Saban, Meyer dominate Signing Day; 2013 Superlatives
Twelve months of twists and turns, hirings and firings, decommitments and recommitments, all led to National Signing Day on Wednesday. After all the faxes had been sent, the top two classes on Rivals.com belonged to ... Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.
Jeez. Who could have ever seen that coming?
The nation's only two active coaches with multiple BCS titles are now poised to win some more. Alabama, the sport's two-time reigning champ, notched its remarkable fifth No. 1 national recruiting class in the past six years. Ohio State, a perfect 12-0 in 2012, will be even more talented in 2013.
Saban, the former or current coach of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, added four more prized running backs who combined for 9,205 rushing yards as high school seniors. Meyer, the master of the 11th-hour flip, pulled four-star running back Dontre Wilson out of Oregon's clutches and five-star defensive back Vonn Bell from Rossvile, Ga., away from the SEC.
Save for Meyer's change of locale, Signing Day 2013 could just as easily have been Signing Day 2008.
"A kid wants to go where he can compete for national championships," said Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell. "When you go down South, people believe their best chance at winning the national championship is at Alabama. People that believe you can do it in the North think Ohio State has the best chance. I agree with them."
As it's often been written, recruiting is an inexact science. History says nearly half of Rivals' Top 100 prospects will fail to morph into college superstars. But the trend lines also indicate that both teams and recruits with higher rankings perform better, on average, than those ranked below them. In truth, there's no seismic talent gap between the classes at Alabama and Ohio State and the ones at newfound darling Ole Miss (No. 7 in Rivals' rankings) or Florida State (No. 11). But if you're placing bets as to which groups will reach their potential, are you taking Saban's and Meyer's hauls, or Hugh Freeze's and Jimbo Fisher's?
The same sentiment can be echoed about of a lot of coaches who welcomed acclaimed classes on Wednesday. Their signees' fortunes will ultimately be determined not by star ratings and 40 times, but by necessary coaching and development. Plenty of coaches can close in the living room, and plenty of others are masters of the film room. Few, however, excel in both realms. We know Saban and Meyer possess that elite combination. We'll find out in the coming years which of this cycle's other top recruiters will parlay that success to the field.
Take the SEC, for example. The fabled conference will put out another glowing press release noting 11 of its 14 teams finished among Rivals' Top 25 classes. (And two others, Arkansas and Kentucky, barely missed.) Unfortunately, that also means at least one coach with top talent will find himself with a 5-7 team in a couple of years. The league hired four new coaches this offseason -- Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Arkansas' Bret Bielema, Kentucky's Mark Stoops and Tennessee's Butch Jones -- and all showed promise with their first recruiting classes. But which will do the best job once the actual season rolls around?
The same microscope will be applied to several established coaches. Notre Dame's Brian Kelly has put together quite a respectable résumé at this point, highlighted by last year's undefeated regular season and BCS championship berth. But the Alabama debacle proved that a talent gap still remains. With a top-five class on Wednesday -- his second top-10 haul in three years -- Irish fans will reasonably expect a better showing a year or two from now.
Florida's Will Muschamp landed his second straight top-three class on Wednesday. He has put himself in position to contend for national championships. But the jury's still out in Gainesville after a 7-6 debut and a deceiving 11-2 mark last year that ended with a disastrous Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville. Is Muschamp the next Saban or Meyer? He certainly has players who are capable of beating theirs.
Finally, there's Meyer's newest adversary, Michigan's Brady Hoke, who had another banner Signing Day in Ann Arbor. So far, he's kept fairly even recruiting pace with Meyer. (Ohio State finished No. 4 last year, Michigan No. 7; the Buckeyes finished No. 2 this year, the Wolverines No. 5.) If Hoke is as good of a coach as he is a recruiter, that rivalry should remain closely contested for the foreseeable future.
South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, never lacking for one-liners, delivered an apt point at his Signing Day press conference on Wednesday. Recruiting classes "don't always pan out," he said. "Of course, they always seem to pan out at Alabama."
Indeed, Saban has put a permanent dagger in the heart of cynics who claim recruiting rankings don't matter. He recruits No. 1 classes and produces No. 1 teams. His program has been the sport's gold standard for the past five years. But lest we forget, before Alabama came Florida, where Meyer racked up top-ranked classes and crystal footballs, in both 2006 and '08.
Their clash of wits in back-to-back SEC title games (2008 and '09) may soon reprise itself in a national championship. That is, unless one of the many budding stars from the 2013 recruiting season emerges as the next complete coaching package.
• Recruiting story of the year: Ole Miss. Nothing else comes close here. A program that's never reached the SEC Championship Game and is just a year removed from a 2-10 campaign signed not only the No. 1 recruit in the country (defensive end Robert Nkemdiche), but three of the top-15 prospects (Nkemdiche, offensive linemen Laremy Tunsil and receiver Laquon Treadwell) and a top-10 overall class. While it's a fairy common recruiting trend for a new coach to ride the excitement of his hire to a highly regarded debut haul (see Meyer and Kevin Sumlin), this case involves a relatively unknown coach (Freeze) at a school more renowned for tailgating than football.
Freeze called this class a "perfect storm" due to the staff's various connections to key signees (like the fact Nkemdiche's brother, Denzel, already plays for the Rebels). But others consider it highly suspicious. Whatever the case, Freeze's next challenge will be an encore. While Ole Miss' spectacular 2013 crop generates tremendous buzz in Oxford, it's going to take at least a few more years of top-20 classes for the Rebels to realistically compete with the SEC's elite.
• Most significant development: UCLA's rise. Last year, I lauded Jim L. Mora's impressive haul considering his lack of prior recruiting experience. This year, the Bruins showed that 2012 was no fluke. UCLA's late additions of four-star dual-threat quarterback Asiantii Woulard (Winter Park, Fla.) and four-star defensive end Kylie Fitts (Redlands, Calif.) -- the latter a onetime USC commit -- capped off what became the Pac-12's top class. "If you'd have told me a couple months ago they'd finish ahead of USC, I'd say you're nuts," said Farrell, who lauded the program's reach into regions outside of the West Coast.
• Most alarming development: The Big 12's decline. While we're long accustomed to the SEC dominating recruiting class rankings (as it did again, making up 11 of Rivals' Top 25 classes), the Big 12 could usually count on bell cows Texas, Oklahoma and an occasional interloper to crack a given cycle's top 10. This year, however, only the Sooners finished in the top 15. The Longhorns' 15-player class barely cracked the Top 25 after losing longstanding five-star commit A'Shawn Robinson to Alabama. And further adding insult, former members Texas A&M and Nebraska both captured their best classes in years.
If it's a one-year aberration, OK. If it marks a longer-term shift following conference realignment, the league may come to regret that new annual Sugar Bowl date with the SEC.
• Recruiter of the year: Texas A&M's Sumlin. As I wrote about last week, Sumlin accomplished the rare feat of topping both Mack Brown and Bob Stoops on the Texas recruiting trail -- and he laid much of the groundwork before anyone outside College Station had seen Johnny Manziel. On Wednesday, the Aggies put the cherry on top of their best class since 2005 by flipping Washington commit Daeshon Hill (Lancaster, Texas), a four-star defensive end. Best of all? Johnny Football will have his choice of six new receivers to target, headlined by top-40 prospect Ricky Seals-Jones.
• Recruiter of the last two months: Auburn's Malzahn. The only tangible reminder from Wednesday that the Tigers went 0-8 in the SEC last year was the fact that Gene Chizik is now watching Signing Day from ESPNU's set. Auburn closed strong, firming up No. 4 overall prospect Carl Lawson (Alpharetta, Ga.), a defensive end who recently took other visits, and landing five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams (Vienna, Ga.), four-star defensive end Elijah Daniel (Avon, Ind.) and two others to round out a top-10 class. Malzahn may be known for his offense, but that's one heck of a defensive line crop.
• Biggest disappointment: Georgia. It's hard to be critical of a top-15 class, but in a historically rich talent year in the state of Georgia, Mark Richt's program landed just one of Rivals' top 12 prospects there. Making matters worse, the Bulldogs struck out on all but one major recruit they were waiting to hear from on Wednesday. Perhaps not coincidentally, longtime recruiting ace Rodney Garner left for Auburn this offseason. "That's really alarming if you're a Georgia fan," said Farrell. It's a sharp contrast to just two years ago, when Richt's self-proclaimed in-state "Dream Team" helped regain momentum following a rare losing season.
You'd think the Dawgs' stock would be higher, not lower, coming off consecutive SEC Championship Game appearances.
• Biggest implosion: USC. While credit is due to Lane Kiffin and staff for signing a national-best five Rivals' five-star prospects, the Trojans lost a staggering seven previously committed players from what, at one point, was considered the nation's No. 1 class. Even with the addition of touted quarterback Max Browne (Sammamish, Wash.), it's been a rough year -- especially considering one former four-star pledge, defensive end Jason Hatcher (Louisville), decided he'd rather play for Kentucky. USC's total of decommitments is a lot for any school. It's particularly troubling when USC can only offer 15 scholarships per year. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Trojans only had 13 signees, and it's unlikely that all will pan out.
A couple of guys like Browne or defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow may well become All-Americas. But it takes a lot more bodies to compile an elite team.
• Annual crazy mom story: It happens every year -- someone's mother cries in disgust at her son's press conference or refuses to sign his National Letter of Intent -- but the mother of Miami-area running back Alex Collins may take the cake. Collins announced on Monday that he'd leave home and sign with Arkansas, but prior to a planned signing ceremony at his school on Wednesday, Collins' distraught mother, Andrea McDonald, reportedly bolted the premises with his unsigned letter in hand.
In all seriousness, the Miami Herald's account of the events portrays a pressure-riddled 18 year old who had quarantined himself in his room in recent days. "All this is getting to him," said Collins' brother, Johnny. That's Signing Day, for you: fun for the fans, life-changing business for the recruits and their families.