College football recruiting: Bet you can’t guess top 5 teams of Rivals era

Who’s been the top recruiting team of the entire internet rankings era? The answer will probably surprise you.

The list of current FBS teams, going back to 2002, or the oldest year before the recorded rankings start getting pretty weird (recruiting ratings have been around forever, but only became a casually accessible thing around the turn of the millennium):

Average recruiting ranking, 2002-2018

Overall Team Current conference Average ranking
Overall Team Current conference Average ranking
1 USC Pac-12 4.8
2 Georgia SEC 6.8
3 Florida State ACC 7.1
4 Florida SEC 7.7
5 LSU SEC 7.8
6 Texas Big 12 8.5
7 Ohio State Big Ten 10.2
8 Alabama SEC 10.2
9 Oklahoma Big 12 10.4
10 Michigan Big Ten 12.6
11 Miami ACC 12.8
12 Notre Dame Independent 13.6
13 Tennessee SEC 13.7
14 Auburn SEC 13.8
15 Texas A&M SEC 17.5
16 Clemson ACC 19.3
17 South Carolina SEC 20.5
18 Oregon Pac-12 22.7
19 Penn State Big Ten 22.7
20 UCLA Pac-12 24.7
21 Nebraska Big Ten 26.1
22 North Carolina ACC 27.5
23 Ole Miss SEC 27.8
24 Virginia Tech ACC 27.9
25 Arkansas SEC 28.7
26 Mississippi State SEC 28.8
27 Washington Pac-12 29.7
28 Stanford Pac-12 30.2
29 Arizona State Pac-12 31.8
30 Oklahoma State Big 12 31.9
31 California Pac-12 32.1
32 Maryland Big Ten 32.8
33 Michigan State Big Ten 33.4
34 Missouri SEC 36.0
35 Wisconsin Big Ten 39.4
36 West Virginia Big 12 40.4
37 Virginia ACC 40.7
38 Pittsburgh ACC 41.3
39 Arizona Pac-12 41.4
40 NC State ACC 41.8
41 Texas Tech Big 12 42.8
42 Iowa Big Ten 42.9
43 Louisville ACC 44.4
44 Baylor Big 12 45.2
45 Illinois Big Ten 45.3
46 TCU Big 12 45.8
47 Rutgers Big Ten 45.9
48 Colorado Pac-12 47.0
49 Kentucky SEC 47.6
50 Oregon State Pac-12 48.5
51 Georgia Tech ACC 50.4
52 Kansas State Big 12 51.1
53 Utah Pac-12 51.7
54 Washington State Pac-12 52.0
55 Boston College ACC 52.1
56 Minnesota Big Ten 52.6
57 Kansas Big 12 55.0
58 Iowa State Big 12 55.7
59 Purdue Big Ten 56.3
60 BYU Independent 56.6
61 Vanderbilt SEC 58.2
62 Syracuse ACC 58.2
63 USF AAC 59.1
64 Duke ACC 60.1
65 Indiana Big Ten 62.1
66 Northwestern Big Ten 62.1
67 Houston AAC 65.8
68 Wake Forest ACC 67.2
69 UCF AAC 67.7
70 San Diego State MWC 69.0
71 Southern Miss C-USA 69.1
72 Boise State MWC 70.7
73 Cincinnati AAC 71.7
74 SMU AAC 73.8
75 Marshall C-USA 74.0
76 Memphis AAC 74.6
77 East Carolina AAC 80.0
78 Tulsa AAC 80.4
79 Tulane AAC 81.8
80 Temple AAC 82.4
81 Colorado State MWC 82.8
82 Toledo MAC 83.4
83 UConn AAC 84.1
84 Fresno State MWC 84.7
85 Louisiana Tech C-USA 86.2
86 Western Michigan MAC 87.2
87 UAB C-USA 88.7
88 Middle Tennessee C-USA 89.2
89 Hawaii MWC 89.5
90 San Jose State MWC 91.6
91 Troy Sun Belt 91.7
92 Nevada MWC 92.5
93 Northern Illinois MAC 93.0
94 Bowling Green MAC 94.3
95 UNLV MWC 94.5
96 New Mexico MWC 94.6
97 Arkansas State Sun Belt 95.5
98 Miami (Ohio) MAC 96.5
99 Ball State MAC 96.9
100 North Texas C-USA 97.9
101 Utah State MWC 99.5
102 UL Lafayette Sun Belt 100.4
103 Central Michigan MAC 100.5
104 Wyoming MWC 101.7
105 Texas State Sun Belt 101.8
106 FIU C-USA 102.9
107 Rice C-USA 103.1
108 Ohio MAC 104.2
109 ULM Sun Belt 105.1
110 UTSA C-USA 105.3
111 South Alabama Sun Belt 105.8
112 Akron MAC 105.9
113 Kent State MAC 107.5
114 Buffalo MAC 107.9
115 Old Dominion C-USA 109.4
116 Florida Atlantic C-USA 109.5
117 Eastern Michigan MAC 110.0
118 New Mexico State Sun Belt 111.3
119 Georgia State Sun Belt 113.2
120 Air Force MWC 113.4
121 Army Independent 114.5
122 Navy AAC 115.3
123 UTEP C-USA 116.6
124 Charlotte C-USA 116.8
125 Western Kentucky C-USA 120.5
126 Georgia Southern Sun Belt 127.0
127 Appalachian State Sun Belt 127.6
128 UMass MAC 130.7
129 Coastal Carolina Sun Belt 143.0
130 Liberty Independent 157.9

247Sports Composite, except for certain bizarre outlier classes. For example, several old classes by Kentucky, Iowa, and Ohio State appear far lower than they should, so I used Rivals for those teams in those years.

Let’s ponder this.

1. Nick Saban has not coached at Alabama forever, actually.

It’s harder and harder to remember, but the Tide were a joke around the early 2000s, with scandals, constant coaching changes, two losing records in four years, and losses to three mid-majors. Old Bama recruiting classes ranked as low as No. 47, meaning Saban’s 11 straight top 10s and seven straight No. 1s were a drastic course correction.

2. USC’s starting 22 can almost always hang with anybody. The other stuff, however …

The Trojans rank No. 1 here because they were in the top five in 12 of 17 years measured, never falling below 2013’s No. 12 … and even that class, which was limited by NCAA sanctions, was literally nothing but blue-chips.

That’s despite those depth-crippling sanctions and constant coaching turmoil for something like four years. USC had nine AP top-six finishes in this span anyway, mostly before and after the mayhem.

3. The Georgia thing was even more complicated than most people realized.

A pile of narratives:

  • Mark Richt wasted all that Peach State talent. Did he? His Dawgs very nearly played in three BCS title games and would’ve made the Playoff a few times, if it’d existed. Change a handful of plays, and UGA might’ve had a minor dynasty.
  • But that didn’t happen. Waste. OK.
  • Richt let all that Peach State talent leave the state. Basically never ranking outside the top 10 in recruiting suggests otherwise. It’s easy to remember Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson leaving, but Richt’s Dawgs held up their borders comparably to other major powers, at one point ranking among the top five teams in top-25 locals signed.
  • Kirby Smart has taken Richt’s program to a whole new level. That one is pretty hard to argue against, after UGA nearly finished No. 1 on the field and then did so in recruiting, taking full advantage of the No. 1 dual-threat QB living in Metro Atlanta.
  • Seeing all those national titles won by the top eight teams on this list, while seeing Georgia with zero in this span, is really awkward. Really awkward.

4. Look at all the national title games in that top group.

The top nine teams here are 13-10 in title games in this span, with most of those games against each other. (No. 10, Michigan, is another team that’s come brutally close.)

The lower programs in title games — Auburn, Clemson, and Oregon — are still near-annual top-20 recruiters who’ve brought in top-10 classes. Each of their title-run teams either had Heisman-worthy quarterbacks, elite talent accumulation in a short period, and/or world-ending wackiness.

5. Conference rankings show something like four tiers.

Average rankings, based on current membership (that’s imperfect, since teams have changed conferences, but it’s what’s happening here):

  1. SEC, 23.2
  2. Pac-12, 34.7
  3. Big 12, 38.7
  4. Big Ten, 38.8
  5. ACC, 39.4
  6. American, 77.9
  7. Mountain West, 90.2
  8. Conference USA, 99
  9. MAC, 101.4
  10. Sun Belt, 111.8

The SEC stands alone, which makes sense. It dominates the most talented region and doesn’t depend on just a couple teams to bring in all its five-stars, like most other power leagues usually do. For all the talk about the SEC being top-heavy in the Alabama era (which is sometimes true in individual seasons), the league’s had four different schools win titles since 2002. The Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 have one title-winning school each in that span.

The AAC and MWC stand apart from the Group of 5, and not just because their numbers include lots of rankings by once and future Power 5 teams.

6. Your top non-power recruiters:

  1. USF
  2. Houston
  3. UCF
  4. San Diego State
  5. Southern Miss
  6. Boise State
  7. Cincinnati

Makes sense, right? Add in power-conference jumpers TCU and Utah, and that’s almost every non-power BCS/NY6 rep ever, though Cincinnati technically was a power at the time. (NIU is your outlier.)

USF’s never made a big bowl, but can console itself with memories of hitting No. 2 in the country that one time. USF’s so high here partly because of its 29-man 2009 class, which included four-stars like Jason Pierre-Paul and ranked an amazing No. 26.

7. Your hardest power-conference jobs, more or less:

  1. Wake Forest
  2. Northwestern
  3. Indiana
  4. Duke
  5. Syracuse
  6. Vanderbilt
  7. Purdue

Northwestern’s had a handful of 10-win seasons, but S&P+ has Indiana as the best recent program in this group. The numbers evidently prefer a team that nearly beats elite teams to a team whose games are always 17-10, no matter the opponent.

Please never forget that time Wake Forest won the ACC.

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