College football at the FBS level is a game of haves and have-mores. A few elite programs have more than everyone else, including success on the recruiting trail. And above all else, college football is an arms race to acquire talent on the road to a national championship. A quick look at most of the national title winners in the last decade -- Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Florida State and Ohio State -- shows a group of programs recruiting at a top-10, if not top-five, level.
Entering 2020, there are a handful of programs capable of making a championship run in any given year based on the combination of talent, coaching and development. And it's mostly the same group of teams. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State are the three programs recruiting on a different level right now. Clemson and LSU, the last two national title winners, are in the next rung but have benefitted from excellent player development and generational talents at quarterback.
Occasionally, though, a recruiting outlier makes the most of its shot. The best recent example of this is Auburn from 2010. The recruiting math back then was a bit fuzzier and less reliable than it is today, but the Tigers had the best player in the country in Cam Newton, a transfer quarterback.
With that in mind, which college football programs are capable of breaking through the championship barrier set by the five or six best teams in the sport?
It's not a massive group because, again, recruiting matters. The primary thing we looked at was "blue-chip ratio" for rosters. 247Sports national recruiting analyst Bud Elliott has done an excellent job curating this over the last several years. In short, the blue-chip ratio is the percentage of four- or five-star recruits who sign with a team in a given recruiting class. It's a basic calculation and doesn't include transfers or walk-ons. For this dive, I've taken a look at the last four recruiting cycles (2016-20).
Elliott sets the blue-chip ratio benchmark for national championship contenders at about 50%. This has generally held up in the star system era of recruiting rankings. However, keep in mind that these are more guidelines than actual rules, and a high blue-chip ratio doesn't automatically mean rings are on the way. Conversely, programs with a blue-chip ratio under 50% can still win a championship with great coaching and development, a few difference-makers and a little bit of luck.
With an assist from Elliott, here are the teams on paper that are able to put together a championship season under the right circumstances from a talent perspective. Specifically, we're looking at teams who haven't played in a national championship game in the last decade.
Blue-chip ratio: 64%
Game-changers: QB Sam Ehlinger, EDGE Ta'quon Graham
Future stars: WR Tarik Black, QB Hudson Card
Why they can win it all: Even though Texas hasn't won a Big 12 title -- let alone a national title -- since 2009, it still has all the resources to do so. Texas is a massive recruiting battleground state with no shortage of competition, but the Longhorns' blue-chip ratio remains one of the better ones among college football's elite programs. This season, they have a talented team with a few game-changers in key spots, including a veteran quarterback (Ehlinger) who puts up big-time numbers.
What's holding them back: Underachieving has been Texas' biggest problem. This has been true in both on-field production -- the 2012 class, ranked No. 2 nationally, notoriously flamed out -- and in the draft. One of the most glaring examples was a stretch from 2009-17 when the 'Horns didn't have a single offensive lineman drafted. And the program was shut out entirely of the 2014 NFL Draft. But a more recent example came from the 2020 draft when none of the seven Texas-based players taken in the first round came from Texas or Texas A&M. The point being, Texas hasn't had a major issue getting blue-chip players. Rather, it's been turning them into title-caliber winners. Entering Year 4, coach Tom Herman has to start changing that.
Blue-chip ratio: 63%
Game-changers: TE Kyle Pitts, QB Kyle Trask, LB Ventrell Miller
Future stars: QB Anthony Richardson, CB Kaiir Elam, DE Brenton Cox
Why they can win it all: Coach Dan Mullen got Mississippi State to No. 1 in the country for a hot minute in 2014. Mullen is 21-5 at Florida and has pieced together some respectable offenses even though the defense has clearly been ahead. The Gators are a blue-blood program and now have a coach whose Xs and Os acumen matches the talent they're getting on the recruiting trail. Trask is the first returning starting quarterback that Florida fans appear to have universal confidence in since Tim Tebow, and Trask's 2019 production provides reasons for optimism.
What's holding them back: Offensive playmakers. The Gators have had a few decent wideouts under Mullen, including Van Jefferson, but there hasn't been a true game-changer on that side of the ball that Mullen needs to get over the hump against Georgia -- especially if the Bulldogs are upping their offense with Jamie Newman and a new offensive scheme.
Blue-chip ratio: 62%
Game-changers: WR Charleston Rambo, RB Kennedy Brooks
Future stars: QB Spencer Rattler, LB Nik Bonitto
Why they can win it all: Of all the teams in this stratosphere, the Sooners have been the closest to capturing an alluring title. The College Football Playoff hasn't been good to them -- Oklahoma is 0-4 in the semifinals -- but they've played against some elite competition, including LSU a season ago. The gap is not that wide.
What's holding them back: So far, it's been defense. It was noticeably better last year under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, and coach Lincoln Riley has put more emphasis on recruiting blue-chip defensive players recently. Riley is a genius who is making the necessary adjustments and his time is coming sooner rather than later.
Blue-chip ratio: 58%
Game-changers: LB Micah Parsons
Future stars: DE Adisa Isaac, DB Marquis Wilson
Why they can win it all: Penn State has been the Big Ten team consistently closest to competing with or otherwise knocking off Ohio State. The Nittany Lions last won the Big Ten in 2016 (I'll still argue they got second-fiddle treatment by the CFP Selection Committee) and have come devastatingly close to upending the Buckeyes in two of the last three years. Coach James Franklin has put ath-uh-letes all over the field and this program is only a piece or two away from taking that next step.
What's holding them back: At the moment, it's a top-end quarterback. Sean Clifford is ... decent, but he's battled inconsistencies. Trace McSorley was a gritty gamer and Christian Hackenberg was all untapped potential before his career took a nosedive. The physically gifted quarterback who can elevate the team is what's missing.
Blue-chip ratio: 50%
Game-changers: QB Kedon Slovis, WR Tyler Vaughns
Future stars: DE Drake Jackson
Why they can win it all: It's USC. If any team out of the Pac-12 is going to win a title next, odds are it will be the Trojans. For all of the inexplicable performances in recent years -- and there are several -- this program regularly shows up in some big game to make you realize, oh yeah, they have a team of transformers. Slovis in this Graham Harrell offense can be a thing of beauty. It's just a matter of everything coming together for a change instead of being wildly disjointed.
What's holding them back: Offensive line and defense have been shaky in recent years. There's no denying the Trojans have skill players for days on offense, but they've been lacking in other areas. Coach Clay Helton has made several staff moves over the last two years, so there are no more excuses.
Blue-chip ratio: 50%
Game-changers: DT Jayden Peevy, RB Isaiah Spiller
Future stars: DB Demani Richardson, DE DeMarvin Leal
Why they can: Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher is one of only six active coaches to have won a national championship. While Fisher's fully guaranteed $75 million contract is still enough to make you blush, especially given the hit oil prices just took, every penny will have been worth it if TAMU can make a championship run. On-field returns have been good, not great, but A&M is coming off back-to-back top-six classes. If Kellen Mond isn't the quarterback to take the Aggies out of the SEC West and into the playoff, maybe Haynes King can be.
What's holding them back: Math. Texas A&M plays in the most top-heavy division in college football. Alabama, Auburn and LSU have all won national titles in the last decade and continue to do well enough to be in the conversation almost annually. There are only so many wins to go around. Not only that, TAMU wasn't nearly as competitive against top-flight competition last season (Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia and LSU) as scores indicated. Of the teams listed, IT has the biggest gap to overcome. But if anyone can do it, it's probably Fisher.