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College football's imbalance of recruiting power

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Recruiting power is concentrated among a small group of schools year-in and year-out.

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Recruiting is said to be the lifeblood of any college football program. The numbers play this out. Numerous analyses support the ideas that the best recruiting programs tend to win championshipshigher-ranked recruits have a better shot at getting drafted. Having a high blue chip percentage is nearly a prerequisite for winning a championship.

No one is going to dispute that some programs identify lesser-recruited prospects better, develop players after they're on campus, or adapt Xs and Os to the personnel they have at their disposal better. Wisconsin, Baylor, and TCU are all examples here. But in general, recruiting matters, and it matters a great deal.

But if recruiting is highly correlated with in-season success, most teams around the country are at a comparative disadvantage because of the clear hierarchy that is apparent every national signing day. Put simply, most elite recruits go to a small handfull of schools and the rich continue to get richer.

College football is based around inequalities and hierarchies, both in-conference and nationally. Power 5 conferences are separated from Group of 5 conferences in New Year's Six bowl selections. Some programs have near-infinite administrative support and financial resources to devote to football. And the results are clear, with blue-blood programs continuing to rake in conference championships and playoff appearances. Inequality isn't necessarily a bug of the NCAA set up -- it's a feature. Parity (theoretically) defines the NFL, but college football has legendary upsets because of the inequalities between schools.

So, with a sixth-straight Alabama recruiting championship, I decided to take a look at blue chip recruits over the last four years to see how much blue chip recruits cluster in to the same small group of schools.

Where five-star recruits go to school

I first looked at the five-star recruits over the last four years according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings. I wanted to look at four-star recruits as well, but in the interest of time I focused on five-stars to begin with. There were 24 in 2016, 35 in 2015, 33 in 2014, and 34 in 2013.

That's a total of 126 five-stars in four years. Those 126 elite recruits went to a total of just 30 schools. Out of 128 Division I FBS programs, only 23% received at least one five-star commit in four years. Less than half of Power 5 programs have a five-star player on their roster (and likely less due to attrition and transfers). That also means that those 30 schools averaged 4.2 five-star commits in that time span, or a little more than one per recruiting class.

This concentration of power was most apparent in 2015, where 35 five-star recruits picked between just 15 total schools, or 2.3 five-star commits per program. Alabama had seven five-star commits, while Florida State had four.

Power is even more concentrated at the top of the recruiting rankings

You might think that there is decent recruiting parity among that group of 30 schools to pull in a five-star, but there is further concentration at the top as well.

Of those 30 teams, 16 had only one or two five-star recruits in the last four years. Over half landed a big fish -- but never built on that big haul. For instance, several years ago Virginia landed five stars Quin Blanding and Andrew Brown, but this year their highest-ranked recruit was a three-star running back.

13 of the 30, so a little more than a third, averaged at least one five-star recruit per year. So that's at least some mark of consistency. If there are an average of 32 five-stars per recruiting class, and you get a commitment from one of them every year, then that's a good sign that you're consistent and likely pulling in a number of four-star blue chippers as well. Finally, power was further concentrated in that group of 13 elite recruiting schools, as Alabama and USC average at least three five-stars per class.

An even smaller group of schools recruits at an elite level consistently

But what about a school like Ohio State, where they have finished with top five recruiting classes in three of the last four years, but only have four five-stars in those four classes? Ohio State wins recruiting battles for four star players more than five stars, but does that make them any less of a recruiting power house?

The table below has the top ten recruiting classes over the last four years according to the 247 Sports Composite Team Rankings:

2016 2015 2014 2013
Alabama Alabama Alabama Alabama
Florida State USC LSU Ohio State
LSU Florida State Ohio State Florida
Ohio State Tennessee Florida State Michigan
Michigan Georgia Texas A&M Notre Dame
Ole Miss LSU Auburn LSU
Georgia Ohio State Tennessee UCLA
USC Auburn Georgia Ole Miss
Auburn Clemson Florida Texas A&M
Clemson Texas USC Auburn

Switching over to 247 Composite team rankings as an indicator of recruiting ability, a total of 16 teams have had a top-ten class in the last four years. That's astounding -- if a different set of teams made up the top ten every year then there would be 40 teams, but only sixteen teams have even had a single top-ten finish in the last four years. That means that the same group of football programs tends to finish with an elite class -- so the rich just get richer.

Finally, only four football programs have had a top-ten finish in each of the last four years: Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, and Auburn. It's really no surprise that the two teams to win a College Football Playoff have the highest average recruiting finish in the last four years.

School Alabama Ohio State LSU Auburn
Average finish 1 4 4.25 8.25

There are a number of talent-rich areas around the country, from Florida and Georgia to Texas, California, and Ohio. And the best recruiting programs tend to be in or near those talent-rich states.

We're dealing with limited data and I only looked at five-star recruits for the bulk of this, but the degree of concentrated recruiting power is really incredible.