Changing of the guard
USC, LSU recruiting machines show no signs of slowing down
Posted: Wednesday February 4, 2004 8:10PM; Updated: Wednesday February 4, 2004 8:21PM
So, you're one of those skeptics who think Signing Day is one big non-event?
Think again, my friend.
Yes, all those rankings are unscientific and, in the grand scheme of things, fairly meaningless, but some of the events that transpired around college football Wednesday, not to mention the months of behind-the-scenes work leading up to it, will have a seismic effect for years to come.
Let's start at the top -- literally. It's no small coincidence that 2003 co-national champs USC and LSU wrapped up 2004 recruiting in the same place in the rankings. There's a changing of the guard afoot in college football these days involving two seemingly completely opposite coaches.
Pete Carroll is the relentless optimist, the smiling guy in the USC sweatshirt who seemingly picks and chooses whichever elite prospects tickle his fancy nationally. Nick Saban is the tactical, no-nonsense guy in the cashmere sweater, locking down nearly every top prospect in his own state and reaching across the border for a couple cherries to finish his sundae.
Different approaches, but the same result: Carroll and Saban have formed the game's new recruiting juggernauts. Miami, Florida State, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida, Oklahoma -- all will continue to be there year in and year out as well, but it's becoming clear that LSU and USC won't be disappearing from the national stage anytime soon.
"You're talking about two sleeping giants," said SuperPrep's Allen Wallace. "USC and LSU have both crept up on the national scene lately. It's not that long ago they were disappointing programs that had to make a coaching change. Now they're at the pinnacle of the game"
Most programs land a few elite prospects, then fill out their class with regional and local stars or projects. Out of USC's 17 known signees, 11 are ranked among the top 20 at their position by TheInsiders.com, three are among SuperPrep's top six juco prospects. Nine of the top 11 prospects in Louisiana signed with LSU.
"They're at the point where Florida State and Miami have been -- recruit in your backyard; handpick the kids you want -- that's the sign of a great program," said TheInsiders.com's Jamie Newberg. "We may be seeing the signs of two potential new dynasties in college football."
Last season, we saw freshman tailbacks Reggie Bush and LenDale White and safety Darnell Bing have an instant impact on the Trojans' national title run. Expect the same this fall from receiver Fred Davis (another Mike Williams?), offensive lineman Jeff Byers and linebacker Keith Rivers.
Similarly, LSU's star of the Sugar Bowl, tailback Justin Vincent, was a true freshman, as was starting safety LaRon Landry. With receivers Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson leaving, the door is open for two of TheInsiders.com's top three receiver prospects, Early Doucet and Xavier Carter.
Keep in mind both teams have been assembling such caliber of talent for three years now.
"It's always harder to stay at the top," Wallace said. "Soon they're going to find out what it's like to try to recruit the best athletes when they're so loaded already. Sooner or later, kids are going to [get scared off]. But they're both so focused, you wonder what would possibly throw them off?"
While the Tigers and Trojans were the biggest winners of the 2004 recruiting wars, there were plenty of other winners and losers to go around.
Winner: Miami. The emergence of USC and LSU as en vogue destinations among the nation's blue-chippers apparently hasn't affected the 'Canes' long-standing talent pipeline. They not only locked up the year's top local recruit, linebacker Willie Williams, but went into Pennsylvania and stole away running back Andrew Johnson and linebacker James Bryant. Miami wound up signing 10 top 100 players, more than either the Tigers or Trojans.
Winner: Florida. Coming off last year's Chris Leak-led top two class, Ron Zook appeared to be slowing down a bit in 2004 before a flurry of last-minute activity that included three top 100 commitments (defensive end Derrick Harvey, receiver Derrick McPhearson and quarterback Cornelius Ingram. While Gators fans remain largely skeptical of their third-year coach, recruits are apparently more impressed.
Loser: Notre Dame. The enthusiasm generated by Tyrone Willingham's 10-3 debut season paid off with a big class last year that included starting QB Brady Quinn, but this year was a different story. Coming off a 5-7 season, the Irish missed out on many of their most sought-after targets, particularly at the skill positions.
Winner: Maryland. The Terps continue to be the most unsung top 20 program in the country. Three straight 10-win seasons finally paid off in February, with Ralph Friedgen pulling in his first top 10 class. They're still not at the level of ACC rival Florida State, which assembled yet another top five class, but at leas they're closing the gap.
Winner: Penn State. The criticism may be mounting, Joe Paterno refuses to go down without a fight. Vaunted quarterback Anthony Morelli's last-minute switch to the Nittany Lions, combined with earlier commitments from blue-chip linebackers Dan Connor and Tyrell Sales, helped form a highly ranked class that should give the sagging program a much-needed shot in the arm.
Loser: Pittsburgh. The Panthers are reeling after losing their city's top two prospects, Johnson and Morelli, who they supposedly had in the bag since last summer. It's another cold reality check for Walt Harris' program, which has taken so many strides in recent years but will now face an uphill battle to stay relevant nationally in a depleted Big East.
Winner: Michigan State. As mentioned in this space each of the past two Signing Days, a coach's second year -- i.e. his first full recruiting cycle -- is when he tends to make the most noise, and such was the case for John L. Smith. By landing highly ranked Chicago offensive lineman Roland Martin and stealing away in-state receiver Carl Grimes from FSU, the Spartans ended up with the surprise class of the Big Ten.
Loser: Minnesota. The Gophers ended up with a certifiable mess on their hands. Nothing screws up a recruiting class more than an ugly recruiting scandal (Several Minnesota recruits admitted to visiting a strip club and being served alcohol on their recent visit) less than two weeks before Signing Day. Most directly, it cost them vaunted in-state linebacker Lydon Murtha.
Speaking of messes ...
Loser: Colorado. It's beginning to look like Gary Barnett is on his last legs at Colorado. Even though his staff likely had nothing to do with the now-infamous recruiting party at the center of a D.A.'s investigation, his program is feeling the heat, and, combined with a down season on the field last fall, contributed to a subpar signing class.
Winner: Alabama. What Mike Shula pulled off this recruiting season was nothing short of wondrous. Having gotten a late start last spring (Shula wasn't hired until May), coming off a 4-9 season and dealing with NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions, the Tide managed to dominate in-state recruiting, singing 15 of SuperPrep's top 25 Alabama prospects. They were helped a great deal by ...
Loser: Auburn. Last fall's fiasco surrounding Tommy Tuberville's job status clearly took its toll on the Tigers' recruiting efforts, which, stunningly, landed just one of the aforementioned top 25 prospects, safety Tony Bell. Stunning considering they've beaten their arch-rival on the field three of the past four years and have had the same coach since 1999 -- during which time Alabama has had four.
Then again, no one ever said recruiting was logical.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.