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Oklahoma Sooners Football Recruiting: Blue-Chip Ratio and Player Development

OU’s roster will look more like a College Football Playoff contender in 2020.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Oklahoma vs Louisiana State Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Kegan Reneau of Sooners Wire recently posted a piece looking at the level of talent on the roster of the Oklahoma Sooners, and it definitely deserves a read. Using the so-called Blue-Chip Ratio popularized by Banner Society’s Bud Elliott to measure the number of four and five-star recruits relative to total players on a team’s roster, Reneau compares OU’s roster with other major powerhouses such as the Alabama Crimson Tide and Ohio State Buckeyes. He finds that although OU may not measure up to a program like ‘Bama at the very top of the talent scale, the Sooners bear a lot of resemblance to teams such as the LSU Tigers and Texas Longhorns.

These kinds of exercises can help evaluate head coach Lincoln Riley’s claims that OU still needs to fortify its roster to reach the peak of the sport. Reneau notes that the Clemson Tigers are competing for their third national championship in four years and have a Blue-Chip Ratio that is roughly equal to the Sooners. He concludes that the difference in performance between the two programs really stems from Clemson’s ability to develop its players, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

I’ve been doing some similar data-diving with regard to OU’s personnel since the loss to LSU in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff ended the Sooners’ 2019 season. I’ll have more in-depth thoughts coming soon on the state of the roster, but Reneau’s piece raises some points worth discussing.

The Blue-Chip Ratio makes for a handy rule of thumb for judging the overall quantity of talent on a team’s roster. According to Elliott, if 50% of a team’s players didn’t qualify as four or five-star recruits before arriving on campus, you can eliminate that team from the national championship hunt. It also stands to reason that a higher ratio implies a team has a more talented roster; for example, nearly 90% of Crimson Tide players were blue chip recruits. (This is all consistent with the work of other quants such as Dave Bartoo of CFB Matrix.)

On the other hand, the Blue-Chip Ratio represents a crude measuring stick. Importantly, it doesn’t distinguish between five- and four-star prospects or higher-rated four-star recruits versus lower-rated ones.

The 247Sports College Football Team Talent Composite offers a more precise tool for gauging the strength of a roster. It doesn’t contradict Reneau’s conclusions, but it does paint a more complete picture.

The chart above includes the 247Sports Composite rankings for each of this year’s CFP qualifiers from the last five years. All of the teams in the final four have rosters that place in the top 10 nationally this season.

NCAA Football: Texas Christian at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Take a look at the longer-term trends, though, and it becomes clear that OU has upped its game in recruiting lately. For the rest of the field, it has been business as usual. This implies that a greater share of OU’s more talented players are on the younger side. Indeed, after spending years in the 15-20 range, OU landed recruiting classes that ranked eight, ninth and sixth nationally in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

LSU and Ohio St. have about double the number of blue-chippers this year classified as upperclassmen – meaning juniors and seniors – relative to OU and Clemson. LSU and Ohio St. also boast multiple five-star players in the ranks of their upperclassmen, while OU and Clemson each have just one.

As such, when OU took the field against LSU at the Peach Bowl, the Tigers had more talent on their side in sheer numbers and more talented players with experience.

Yet, the Sooners compare favorably with the rest of the field when it comes to numbers of blue-chip underclassmen. (LSU, in particular, seems geared for success this year.) A rough projection for 2020 indicates the Sooners’ total number of blue-chippers will rise to 56, with 20 classifying as juniors and seniors. That suggests OU will be in better position to win those kinds of games in the near future.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Ohio State vs Clemson Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

But how do we explain Clemson? If the Tigers got it done with rosters that were a cut below Bama and Ohio St. the last five years, what was OU missing?

Reneau is right that CU owes its success in part to the ability of Dabo Swinney and staff members like defensive coordinator Brent Venables to groom unheralded recruits into stars in their cutting-edge schemes. (See: Simmons, Isaiah.) That wasn’t happening at OU on the defensive side of the ball under the previous regime.

Keep in mind, however, that Clemson did have at least marginally better overall talent than OU up until this year, per the 247 Composite. Swinney’s program has also enjoyed quarterback play from Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence that rivals what the Sooners got from Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. It’s not a coincidence that in Clemson’s worst showing in the CFP, a 2017 loss to the Crimson Tide, QB Kelly Bryant looked a lot like Jalen Hurts did for OU versus LSU this season.

Lastly, Clemson has recruited and retained premier defensive linemen – the most coveted recruits in college football – at a rate that stands up against any other program in college football. Those kinds of players can cover up a lot of defensive deficiencies. CU signed 21 blue-chip defensive linemen in its eight recruiting classes between 2012 and 2019, including four five-star prospects. OU landed 16 in that period, none of whom were five-star players.

If you're not stacking your roster a la the Tide and Buckeyes, you can’t ask for a much better formula than the Clemson way. It’s also extraordinarily difficult for a team like OU to replicate.