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Tennessee Football Recruiting: Blue Chip Ratio

SB Nation recruiting director Bud Elliott posted an article last February where he discussed the effects of talent on participating in or winning the national championship. He noted that every BCS champion had a ratio of blue chip players greater than 50%-- that is, that there were more four and five star players on the roster than three or less. With one stellar recruiting class in the books and another on the way, where does Tennessee fit in?

The standard, cast in bronze.
The standard, cast in bronze.
Knoxville News Sentinel

Recruiting at a Championship Level

There's no question that Butch Jones has improved the recruiting at Tennessee since he arrived. The 2013 class finished a respectable 24th, despite the coaching staff's late arrival and lingering enmity from the Dooley administration; the 2014 class finished 7th; and the 2015 class is currently ranked 3rd and could go higher depending on the final few recruits. However, if the end goal is to win a national championship, then Jones should be aiming to meet or exceed a very specific recruiting ratio -- to have more four and five star players ("blue chips") than lesser rated players across his recruiting classes. As SB Nation Recruiting Director Bud Elliott detailed this past February, every BCS champion since the beginning of consensus recruiting rankings in 2005 has met this criteria over the preceding four recruiting classes and Ohio State, the newly crowned Playoff Champion, continues the trend.

This isn't to say that correlation equals causation; although the majority of the dozen or so teams that meet this benchmark consistently compete for the championship, there are outliers like this year's Florida team who squander their talent advantage with poor coaching and player development. It's also worth noting that even though recruiting rankings matter in the aggregate (see: Football Study Hall: the Rankings Still Get It Right), there are programs like Kansas State and yes, Missouri, who enjoy significant success without ever breaking into the top ten of the recruiting rankings. But even the most innovative and well coached programs of last decade -- Chip Kelly's Oregon, Gary Patterson's TCU, Art Briles' Baylor, Chris Peterson's Boise State -- have found a ceiling to their success without top tier recruiting. The small sample size and human error built into the selection process for the championship have to be taken as caveats, but for the data we have, meeting the Blue Chip ratio is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for winning a championship.

Lack of player development under the previous staff

Even during the lost years of the Derek Dooley administration, Tennessee remained within striking distance of championship recruiting, with four and five star players making up roughly a third of each recruiting class, or between 7-9 players per class. To put that into context, of the 128 teams currently in the Football Bowl Subdivision, only 13 teams have double digit four and five star players, and two-thirds of the teams lack even a single blue chip player. The talent disparity between the Vols and lesser recruiting teams was evident even when directed by the worst multi-year Tennessee head coach in a century, as Dooley's teams managed an 11-2 out-of-conference record, including victories over power conference foes Cincinnati (then-Big East) and North Carolina State (ACC), and a double overtime bowl loss to North Carolina (ACC). In conference, of course, the Vols fared far worse, with teams of similar or lesser talent routinely running roughshod over poorly coached Tennessee teams.

Problems of attrition and turnover

While the current coaching staff inherited a handful of standout starters -- Brian Randolph, AJ Johnson, and Curt Maggitt to name a few -- the depth behind them was next to nonexistent. At running back, former coach Jay Graham discovered that he had only two players capable of playing in the SEC: Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, with Quenshaun Watson and Alden Hill lacking the speed and athleticism to contribute. The roster turnover from Fulmer's firing and Lane Kiffin's abrupt departure has been scrutinized, but it has been less well documented how poor evaluations torpedoed the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes. Individual and team chemistry problems led to disciplinary dismissals and voluntary transfers that decimated the players who would become upperclassmen on the 2014 team -- four star tight end Cameron Clear (dismissed for theft, now at Texas A&M), four star defensive tackle Omari "Dante" Phillips (academic issues), three star cornerback Deion Bonner (theft), four star wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett (transferred to Michigan State), and four star athlete Davante Bourque (left school for personal reasons). The transfers and dismissals were compounded by a top heavy recruiting philosophy that left the team without much of a middle class -- the 2011 and 2012 class have fewer blue chip players and a lower average rating despite being spread over a smaller number of recruits. In essence, Dooley-era recruits were either stars or completely unequipped to play in the SEC.

Blue chip ratio by recruiting class

Butch Jones' relentless recruiting style combined with larger than expected classes has transformed Tennessee's roster, moving the Vols from good into the realm of truly extraordinary. The following chart shows the breakdown of Tennessee's last five recruiting classes by 247 composite rating. Note that the 2015 class reflects the current commitments as of today and is likely to change prior to National Signing Day.

Year 5 star 4 star 3 star 2 star Total players Blue Chips Ratio Class Ranking Composite Average
2011 0 9 18 0 27 9 33.34% 14 88.44
2012 0 8 14 1 23 8 34.78% 20 87.43
2013 0 4 18 1 23 4 17.39% 24 85.83
2014 0 16 16 0 32 16 50% 7 89.51
2 11 14 1 28 13 46.42% 3 89.41
Total 2 48 80 3 133 50 37.5%

So how many players would it have taken for the Vols to hit the magical 50% ratio over the last four classes? Twelve recruits rated as four stars or better instead of three stars, total. If the current coaching staff had been able to bring in a recruiting class in 2013 that could measure up to the 2014 or 2015 class, the Vols would likely already be meeting the benchmark --that's how quick the recruiting turnaround has been. It's remarkable how close the Vols came to landing a transformative class in 2013 -- Tennessee finished as the runner-up for numerous blue chip players, including five star defensive end Carl Lawson (Auburn), four star wide receiver Tyler Boyd (Pitt), and four star safety Vonn Bell (Ohio State). If Jones continues to recruit like he has, the Vols will a roster capable of competing for SEC and national championships as early as 2015-2016.

As of February, 2014, when Bud Elliott compiled the data, eleven teams met or exceeded the Blue Chip ratio: Alabama, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, LSU, Texas, Florida State, Michigan, Florida, Auburn, and Georgia. Another seven teams are within striking distance of the ratio, needing only a few stellar recruits to break through: Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Clemson, Oregon, UCLA, Stanford, and Tennessee. Together, the list reads like a Who's Who of blue blood and impact upstart programs from the last two decades of college football, including each and every national champion dating back to the late 1990s. Only a few of the usual suspects are missing -- Miami, usually among the best recruiting teams in the nation, but struggling to exert their usual dominance in south Florida under coach Al Golden; and Nebraska, a unique program that relied more on Tom Osbourne's coaching and management than recruiting. If you're looking for your 2015 national champion, wait until the list is updated to account for the 2015 recruiting class, and you'll almost certainly have the group of contenders. Notably missing are fast rising programs Ole Miss, Baylor, and TCU, with each of those teams lacking depth in recruiting, despite stars at the top of each class.

Meeting the Blue Chip Benchmark
Team Ratio Meets the standard? Most recent national titles
Alabama 73% Yes 2012, 2011, 2009
Ohio State 68% Yes 2014, 2002
Southern Cal 64% Yes 2004
Notre Dame 63% Yes 1988
LSU 62% Yes 2007, 2003
Texas 60% Yes 2005
Florida State 56% Yes 2013, 1999
Michigan 55% Yes 1997
Florida 54% Yes 2008, 2006
Auburn 54% Yes 2010
Georgia 51% Yes 1980
Texas A&M 47% No N/A
Oklahoma 42% No 2000
Clemson 42% No 1981
Oregon 41% No N/A
UCLA 41% No 1954*
Stanford 39% No 1940*
Tennessee 36% No 1998

Blue chip ratio of players actually on the roster, by class year

This last chart shows the breakdown of the players who are on Tennessee's active roster by class year. It's important to remember that talent may be a necessary condition to win, but it isn't sufficient. Without coaching and player development, the most talented roster can disappoint, with Mack Brown's late-Texas, Will Muschamp's Florida, and Brady Hoke's Michigan providing recent examples. Butch Jones has transformed Tennessee's roster through recruiting, but perhaps more importantly, he's instilled a culture of accountability, toughness, and competition, where even a former five star recruit like Josh Malone has to come to work every day, or risk losing snaps to a former nobody like Josh Smith. With talent on hand and hard work ahead, expect the Vols to match the hype in the next few years.

5 star 4 star 3 star 2 star Total Blue Chip Ratio
Senior (RS) 0 2 (Maggitt, Jackson) 5 (Kerbyson, Crowder, Randolph, Saulsberry, O. Williams) 0 7 2 28.57%
Senior 0 4 (McNeil, Howard, Pearson, Weatherd) 1 (J. Johnson) 0 5 4 80%
Junior (RS) 0 3 (O'Brien, Croom, Blair) 6 (Peterman, Lewis, King, Bynum, Blanc, Bullock) 0 9 3 33.34%
Junior 0 3 (North, Dobbs, Reeves-Maybin) 5 (Vereen, L. Johnson, Sutton, Wiesman, Foreman) 1 (Swafford) 9 3 33.34%
Sophomore (RS) 0 1 (Kamara) 6 (Jenkins, Sanders, Branisel, Kendrick, Smith, Vickers) 0 7 1 14.28%
Sophomore 0 6 (Malone, Hurd, Kelly, McDowell, Barnett, Evan Berry) 11 (Wolf, Sawyers, Gaulden, Wharton, Robertson, Mixon, Thomas, J. Johnson, Elliott Berry, Moseley, Medley) 0 17 6 35.29%
Freshman (RS) 0 3 (Bates, Bryant, Mosley) 2 (Creamer, Raulerson) 0 5 3 60%
Freshman (Early Enrollees) 0 6 (Tuttle, Phillips, Jones, Jennings, Kirkland, Butcher) 3 (Dormady, Hall, Griffin) 0 9 6 66.67%
Total 0 28 39 1 68 28 41.12%