Classes set Florida, USC on collision course; Signing Day Superlatives
Florida and USC signed epic defensive and offensive classes, respectively
But conference foes (Auburn, Tennessee; Cal, UCLA) had banner days, too
Florida State finished strong, while the Big Ten as a whole failed miserably
Flash forward to Jan. 7, 2013, to the BCS National Championship Game at that sure-to-be-renamed-yet-again stadium in Miami.
The teams: Florida and USC.
The buildup for this clash has been tremendous. The schools have been dominating both on the field and in recruiting since the mid-2000s, but are meeting on the field for the first time in 30 years. On one sideline stands Lane Kiffin, back for a third stint with the Trojans after briefly bolting to the Detroit Lions for one season. On the other, Urban Meyer, who returned from his fourth leave of absence in the last three years just in time for the SEC Championship Game.
Each has paid his conference $40,000 in fines since this matchup was announced.
USC enters the contest averaging a staggering 55 points per game on offense. Heisman quarterback Matt Barkley (who, for the convenient purposes of this hypothetical, didn't turn pro early) is joined by 1,500-yard rusher Dillon Baxter and a trio of 1,000-yard receivers, Kyle Prater, Robert Woods and Markeith Ambles. Outland Trophy winner Seantrel Henderson anchors the offensive line.
On the other side, Florida's record-setting defense has allowed fewer than seven points per game. Behind a dominant defensive front led by All-Americas Ronald Powell, Sharif Floyd, Leon Orr and Dominique Easley, the Gators lead the nation in sacks and rushing defense.
It is the ultimate clash of offense vs. defense. And it's the first-ever, long-overdue SEC vs. Pac-10 BCS Championship matchup.
Now, flash sideways to this alternate reality: Jan. 7, 2014 in Pasadena. Once upon a time, UCLA and Tennessee played an ugly Labor Day evening game here that marked a low point for both programs; now, five years later, they're meeting in a national championship matchup serving as the coronation of these two fallen powers' return to national prominence.
It wasn't easy getting here, but both coaches -- the Bruins' Rick Neuheisel and the Vols' Derek Dooley -- can point to a single turning point: Signing Day, Feb. 3, 2010, when they showed they weren't going to let their rivals run away with things anymore. Some of the fruits of their labor that winter are on the field tonight.
There is UCLA's All-America safety Dietrich Riley, one of several UCLA signees who figured to be a shoe-in for USC before its then-legendary coach, Pete Carroll, bolted for the NFL. He'll have the challenge of defending Tennessee's Biletnikoff receiver, Da'Rick Rogers, who, ironically, may never have become a Vol if Kiffin hadn't left for USC.
On which path will the Class of 2010 lead us? Are we boarding another familiar flight with the same, tried-and-true characters? Or will the sport soon come to know a whole other set of leaders?
In this year's annual recruiting derby, Florida and USC finished with the nation's two best classes, according to Rivals.com. We've seen this show before. Over the past five years, these same two schools hold the highest cumulative rankings
The interesting twist, however, was the absurd collection of talent each power assembled on opposite sides of the ball.
Florida's defensive haul included Rivals.com's No. 1 (Powell), No. 3 (Floyd) and No. 7 (Easley) overall prospects, as well as five-star defensive back Matt Elam and eight other four-star defenders. Longtime recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called it "the best defensive group I've seen put together" in the New York Times.
USC, meanwhile, brought in three of the nation's four highest-rated receivers (Prater, Woods and Ambles), the top offensive lineman (Henderson) and the No. 1 all-purpose back (Baxter). "You would be hard-pressed to ever find a greater collection of athletes at the skills positions," said SuperPrep's Allen Wallace. "It's the best wide receiver class ever assembled by a single school."
You'll have to excuse the recruiting analysts for being prone to hyperbole and/or lacking in long-term memory -- because it sure seems like we've seen this before. In 2003, USC recruited a similar collection of offensive talent -- running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, receiver Steve Smith and tackle Sam Baker (not to mention five-star washout Whitney Lewis) -- that would form the core of the 2004 and 2005 Trojans teams that reached the BCS Championship Game.
And Florida's latest binge of defensive superstars serves mainly to replenish a similar one from 2007, which brought lineman Carlos Dunlap, defensive backs Ahmad Black, Joe Haden and Major Wright (and their own five-star washout, Torrey Davis) and helped deliver 22 straight wins the past two years.
If history is any indication, we'll be seeing one or the other -- and maybe, finally, both -- back on the big stage in the very near future.
"I give it up to Florida for their recruiting class," the monstrous Henderson (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) told SI.com following his nationally televised announcement Wednesday, "but I think it's going to be Florida-USC for the next three national title games."
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