Does college football have a problem with 5-star hoarding?

Ian Boyd

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There were 34 high school players that were awarded 5-stars by the 247 composite score in the class of 2021. 5-star players are an interesting breed because they more closely match the reality of recruiting. In reality, the difference between a 2-star, a 3-star, and a 4-star is often less than you’d think. In total the averages should matter but they don’t always, so much hinges on development and developmental curves.

The number of truly transcendent players is also fairly limited. Schools like Alabama restock their defensive line with top rated players every year but there’s typically only one or maybe two guys who are truly transcendent trouble-makers for opposing offenses.

In terms of raw athleticism and recognizing elite attributes, 5-star kids often make up a pretty good chunk of the transcendent athletes.

Check out the 5-stars on the last five National Championship squads.

2016: Clemson
Mitch Hyatt (left tackle), Dexter Lawrence (nose tackle)

Clemson mostly won the title due to flooding the field with high level targets for Deshaun Watson, but Hyatt was certainly instrumental in protecting their deadly empty formations that flexed out Jordan Leggett and Hunter Renfrow with Mike Williams wide and Lawrence joined forces with some other blue chips to win the trenches for their defense.

2017: Alabama
Damien Harris (running back), Calvin Ridley (wide receiver), Robert Foster (wide receiver), Jonah Williams (left tackle), Da’Shawn Hand (defensive end), Da’Ron Payne (nose tackle), RaShaan Evans (linebacker), Minkah Fitzpatrick (nickel)

Alabama would have lost the title if not for Tua Tagovailoa stepping in to throw bombs to their multiple 5-star receiving talents. This was the last great Alabama defense and it was powered mostly by 5-stars Da’Ron Payne at the nose and then Minkah Fitzpatrick playing nickel or dime and taking away the seams in coverage.

2018: Clemson
Trevor Lawrence (quarterback), Tee Higgins (wide receiver), Mitch Hyatt (left tackle), Dexter Lawrence (nose tackle), Christian Wilkins (defensive tackle)

Similar formula for Clemson as 2016.

2019: LSU
Terrace Marshall (wide receiver), K’Lavon Chaisson (edge), JaCoby Stevens (safety), Kristian Fulton (cornerback), Derek Stingley (cornerback)

LSU ended up putting something like 45 players into the NFL from their starting lineup, they had a lot of 4-star athletes who proved to have NFL athleticism and their aggressive offensive scheme was the primary driver of their success. That said, the reason they made Clemson look overmatched by the end was Fulton and Stingley locking down Dabo Swinney’s receivers.

2020: Alabama
Najee Harris (running back), Alex Leatherwood (left tackle), Evan Neal (right tackle), LaBryan Ray (defensive tackle), Dylan Moses (inside linebacker), Patrick Surtain (cornerback)

Alabama’s offensive line were arguably the true champions of 2020, although you have to also give a lot of credit to DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, who were 4-stars. Both were lighter, smaller guys coming out of high school and knocked a bit for it. Patrick Surtain was rated so highly because he’s 6-2, 200 pounds yet had the athleticism to play press-man coverage. Similarly, Neal and Leatherwood were 6-5+, 300+ pound athletes even in high school, so it was obvious they’d be high level talents in the college game.

If you already know a player will be an NFL caliber athlete with NFL size when they’re 17 years old, it’s a good indicator they’ll be good players. As the 2019 LSU Tigers sort of revealed, there are plenty of NFL players outside of the 5-star ranks, but signing a large chunk of the obvious transcendent athletes is a useful trick.

The 2021 5-stars

Here’s how the 5-stars in the 2021 class were dispersed across the nation:

2021 5-stars.jpg

Judging from the map and an understanding of which bigger schools are located where, you’d probably guess the schools who made out best were Georgia, Clemson, and perhaps one of the Florida schools.

In fact, here’s how the tally looks with a pair of players yet unsigned.

Alabama: Six 5-stars
Ohio State: Four 5-stars
Georgia: Four 5-stars
North Carolina: Two 5-stars
Miami: Two 5-stars
Clemson: Two 5-stars
And then Texas, USC, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Maryland, Washington, Florida, LSU, Oregon, and Michigan are each signing one apiece.

Obviously an awful lot of talent is being accumulated by a few particular schools. Look back and you’ll see consistency. Alabama signed three 5-stars in 2019 and four more in 2010, Georgia signed five and then four, Ohio State signed three of those two classes, and Clemson got one in 2019 and five in 2020. Other than Oklahoma and Notre Dame, these are the same schools we tend to keep seeing in the College Football Playoff.

Oklahoma has signed four 5-stars now in the last three classes, Notre Dame has signed one, both of them have been beaten in the first round multiple times.

All these trends raise obvious questions for people about parity in the college game, has talent ever been hoarded quite like this with national recruiting strategies by a few top schools? How could it be ameliorated to level the playing field? Those concerns are then typically countered with the argument this sort of hoarding is not new.

The counterargument is basically right. From 1998 to 2013 in the BCS era, you’d see a fair number of fluctuations in which teams were able to make the title game but often some major hoarding in terms of prospects. USC signed at least five 5-star players in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010. However they never reached the BCS title game again after 2005 (nearly made it in 2008) and have never really stopped signing large numbers of 5-star recruits. Florida was stockpiling blue chips in a similar fashion from 2007 through 2010 under Urban Meyer before he left and imparted his high level recruiting to the Buckeye program.

The Gators never really tasted the fruit of their high level recruiting either, it peaked when they were winning titles but some of the highest rated classes saw disappointing finishes to the runs. Today’s Georgia fans are keenly aware Kirby Smart’s ability to hoard high numbers of the 5-stars the state is producing these days has not yet yielded even a second playoff run, much less a National Championship.

Between those historical trends and the fact Ohio State is recruiting at an elite level these days despite having to reach into Texas, Washington, and Virginia in this class in order to sign 5-stars, there’s good historical precedent for believing the list of schools hoarding talent will change in the future. So what’s truly different?

What’s potentially different is the College Football Playoff and full-time recruiting personnel.

Back in the day it was hard to hold onto major recruiting momentum because it was exceedingly difficult to reach the BCS title game. Only two teams made it, you see, whereas today four make the mark. Clemson has been to the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and it’s only a seven-year old event. No one else in the ACC has been able to block their pathway.

Notre Dame has made it twice for similar reasons, they have a relatively easy path, and Alabama and Ohio State have massive, well-oiled machines that maintain a recruiting edge over the rest of their conferences and help them make repeated trips. Oklahoma has been feasting as well, stacking up wins and championships in a Big 12 in which the only one other team with comparable resources spent the last decade shooting themselves in the foot.

The key here is the preservation of momentum. If you can consistently keep your school as one of the IT programs regularly playing on New Year’s for a National Championship, you can maintain a recruiting edge vis a vis your main regional rivals. What’s more, these schools often have increasingly massive recruiting departments who maintain more continuity than the coaching staff and can preserve those edges more easily.

You’ll regularly see teams win championships, experience an exodus of assistant coaches for promotions elsewhere, and then even if the recruiting had actually ticked up the school will falter due to an inability to adjust to losing the assistants and the recruiting ticks back down. Well the recruiting needn’t tick down with well staffed recruiting departments so things instead hinge on how well the head coach replaces assistants.

This is “the thing” to watch for the coming seasons. Ohio State has been promoting grad assistants the last few years to replace departing coaches. Dabo Swinney could be about to lose one of the last remaining offensive coaches from the brain trust who helped build the championship teams of 2016 and 2018 in Tony Elliott. Alabama is facing a total rebuild of their offensive staff after they essentially all left to take over at Texas, which is fairly normal for the Tide.

Historically it’s been the poaching of assistants which has submarined would be dynasties. Woody Hayes lost Bo Schembechler and then, worse, gained him as a rival up north at Michigan and had one of his finest runs of teams denied National Championships in the “Ten Year War.” This famous stretch was actually a span of 11 games in which the Wolverines and Buckeyes went 5-5-1 against each other, it concluded with Michigan winning three in a row and Woody Hayes losing his mind and taking a swing at an opposing player in a bowl game, leading to his dismissal.

There’s a few areas in which things feel different than in previous eras. National recruiting becoming a mainstream practice by major schools, massive recruiting departments and budgets, and the college football playoffs have all helped a few schools entrench themselves at the top of the standings and recruiting rankings every year. However staff breakups are what tend to end dynasties and Nick Saban is the only coach who’s been proven to be inoculated for that ailment.

So while the Matthew Principle has always played out in college football, it's still too early to be worried about a permanent caste system established amongst the elites.
 

sonofaplum

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Full time permanent recruiting staffs are a really interesting (and probably to the general football fan) underrated development.

An expanded playoff would probably help counteract some of the centralization.

I also wonder what is better for average member of, say, the SEC. Having A) one of four or five good SEC teams make the playoffs every year, or B) having Alabama always be a legit title contender with the opportunity to sometimes have another team in the playoffs. Because you would think that at some point there would be a push for increased parity within conferences if it's A, but you haven't really seen that, and psychologically it seems like B is the more common reaction.
 

stilesbbq

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The biggest problem with five star/blue chip hoarding has been that SC and Texas havent been consistently good enough to hold off the rest of the blue bloods from coming in and stealing their in-state talent. OSU and Bama classes look a lot different if the kids they sign from Texas and CA stay at home.

To a lesser extent this is true with FSU and Florida. So many schools recruit FL that the state largely ends being a bloodbath but if two of FSU/UF/Miami were up at the same time that area would look a lot different too
 
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sherf1

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The biggest problem with five star/blue chip hoarding has been that SC and Texas havent been consistently good enough to hold off the rest of the blue bloods from coming in and stealing their in-state talent. OSU and Bama classes look a lot different if the kids they sign from Texas and CA stay at home.

To a lesser extent this is true with FSU and Florida. So many schools recruits FL that the state largely ends being a bloodbath but if two of FSU/UF/Miami were up at the same time that area would look a lot different too
Agreed, and while it's obviously easier to win with 5*s, we've seen over and over again the key catalyst is good coaching. Not surprisingly, Texas and USC have had very spotty coaching hires in their decade+ in the wilderness.

Just righting those programs will go a long way toward adding some balance back into the books.

Ideally every conference will have at least two schools who are at least competative on the big stage consistently and there's some actual speed bumps in place so it's not the same teams in the playoffs every year.

So we basically need Texas, USC and I guess Oregon, Michigan (or Penn State/Wisconsin) Florida State to get their stuff together the next few years. And of course UGA and Florida to eventually challenge Bama, please. But if any of the schools listed above get consistently good that will help bring Bama recruiting slightly more down to earth with more talent staying home.
 
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stilesbbq

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Agreed, and while it's obviously easier to win with 5*s, we've seen over and over again the key catalyst is good coaching. Not surprisingly, Texas and USC have had very spotty coaching hires in their decade+ in the wilderness.

Just righting those programs will go a long way toward adding some balance back into the books.

Ideally every conference will have at least two schools who are at least competative on the big stage consistently and there's some actual speed bumps in place so it's not the same teams in the playoffs every year.

So we basically need Texas, USC and I guess Oregon, Michigan (or Penn State/Wisconsin) Florida State to get their stuff together the next few years. And of course UGA and Florida to eventually challenge Bama, please. But if any of the schools listed above get consistently good that will help bring Bama recruiting slightly more down to earth with more talent staying home.
Parity also makes it easier for UT to win a national championship so there are some selfish reasons we should be rooting for that as well.

From my view, USC has an (ok?) coach who looks like he has weathered the storm and recruited well enough to have some stability if they reach the CCG next year. As long as they can handle ASU I think they can do that fairly handily. Cristobal has turned Oregon into a crootin machine and with a down SC and UW I think that actually helps the case for national parity as it should be easier for the Ducks to stack west coast talent

Michigan and PSU I think are finding new coaches after next season. Wisconsin seems to be ascending and just signed their best recruiting class ever. Gonna be a while before any non OSU team wins that conference though

With their systemic issues I dont think FSU gets back anytime soon. UF and Miami though look like they each might have something going.

I really truly believe in Sark and will not hear logical reasons to be pessimistic. Between Texas, UF, Oregon and maybe Wisco/SC/Miami there is enough hope that the CFB oligarchy might be ending soon but we'll see
 
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sherf1

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Parity also makes it easier for UT to win a national championship so there are some selfish reasons we should be rooting for that as well.

From my view, USC has an (ok?) coach who looks like he has weathered the storm and recruited well enough to have some stability if they reach the CCG next year. As long as they can handle ASU I think they can do that fairly handily. Cristobal has turned Oregon into a crootin machine and with a down SC and UW I think that actually helps the case for national parity as it should be easier for the Ducks to stack west coast talent

Michigan and PSU I think are finding new coaches after next season. Wisconsin seems to be ascending and just signed their best recruiting class ever. Gonna be a while before any non OSU team wins that conference though

With their systemic issues I dont think FSU gets back anytime soon. UF and Miami though look like they each might have something going.

I really truly believe in Sark and will not hear logical reasons to be pessimistic. Between Texas, UF, Oregon and maybe Wisco/SC/Miami there is enough hope that the CFB oligarchy might be ending soon but we'll see
Yep, and there;s some other external things that could help. Saban eventually retiring, Day going to the NFL and OSU taking a step back, Clemson having some less stellar years if they don't replace staff well, etc. At some point some of these things will happen and bring the 3 runaway programs back to earth slightly.
 
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stilesbbq

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If the key to keeping elite recruiting going is momentum, then enlarging the playoff could encourage less parity not more.

Very interesting that transfers, opt outs, meaningless bowls, and blue chip hoarding took off during the playoff era and the solution to those problems for a lot of folks is more playoffs.
 

Ian Boyd

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If the key to keeping elite recruiting going is momentum, then enlarging the playoff could encourage less parity not more.

Very interesting that transfers, opt outs, meaningless bowls, and blue chip hoarding took off during the playoff era and the solution to those problems for a lot of folks is more playoffs.
If you keep digging, you’ll reach China.
 

longhorn clayton

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The biggest problem with five star/blue chip hoarding has been that SC and Texas havent been consistently good enough to hold off the rest of the blue bloods from coming in and stealing their in-state talent. OSU and Bama classes look a lot different if the kids they sign from Texas and CA stay at home.

To a lesser extent this is true with FSU and Florida. So many schools recruit FL that the state largely ends being a bloodbath but if two of FSU/UF/Miami were up at the same time that area would look a lot different too
hell yeah, if texas was actually playing at a 10+ win level every season, OSU/Bama/LSU top tier talent would automatically diminish quite a bit. Guys Like bear Alexander wouldn’t be going to Georgia as much, or all the OSU texas boys
 

kevinbelt

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In the Big Ten, there's a perception that lower recruiting rankings are actually more desirable than higher ones. This is part of the Wisconsin-Iowa-MSU model of recruiting two and three star guys and then redshirting them and developing them over five years until they're first round draft picks. Some of this is because there have been some pretty high-profile guys who fit this profile (e.g., JJ Watt), but also because there have been some high-profile five-stars who flopped pretty badly. (I'm looking at you, Terrelle Pryor, although calling a guy who won three conference championships and started three BCS games in three years, winning two of them, a "flop" says something about expectations.) I don't follow recruiting well enough to know whether this is actually true, but at least anecdotally, it seems to me that five-star flops are not really a thing anymore. I used to think that what set schools like OSU and Alabama apart was that the majority of their five-star guys actually hit - they ended up being multi-year starters and NFL guys. But just looking around the Big Ten, the five-stars that are falling to lesser schools are hitting, too. Micah Parsons was Penn State's best player, Daxton Hill was Michigan's best defender, and Rakim Jarrett was an instant-impact freshman for Maryland. Am I correct that the recruiting services seem to be evaluating high-end talent better than they were ten years ago? A lot of the Tressel-era five-stars who didn't succeed tended to be athletic freaks who were able to dominate high school competition without actually learning to play the game well (like Pryor). I get the sense that the five-stars of today tend to still be athletic freaks, but also more diligent in the film room and on the practice field. Maybe Meyer, Day, Saban, Dabo are better at identifying these more studious athletic freaks, and that's a competitive advantage? I don't know. I'm thinking out loud here because I don't know much about recruiting, but it really does seem like not only OSU's five-stars, but the guys at Alabama and Clemson are better than the five-stars of previous years. Am I off base here?
 

sonofaplum

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If you keep digging, you’ll reach China.
I mean whatever your feelings about the playoffs (and I was against them for a long time) they aren't going away. And the rest of those problems aren't because of the playoffs, they stem from the same root cause as the playoffs, which is

$$$MONEY$$$

opt outs because players don't want to mess with their money. transfers because players want more opportunities to play and get the nfl money, and because schools don't want to risk lawsuits that might mess with their money and so they are desperate to keep "labor" peace as much as possible. blue chip hoarding because winning is more valuable so it make sense to invest in full time recruiting staffs. Playoffs because the schools and leagues couldn't say no to the money.

so the question isn't, what can we do to increase parity, its what can we do to increase parity while increasing or at least not messing up the money. And i think an expanded playoff is really the only logical solution there. That or scholarship reductions across the board. Or allowing third parties to openly pay players.
 
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sonofaplum

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If the key to keeping elite recruiting going is momentum, then enlarging the playoff could encourage less parity not more.

Very interesting that transfers, opt outs, meaningless bowls, and blue chip hoarding took off during the playoff era and the solution to those problems for a lot of folks is more playoffs.
I think the argument is it would allow more teams to share in that "momentum"
 
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stilesbbq

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I think the argument is it would allow more teams to share in that "momentum"
I get the argument but I think it's short-sighted. I think it is more likely that a larger playing field allows dominant schools to keep momentum more easily than it does up and coming teams to gain some.

In an 8-team playoff Bama is almost guaranteed to make it every year. In a BCS style system they at least have some shot to miss the big game

I also think that recruits arent really going to be persuaded by a token playoff appearance vs consistent dominance and NFL Draft production. Finishing 6th in the country wont help up and coming schools beat out OSU, Bama, Clemson in head to heads
 

melodicmarc

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Great read, however I would argue that the bigger key to keeping momentum for these dynasties is their ability to send players to the NFL draft in the 1st round (Sometimes the 1st 3 or 4 rounds). If a school is able to do that at a couple of key positions, than they will be able to sustain success. While I do think being a regular in the playoffs contributes to recruiting success, I believe the recruits care more about the NFL draft. I also think location plays probably a bigger key role in recruiting than playoff success as long as you have the name (See USC). This is the huge advantage Texas has over OU. Texas can always recruit despite their success level or NFL pipeline success.

In the long term, the model for success at OU has to be the same model that Clemson succeeded in, even though we are a top 5 program in college football history. The only way we can get to that level right now is through intelligent recruiting and development. But once we get there it becomes self sustaining as long as you don't mess it up. If OU can get a couple of more players in the first round or early second (crossing my fingers on Perkins and Creed) then it will ratchet our recruiting success up another notch. the 2022 NFL draft will be even bigger. OU has 4 guys that are definite first round potential (Bonitto, Winfrey, Asamoah, Ugwoebu). Its the same reason OU can get a bunch of 5 star talent at WR and QB these days. When you put Kyler, Baker, Ceedee, Hollywood Brown, and Shepard that high in the draft, then that's the point where 5 stars want to play for you.

The one thing OU and Texas fans both need to be worried about is what A&M is doing right now. We need them to fail and stop stealing our recruits.
 

sonofaplum

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I get the argument but I think it's short-sighted. I think it is more likely that a larger playing field allows dominant schools to keep momentum more easily than it does up and coming teams to gain some.

In an 8-team playoff Bama is almost guaranteed to make it every year. In a BCS style system they at least have some shot to miss the big game

I also think that recruits arent really going to be persuaded by a token playoff appearance vs consistent dominance and NFL Draft production. Finishing 6th in the country wont help up and coming schools beat out OSU, Bama, Clemson in head to heads
I agree that the BCS was better for parity. I think an 8 or 16 team playoff would probably be better than the current 4 team setup but they probably wouldn't significantly reverse the trend.

I could see scholarship reductions being the kind of reform that gains momentum. 5 star qbs are probably more dispersed than other positions because they transfer aggressively when they don't play, and I wonder if either fewer scholarships per team, or a smaller "active" squad could have an impact. Would talented five star freshman be willing to go to Alabama if it were more guaranteed that they wouldn't play their freshman year? If they were marked inactive for 8 games or whatever, would they be more willing to transfer out? I probably wouldn't actually want either change but that might be the kind of thing that actually moves the needle on talent distribution.

The other lever to pull is on field rule changes. The rarest 5 stars at the big DL "war-daddies" and they are the biggest difference makers between your Bama and Clemsons and your next tier down. If there were additional rule changes that deemphasized the line of scrimmage and further ramped up the importance of speed in space, that might continue the democratization that the spread offense started. It would also parallel with the sport's goal of increasing health and safety. On the other hand, it might further separate it from the NFL which would cause a lot of pushback.
 

raybohorn54

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hell yeah, if texas was actually playing at a 10+ win level every season, OSU/Bama/LSU top tier talent would automatically diminish quite a bit. Guys Like bear Alexander wouldn’t be going to Georgia as much, or all the OSU texas boys
I believe Sark will stop the bleeding!
 

sherf1

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I get the argument but I think it's short-sighted. I think it is more likely that a larger playing field allows dominant schools to keep momentum more easily than it does up and coming teams to gain some.

In an 8-team playoff Bama is almost guaranteed to make it every year. In a BCS style system they at least have some shot to miss the big game

I also think that recruits arent really going to be persuaded by a token playoff appearance vs consistent dominance and NFL Draft production. Finishing 6th in the country wont help up and coming schools beat out OSU, Bama, Clemson in head to heads
If Bama could recruit infitie guys you're right, but they bump into the 25 man cap like everyone else. Giving those other guys 6 options to go to instead of just Bama/OSU/Clemson Georgia will share the wealth around.

It will trickle down, and the top of the pyramid will be least impacted at first, but it's all about giving 6 teams a chance to compete, then 8, and eventually the dynasty will break