WATCH: Scott Frost Talks Nebraska's 2020 Recruiting Class
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Is a Top-10 Class Required to Make the College Football Playoff?

February 16, 2019

The 2019 S&P+ projections came out Monday and the Huskers came in at No. 45. Not amongst the elite but one of only six teams to finish last season with a losing record and fall inside the initial top-50. Nebraska’s standing also looked odd in comparison to its eighth-best-in-college-football Playoff odds handed down by Vegas a few weeks previous.

So, why all the love? Rhetorical, somewhat, as we know why Nebraska is passing the eyeball test with a lot of pollsters for way-too-early polls. But the more data-driven projections are still kind to the Huskers despite back-to-back 4-8 seasons.

Part of that has to do with their recruiting success over the last two years. Part of the S&P formula is a weighted look at schools’ four-year recruiting averages. Nebraska’s four-year average was 20th nationally, or better than 86 percent of college football.

Which sparked a discussion: is that good enough?

Nebraska hasn’t won a conference title this century; is a recruiting class that averages out in the late-teens, early-20s over a four-year span good enough to break that? Nebraska hasn’t been in the national championship discussion over a similar time frame. Is that kind of recruiting good enough to break back into national relevance, too?

From Brandon Vogel’s Hot Reads:

How much talent does it take to win a national title? Typically a team has to be a top-12 (or so) recruiter.
How much talent does it take to get a shot at a national title? I would say Nebraska has already hit that threshold.

I tend to agree with the sentiment there at the end. But I was also curious what the four-year recruiting averages looked like for all the teams that have earned a berth in the College Football Playoff.



The first thing worth pointing out is the SEC influence. Alabama is Alabama, and as long as Nick Saban continues to coach at Alabama, the Tide will likely dominate, and as long as the Tide continues to dominate, the Tide will clean up on the recruiting trail. They’re in a loop, so to speak, until something drastic changes in Tuscaloosa. Geography plus Saban is a pretty hard combination to beat. 

But if we exclude Alabama from this discussion because its more of an outlier that throws the rest of the data out of whack, what does that table show? A top-10 recruiting cycle is not a prerequisite for the College Football Playoff.

There was a Playoff participant with a four-year average of 15 or lower in each of the first three years. Washington made it in with an average recruiting class that ranked 28th, and the Huskies weren’t unbeaten. Michigan State, another one-loss team during its playoff run, had a four-year average of 30. 

Even Oklahoma, during both the 2015 and 2017 seasons, had four-year averages that fell outside the top-10. Over the six total seasons worth of recruiting that made up those teams, the Sooners had a top-10 class once, 2017, meaning the best class was a group of freshmen when the Sooners went in 2017. 

“But Baker Mayfield was a transfer and didn’t count in the rankings so that’s not a fair argument.”

Which is sort of the point. Recruiting isn’t the end all, be all. Other factors matter. Randomness has as much to do with being elite as anything. As do things like coaching and the “eyeball test” and program pedigree.

Does a team with UCF’s résumé make the Playoff either of the last two seasons if the name on the jersey was “Notre Dame” instead? Undoubtedly. 

If Nebraska were to get up and running the way Scott Frost expects it to, and the Huskers start replicating UCF’s numbers with the same brand of elite offense, does Nebraska need to be undefeated to reach the Playoff? I don’t think so. Narrative would play a factor (“Nebraska is back”) just as much as optics would (“They’re doing this against these opponents?”).

And Scott Frost, the coach, could very be an equalizer of sorts for Nebraska in big games. If all things aren’t equal and the Huskers are facing someone with a geographic advantage on recruiting trail, is it possible Frost represents a schematic advantage? You might be able to roll the ball out and win on talent alone in the first game of your season, but not in moments were championships are on the line. There’s a coaching element to this whole thing as well. 

One of the biggest questions I have for Nebraska recruiting in the coming seasons is, if this is the output when there is no winning to sell, what becomes the ceiling when the Huskers start winning? If Nebraska, with all its geographic limitations, can sign the 19th-best recruiting class in America on the heels of two 4-8 seasons, what can Nebraska do on the heels of two 8-4 seasons? Or a 9-3 season? Or a 10-2 season? 

None of the above is said to suggest Nebraska couldn't consistently produce top-10 classes. If they win, with this staff and the way they go about their business on the recruiting trail, it’s a very real possibility. But do they need to? Or does there only need to be an incremental improvement? 

Nebraska’s best path back to national relevance feels sort of like Clemson’s.


The Tigers’ four Playoff appearances all featured four-year averages in the teens with lows of either 16 or 20. Is that attainable for Nebraska? Absolutely.

If you start winning like Clemson, you don’t need to recruit like Alabama.

Nebraska looks like it is on the right track.

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