National Signing Day: How one day in February fields the CFB Playoff bracket

By Amy Daughters -

Feb. 1, 2017 is the day that will ultimately decide which teams play for a national championship over the next five seasons.

Don’t believe it?

The common link connecting the only three teams to have ever won a national title under the CFB Playoff regime is a top-ten average in team recruiting rankings (as per Rivals.com) over the five national signing days leading up to the championship. Take a look.

2014 Champion – Ohio State – average team recruiting rank 2010-14: 9.2

2015 Champion – Alabama – average team recruiting rank 2011-15: 1.2

2016 Champion – Clemson – average team recruiting rank 2012-16: 10.2

The only other school that’s ever won a CFB Playoff game is Oregon, who destroyed Florida State 59-20 in the first-ever bracket in 2014. The Ducks average rank from 2010-14 was 16.6 – out of the top ten but well within the top twenty.

Next, check out the four schools who are 0-1 in CFB Playoff action.

Florida State – lost to Oregon in 2014 Playoff – average team recruiting rank 2010-14: 6.4

Michigan State – lost to Alabama in 2015 Playoff – average team recruiting rank 2011-15: 32.8

Oklahoma – lost to Clemson in 2015 Playoff – average team recruiting rank 2011-15: 13.8

Washington – lost to Alabama in 2016 Playoff – average team recruiting rank 2012-16: 29

The message is clear – a program can make the Playoff with subpar recruiting ranks, but they won’t make it to/win the title game. Or, such a team hasn’t pulled that off yet.

Next, let’s look at each of the playoff seasons and identify those schools with a five-year top-ten average in team recruiting that didn’t make the bracket.

2014 (team recruiting averages from 2010-14)

Florida – 5.8 average – finished 7-5, third in the SEC West. Beat East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl. Unranked in final AP poll.

USC – 7.2 average – finished 9-4, tied for second place in the Pac-12 South. Beat (25) Nebraska in the Holiday. No. 20 in final AP.

LSU – 7.6 average – finished 8-5, tied for fourth place in the SEC West. Lost to Notre Dame in the Music City. Unranked in the final AP.

Auburn – 7.8 average – finished 8-5, tied for fourth place in the SEC West. Lost to (17) Wisconsin in the Outback. No. 22 in the final AP.

Georgia – 10.4 average – finished 10-3, second place in the SEC East. Beat (20) Louisville in the Belk. No. 9 in the final AP.

Texas – 10.4 average – finished 6-7, tied for third in the Big 12. Lost to Arkansas in the Texas Bowl. Unranked in the final AP.

2015 (team recruiting averages from 2011-15)

Florida State – 5.0 average – finished 10-3, second place in the ACC Atlantic. Lost to (14) Houston in the Peach. No. 14 in the final AP.

Ohio State – 5.8 average – finished 12-1, tied for second in the Big Ten East. Beat (8) Notre Dame in the Fiesta. No. 4 in the final AP.

USC – 7.2 average – finished 8-6, tied for first in the Pac-12 South, but lost to (7) Stanford in Pac-12 title game. Lost to (23) Wisconsin in the Holiday. Unranked in the final AP.

LSU – 8.0 average – finished 9-3, tied for third in the SEC West. Beat Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl. No. 16 in the final AP.

Auburn – 8.4 average – finished 7-6, last place in the SEC West. Beat Memphis in the Birmingham. Unranked in the final AP.

Georgia – 8.4 average – finished 10-3, tied for second in the SEC East. Beat Penn State in the TaxSlayer. Unranked in the final AP.

Florida – 10.0 average – finished 10-4, won the SEC East, but lost to (2) Alabama in the SEC title game. Lost to (17) Michigan in the Citrus. No. 25 in the final AP.  

2016 (team recruiting averages from 2012-16)

Florida State – 5.0 average – finished 10-3, third place in the ACC Atlantic. Beat (6) Michigan in the Orange. No. 8 in the final AP.

LSU – 7.8 average – finished 8-4, tied for second in the SEC West. Beat (15) Louisville in the Citrus. No. 13 in the final AP.

Auburn – 8.8 average – finished 8-5, tied for second in the SEC West. Lost to (7) Oklahoma in the Sugar. No. 24 in the final AP.

USC – 8.8 average – finished 10-3, second place in the Pac-12 South. Beat (5) Penn State in the Rose. No. 5 in the final AP.

Georgia – 9.6 average – finished 8-5, tied for second in the SEC East. Beat TCU in the Liberty. Unranked in the final AP.

Florida – 10.4 average – finished 9-4, won the SEC East, but lost to (1) Alabama in the SEC title game. Beat (21) Iowa in the Outback. No. 14 in the final AP.

Seeing the same school names repeatedly brings up several points. First, an aristocracy exists in major college football. It’s an elite group that takes many years and lots of cash to break into. Next, the teams highlighted underachieved in the years in which they are listed.

It also highlights how difficult it is to win the SEC West – regardless of how many elite athletes you recruit, the deck is stacked against you like no other division in college football.

Finally, it goes a long way in explaining the coaching changes at Florida, USC, Texas, Georgia and LSU. It also ramps up the pressure on Gus Malzahn at Auburn.

Looking ahead, listed below are the ten teams with a top ten team recruiting average from 2013-17. Also included is their rank in ESPN’s Way Too Early Top 25. As of now, these are our national championship contenders.

Alabama – 1.2 average – No. 1 in ESPN’s Way Too Early Top 25

Ohio State – 3.8 average – No. 6

Florida State – 5.0 average – No. 2

LSU – 5.6 average – No. 15

Georgia – 7.8 average – No. 13

USC – 9.0 average – No. 3

Auburn – 10.0 average – No. 11

Texas A&M – 10.4 average – not ranked

Notre Dame – 10.6 average – not ranked

Clemson – 10.8 average – No. 5

Notably, the new additions to this otherwise static list are Texas A&M and Notre Dame. After dropping to No. 17 in team rankings in 2016, the Aggies are back in the top ten with its 2017 class – enough to push its average into the elite ranks. For the Irish, they’ve earned top 15 mention since 2014 and still have the benefit of a No. 3 rank in 2013.

For A&M, the path to an actual national championship will be made considerably more difficult, due to its membership in the SEC West – home to 40 percent of the teams on the elite list. What this means for Kevin Sumlin’s job security is unknown.

Programs that are oh-so close to the mark include Tennessee (11.4), Oklahoma (13.0), Florida (13.6) and UCLA (14.2). Intriguingly, neither the Volunteers nor Bruins are mentioned in ESPN’s way-too-soon.

To finish, following a list of schools that are in ESPN’s rankings, but who don’t have the recruiting numbers to suggest a legitimate national title threat in 2017.

Penn State – 23.0 average – No. 4 in ESPN’s Top 25

Oklahoma State – 36.2 average – No. 7

Washington – 29.6 average – No. 8

Wisconsin – 42.0 average – No. 9

Oklahoma – 13.0 average – No. 10

Michigan – 19.0 average – No. 12

Stanford – 25.6 average – No. 14

Miami (Fla.) – 18.0 average – No. 16

Kansas State – 59.4 average – No. 17

Louisville – 34.6 average – No. 18

TCU – 38.0 average – No. 19

USF – 63.8 average – No. 20

Florida – 13.6 average – No. 21

Pitt – 43.6 average – No. 22

Washington State – 53.8 average – No. 23

Virginia Tech – 27.6 average – No. 24

Texas – 19.6 average – No. 25

Team recruiting rankings courtesy of Rivals.com. 2017 rankings, which are still changing until National Signing Day finishes, were sourced on Jan. 31, 2017.

  1. Robert Nerenberg
    February 1, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    Maybe it’s just me but ESPN.com had this same story TODAY. Didn’t read to check attribution

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