones, two of the top 15 cornerbacks in the nation. The Tigers also signed five four- and three-star defensive linemen in this class. They will compete with 2018 five-stars K.J. Henry and Xavier Thomas to replace all five starting defensive lineman from this past season’s championship squad.

ESPN Stats & Information’s Troy Perlowitz and Bryan Ives contributed to this story.

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