Offseason Topics: (dis)Parity: How OSU, OU, Alabama & Clemson Came To Dominate Their Conferences
Right now one the biggest complaints about college football is the disparity between the playoff-caliber teams and everyone else. There is some truth to that as four of the five Power-5 conferences are dominated by a behemoth program. In the ACC, Clemson has reeled off six straight conference titles. Likewise, in the Big 12 Oklahoma is also riding a six-year conference title run. The SEC is slightly more competitive where Alabama has won six of the last nine and more specifically five of the last seven. In that span, no other team has won more than one SEC title.
In the Big Ten, where we will spend most of the statistical analysis, Ohio State has won four straight Big 10 titles and five of the last seven. So in four Power-5 conferences the dominant programs are Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Clemson. And if you buy recruiting rankings you’d be tempted to believe that those teams will never loosen their grip on the top of their leagues.
The Pac 12 is the only conference with parity. Throw out 2020 because Oregon won the title game after getting that slot because Washington had Covid issues. In the previous nine seasons (2011-2019) Oregon has three titles (’11, ’14, ’19), Stanford has three (’12, ’13, ’15), Washington has two (’16, ’18) and USC has one (’17).
So how do teams get to this point?
1. Coaching: The arrival of the right creative and innovative coach can start the turn. They find underrated high school players with an upside that others overlook. They coach those players on the details and fundamentals and they become good enough to beat higher-rated recruits on other teams. One of the textbook examples of this philosophy was Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin in the early 1990s. He won a bunch of Big Ten Titles after a long Badger run of under-performance.
Other coaches turn the corner because they are smart enough on game day to steal some games early in their tenure. In 1995 Northwestern opened the season upsetting Notre Dame to launch momentum that netted two-straight Big Ten Titles. Coaches who can upset the league's "name" teams turn everyone’s attention. Then they can start winning key recruiting battles in their league’s geographic area. Michigan State's Mark Dantonio was one of those coaches. His nationally noted wins over "big-brother" Michigan elevated his team’s status in Big Ten recruiting turf wars. Since 2012 when Ohio State began their current dominant run only Michigan State has beaten Ohio State twice, and other than the Buckeyes only Michigan State has won more than one Big Ten title.
At Oklahoma, Bob Stoops rebuilt a tradition-laden program by reconnecting to their proud past and doing some innovative things on offense and defense. That continues on offense with current coach Lincoln Riley. The same unique offensive approach worked for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. At Alabama Nick Saban built the program on hard-nosed power football and defense, and has transitioned to more wide-open offense.
2. Recruiting: These dominant teams all share this common thread; they start by mining the best recruiting talent in their conference’s geographic footprint. Many players want to play where their families can drive to games. The presence of conference television networks has added to that phenomenon as players within a network’s home footprint see more of that conference and start to identify with it.
The misperception is that to be a dominant team you have to be a “National Recruiter” to land all the best “National Talent.” The truth is that you need to land the best talent in your conference footprint and then go outside that footprint for certain key needs in any given year. The most important aspect about recruiting is efficiency. If you can identify and recruit great players closer to your campus you spend less time chasing them, you know more about them and you get a greater return on your investment. For example, Penn State has been active nationally recruiting running backs for the last seven or eight years but the three best RBs in the last nine years were Pennsylvania high school players.
Getting the best talent in your conference's "Homeland" also keeps your opponents from getting them. You make your opponents work further afield with less efficiency to try and match the talent. And on game day you start with a talent edge. That has been the same way historically across many eras.
3. Case Study Ohio State: Since we’re in Big Ten country let’s take a look at the data for Ohio State. Since 2012 under Urban Meyer and now Ryan Day they’ve dominated the Big Ten. They've handled their biggest division threats going 8-0 against Michigan, 8-1 against Penn State and 7-2 against Michigan State. Since 2012 Ohio State is 106-11 overall with a 74-5 record in Big Ten games.
How did they assemble the players to do that? Over the last 10 years a whopping 63.2% of their recruits have come from Big Ten Network home states. Ohio State is now routinely going into Big Ten states like Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey more than they did in the preceding decade, and have consistently acquired the best home talent of any team in the league. And here’s another interesting data point. The production/return on investment for the Big Ten-area players for Ohio State has been higher. The 63.2% cohort of Big Ten area signees have produced 70.8% of the offensive and defensive starters. That is a significant over-performance for Big Ten area players.
4. What About The Other Dominant Teams?: How does that conference footprint recruiting strategy look at the other three dominant teams? Using data from 2012-21 Oklahoma signed 60.1% of their players from Big 12 states. They are the lowest of the four. Alabama signed 80.4% of their players from SEC states, while Clemson signed 81.7% of their players from ACC states. All four of these teams show that a heavy reliance on “Homeland Security” in recruiting is the foundation upon which they build their on-field dominance.
Next Time: We’ll take a hard look at strategies to break the hold of these dominant teams. Using historical case studies for teams that shifted the conference balance of power.