There are three five-star recruits playing in the Super Bowl this week -- further proof that recruiting is an inexact science.
But discounting the importance of putting together top recruiting classes would be foolish. Can teams win without elite classes? It has been done. But consistently putting together elite classes is what gets programs to the point where they are able to compete for championships on an annual basis. That is why Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Florida State have dominated recent championship discussions.
Clemson, however, had far less tradition to build on when Dabo Swinney took over as coach midway through the 2008 season. Understanding clearly that the way to build his program was through recruiting and corresponding talent development, Swinney has transformed Clemson into a top-15 mainstay and gotten the Tigers into homes beyond their geographic footprint. That has translated to unprecedented success for the program: six straight 10-win seasons, three ACC championships, two College Football Playoff appearances and one national championship.
The class of 2017 will be smaller than Clemson's more recent classes, but the Tigers hit their needs (and are hoping for a few more pickups before signing day on Wednesday): nine ESPN 300 prospects, including No. 1 quarterback Hunter Johnson (from Indiana) and top receivers Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers from Tennessee.
Now, it is one thing to sign what we judge to be elite classes based on high school performances and projections. It is quite another to deliver on the vast potential that schools bring in on an annual basis. This is where the Tigers have done an exceptional job, and it is a big reason why they won their 2016 national championship.
Their hit rate on top-level recruits has been stellar. Every player the Tigers absolutely needed to work out at the top of their class did, either immediately or down the line. Go back to 2009: No. 1 recruit Tajh Boyd helped put down the groundwork for the current Clemson program. His would have been a tough miss to take.
No doubt, there were a few misses sprinkled in between, including a mostly underwhelming 2012 class, but the hit rate with the top recruits between 2013 and 2016 is undeniable. Those classes specifically are the biggest reasons Clemson finished No. 1 this past season.
2016: Dexter Lawrence
Clemson's 2016 national championship team featured 13 starters who were ranked in either the ESPN 150 or ESPN 300. The 2015 Clemson playoff team had 11 starters with similar designations.
There are always going to be players who do not work out; there will be injuries and attrition with every class. But Clemson has been able to keep that attrition in check with its most recent classes. Between 2013 and 2016, only eight players left the team because of dismissal, injury or the decision to transfer. The 2013 class in particular highlights how well Clemson not only recruited but also developed its talent. The Tigers had the No. 13 class in the country, but if they were re-ranked, they surely would be higher.
Not only did Alexander and Boulware lead that 2013 class, but Dorian O'Daniel, Tyrone Crowder, Mike Williams, Shaq Lawson, Jordan Leggett, Wayne Gallman, Jayron Kearse, T.J. Green, Ryan Carter, Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson also became starters. Clemson missed on ESPN 300 prospects Tyshon Dye (transfer), Ebenezer Ogundeko (dismissed) and Kyrin Priester (dismissed), but the losses were easily outweighed by the overall production of this talented class.
For comparison's sake, Georgia has signed a better class than Clemson in each of the past four years. But the Bulldogs’ hit rate at the top of their class is comparatively low, especially with the class of 2013, in which three of their top four recruits either transferred or were dismissed.
Clemson has had top-notch classes before. In 2008, it had the No. 2 class in the country the year coach Tommy Bowden got fired.
But improving the hit rate has had a clear impact on the program. Clemson has the rings to show for it.