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Power ranking college football’s recruiting monopolies

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Some major football powers are built upon their ability to monopolize in-state recruiting.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Over at SB Nation I have a piece examining Mack Brown’s early moves at UNC to try and build out the Tar Heel football program to be remotely as competitive as their basketball team. It’s pretty obvious that the major impediment to UNC being great at football is the fact that they seem pretty content as a basketball power. The school is very well situated to be better than we’ve seen on the gridiron.

While researching for that article I looked up North Carolina’s overall population (10.3 million), how many blue chip recruits they’ve produced per 247’s composite rankings from 2015-2019, and then how many of those recruits ended up attending UNC. Having found that data, I looked for similarly sized states to compare them against...the results became so fascinating that I ended up collecting that data on almost every state in the nation.

North Carolina produced an average of 10 blue chip players per year over that recent five year stretch and 1.8 of them per year went to UNC. That sounds pretty bad and there’s obvious potential here for Mack Brown to improve their standing, so far he’s already made major headway in keeping a bigger share of the state’s top talents from going elsewhere.

For comparison’s sake, the state of Michigan has a population of 9.9 million people and yielded 7.6 blue chips per year over that same period of time. Despite competing with Michigan State and Big 10 poachers, the Wolverines signed 14 in-state blue chips for an average of 2.8 per year, which is obviously not overwhelming but still significantly better than UNC has done on their own turf. Michigan also has some regular haunts they like to frequent for talent out of the state, protecting their own turf has never been as significant a part of their strategy.

After surveying the various states within the major conferences I came across the following schools that are situated super favorably for football dominance for the way they can monopolize in-state recruiting. Here they are, ranked in descending order.

Honorable mention: The Arkansas Razorbacks

State population: 3 million people

Arkansan blue chips per year over 2015-2019: 3.8

Arkansan blue chips signed by AR over 2015-2019: 3

The Razorbacks don’t let many in-state players slip away. Like the other schools on this list, they are the only major football power within the state and thus have the clout and the local buy-in to dominate in-state recruiting when they have a mind to. The challenge for Arkansas is that they’re unfavorably situated in terms of recruiting outside of the state, Fayetteville is up in the Ozarks and not a nearby or particularly relevant option for any of the surrounding metroplexes with major talent. One of their traditional methods was to go into DFW and East Texas, which is now trickier due to their SEC affiliation than in say the Big 12, although they are well compensated for that affiliation.

No. 5: The Oklahoma Sooners

State population: 3.9 million people

Oklahoman blue chips per year over 2015-2019: 5

Oklahoman blue chips signed by OU over 2015-2019: 2.2

An important factor to remember is that if a state is producing a certain volume of blue chip prospects that means it’s share of quality three-star players is also likely to be pretty high. The state of Oklahoma punches well above its weight in terms of producing good football players per capita and many of the Sooners’ better teams over the years have included in-state players. Ironically, they took a knockout blow in the playoffs last year from a 3-star Oklahoman that Alabama poached from the state, Josh Jacobs:

The Sooners have always filled out their roster with Texas kids as well, as the Lone Star state is loaded and produced 49.4 blue chips per year over the 2015-2019 window, and they’ve also done well to reach out into neighboring southern states or to poach from California or Arizona. Oklahoma is fairly well known for having a national recruiting brand and strategy, but what is often missed is the fact that they can generally count on bolstering those classes every year with local players. Oklahoma State recruits the state hard as well, but when big brother wants a recruit the Cowboys generally have to grit their teeth and move on to the next player on the board.

Having the first pick of in-state players is the biggest advantage a school can have and it’s a bigger advantage for the Sooners than many realize. Add that to their ability to recruit Texas and then the subsequent national clout they gain for their success and you have a nice formula.

No. 4: The Wisconsin Badgers

State population: 5.8 million people

Wisconsinite blue chips per year over 2015-2019: .6

Wisconsinite blue chips signed by UW over 2015-2019: .2

I include the Badgers here because while their in-state players are never ranked highly, that often ends up looking rather off. What’s more, not only do they typically lock down their state but they regularly obtain in-state prospects via walk-on, saving scholarships for out of state recruits. Wisconsin has DOMINATED the B1G West since the division was established and their in-state recruiting base is clearly a major reason for that success.

Over the 2015-2019 period, the Badgers had eight players drafted by the NFL that were originally Wisconsinites (two from the Watt family), two of which were from their walk-on program (Joe Schobert, Jack Cichy). It seems fair to say that their state is under evaluated, feel free to revisit this if they do indeed start a Wisconsin kid at all five OL positions this year and Jonathan Taylor runs for another 1500+ yards.

The Badgers program strategy is built around the OL, TEs, and LBs that their state practically grows on the dairy farms that litter the state. The fact that they get so much quality from those ranks AND are able to save scholarships for out of state players makes for a potent 1-2 recruiting punch.

No. 3: The Penn State Nittany Lions

State population: 12.8 million

Pennsylvanian blue chips per year over 2015-2019: 8.6 per year

Pennsylvanian blue chips signed by PSU over 2015-2019: 5 per year

The Nittany Lions were defined for so long by Joe Paterno that it’s often very difficult to divorce perceptions about the program’s natural position in the region from the achievements of their longtime head coach. When over half your program’s wins, all of its national titles, and three of its four conference titles came under the same guy because he was present for an entire half-century it becomes tricky to suss out what is attributable to the coach and what’s normal for the program.

Similarly, James Franklin now has a great reputation as a recruiter for what he’s achieved at Penn State, but this program has all kinds of advantages working in its favor. Today we’re talking about in-state but it should also be noted that Penn State is the strongest nearby major football power for New Jersey (7.8 blue chips per year), the D.C./Baltimore area (8.6 blue chips per year), and Virginia (10.4 blue chips per year). They know it, too and tend to rely on those areas to fill out their nationally ranked classes.

The state of Pennsylvania can be carved up into two major spheres, the Mid-Atlantic (Philladelphia) and then Northern Appalachia (Pittsburgh and most everything in between):

State College is located smack dab between Pittsburgh and Philly so it’s easy for the school to present itself as the local option for a pretty wide recruiting turf that spans the state, lacks another major power, as well as the local option for the surrounding regions to the south and east. Whenever Franklin’s time is up in State College don’t be shocked if the next head coach is able to have similar success in recruiting talented rosters.

No. 2: The Ohio State Buckeyes

State population: 11.7 million

Ohioan blue chips per year over 2015-2019: 14.4 per year

Ohioan blue chips signed by tOSU over 2015-2019: 5.8 per year

The Buckeyes ceded some of their local turf in recent seasons, particularly 2018 when the state yielded 12 blue chip prospects and the Buckeyes claimed only four while building the nation’s no. 2 rated class by raiding Florida (five players) and the greater South (seven players). Recently new head coach Ryan Day emphasized that staying home for Ohioans will be a greater priority under his regime and it’s notable that Jim Tressell rebuilt the program by getting back to locking down the state. Urban Meyer took the program national in his latter seasons but the 2014 national champions included 15 Ohioans amongst the 22 starters in the starting lineup for the postseason. You have to wonder if teams lose a certain esprit de corps when they rely on national recruiting to fill out the roster and then ask blue chips from around the country to band together and sacrifice for a tradition they didn’t grow up revering.

Like everywhere else, the fairly large number of blue chip talents in Ohio also indicates a large number of promising three-star talents that can really bolster a roster if the staff takes advantage of their proximity to scout and prioritize the right ones. That was a big reason for Meyer’s early success in Columbus, picking off some three-star in-state talents that proved fantastic players.

The main advantage for Ohio State is that they are THE P5 program within the state of Ohio and they enjoy tremendous advantages on the recruiting trail as a result with most of the state pulling for them in every recruiting battle with every advantage that can bring. To be the clear no. 1 choice for in-state kids in a state as talented as Ohio is a big advantage and arguably the no. 1 reason for their dominance over Michigan since Tressell locked down the borders.

No. 1: The LSU Tigers

State population: 4.2 million

Louisianan blue chips per year over 2015-2019: 14.2 per year

Louisianan blue chips signed by LSU over 2015-2019: 8.4 per year

Oklahoma punches above its weight in terms of talent output per capita but Louisiana is miles ahead of the rest of the country in this regard. From 2015 to 2019 this state produced more blue chips per year than every other state in the US except Texas (28.7 million people), Georgia (10.5 million people), Florida (21.2 million people), California (39.6 million people), and Ohio (11.7 million people).

Neighboring states Mississippi and Alabama also did well, and Tennessee did okay as well, but those states all have multiple P5 programs with a major football emphasis on football fighting over the recruits. Louisiana has zero competition from within the state and they fight hard and well to keep away rival poachers. It also helps that New Orleans has a unique culture, 14 of the state’s population, and is cut off from the other SEC powers by Baton Rouge. While Ohio still has to fight at times to fend off Michigan, whom they’ve scarcely lost to this century, LSU loses to Alabama nearly every year yet still locks down a sizable majority of their in-state blue chips.

Whereas other state schools have to fight reasonably close powers to hold onto their talent, it’s very difficult for LSU to recruit poorly given their hold on the state of Louisiana. Their biggest concerns from year to year are more often things like, “did we pick the right three-star kids that are going to end up being NFL players?” because the state doesn’t lack for those either.

There are other schools with favorable geography or demographics but few are set up to monopolize smaller in-state talent pools and build from there like these programs.