National Signing Day 2014: Alabama reigns supreme once again
Alabama clinched the 2014 recruiting title long before the faxes rolled in on Wednesday. In doing so, Nick Saban landed his sixth top-ranked class in the last seven years, according to Rivals.com, this one the most decorated group to date (it finished with a Rivals.com record 3,263 points). On the field, Saban's program has won three national titles in the last five years, and it began the season ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll in the two years that it didn't.
Winning a national championship in the BCS era required nearly as much luck as it did talent, as the Crimson Tide can well attest. In 2011 and '12, Alabama was fortunate that enough other contenders lost in November to allow it to climb back into the top two. In '13, however, the Crimson Tide were unfortunate enough to be on the wrong end of the first-ever game-winning touchdown return of a missed field goal -- the dramatic 109-yard scamper by Auburn's Chris Davis. 'Bama is often favored to win titles, but only the most diehard Tide fan could annually expect something so inherently capricious.
But college football's parameters for success change considerably this fall. The primary goal for major programs will now be to reach the four-team playoff, a task with a greater margin for error. The selection committee will purportedly place more emphasis on strength of schedule than perfection. To that end, it's absolutely reasonable to annually expect Alabama -- a program that has landed four straight top-rated recruiting classes -- to be one of those four teams. Anything less will be considered an underachievement given the ever-deepening wealth of talent that Saban has assembled.
Recruiting rankings aren't gospel, but they're a pretty darn good predictor of future success. Nine of the 12 teams to land a Rivals.com No. 1 ranking since the service launched in its present form in 2002 have gone on to play for a national title within three years. Florida State, the reigning BCS champion, had classes ranked No. 10, No. 2, No. 6 and No. 10 in the last four years, respectively. Its opponent in the title game, Auburn, placed No. 8, No. 10, No. 7 and No. 4, respectively.
And all of this was before the commissioners opened the postseason field to two more participants. Under Pete Carroll, USC enjoyed a similar run of recruiting dominance, garnering a No. 1 rating from at least one major service every year from 2003 to '07. The Trojans didn't play for a BCS championship after '05. In a four-team system, they might have earned one or two more shots.
In the Crimson Tide's case, what's truly staggering is the number of five-star prospects that Saban has landed. This year's haul of six -- defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, the nation's No. 1 overall prospect, defensive backs Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey, linebacker Rashaan Evans, offensive lineman Cameron Robinson and running back Bo Scarbrough -- brings the program's four-year total to 16. While not a scientific demarcation guaranteeing success, consider that previous five-star Saban signees include eventual first-round NFL draft picks Julio Jones (2008), D.J. Fluker ('09), Dre Kirkpatrick ('09), Trent Richardson ('09) and Dee Milliner ('10). Two more Alabama five-stars, Cyrus Kouandjio ('11) and safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix ('11), are projected first-rounders this year. Current star running back T.J. Yeldon ('12) was also a five-star recruit. As a general rule of thumb, it's always better to sign five such players than, say, two.
More impressively, it's not like all of these players come from Saban's backyard. Hand hails from Woodbridge, Va., and was long considered a likely Michigan pledge. Brown is from Beaumont, Texas, and once figured to follow his sister to LSU. In fact, 'Bama's class includes signees from 15 different states. Even locally, Saban managed to pry away a five-star prospect who lives in Auburn (Evans) for a second consecutive year.
For Saban, it's certainly easier to entice kids to leave home when flashing four BCS championship rings. But it's not like the programs he competes against are slouches.
"They battle," Rivals.com national recruiting director Mike Farrell said of the Crimson Tide's recruiting machine. "There is a misperception that they are just kind of picking. These are definitely battles, it's just that Alabama's got more artillery than anyone else."
Yet, Farrell added, "[The Tide] do not have the best roster in college football." That would be Florida State. The Seminoles, who hauled in another top-five class on Wednesday, are another team that should consider themselves an annual playoff contender, perhaps even more so than Alabama because they face fewer comparable adversaries in the ACC. Urban Meyer's Ohio State program may soon join their company. Wednesday's third-ranked class marked his third straight top-five haul since taking over in Columbus. No more Big Ten excuses. The recruiting rankings suggest that the Buckeyes will soon be every bit as talented as any Southeast team.
But playoff berths aren't earned on paper. All it takes is one "bust" class to derail a program. For Super Bowl champion Carroll, his top-rated 2006 USC crop produced just one true standout, safety Taylor Mays. Not coincidentally, the Trojans went 9-4 three years later, ending a run of seven consecutive 11-win seasons, after which Carroll left for the NFL.
So far, Saban's No. 1 classes have all equaled, if not surpassed, expectations. That's a testament to his program's mammoth behind-the-scenes recruiting operation (each assistant has his own assistant), his staff's penchant for player development and, of course, some good old-fashioned oversigning. If this year's team ends the streak, it likely won't be because the recruits weren't as good as advertised.
"I can't account for personalities and I can't account for stupidity," said Farrell, noting that early enrollee Brown ("The nicest kid in the world.") was arrested within his first month on campus for failure to obey the orders of a police officer and resisting arrest. "And I can't predict injuries. But this class is so well put together. ... There's no way I can see this class failing."
Which means one thing: For Alabama, it's playoffs or bust.
Any time a school undergoes a coaching change, a few verbally committed prospects inevitably look elsewhere. But not to the extent that we saw at several places this year. In fact, the ultimate legacy of the 2014 recruiting cycle may be the way a few coaches took a blowtorch to the outdated axiom that players commit to a school, not to a coach.
Despite having less than a month on the job, and despite dealing with NCAA scholarship restrictions, new Penn State coach James Franklin landed the 24th-ranked class in the nation, according to Rivals.com. That's thanks largely to flipping five of his former Vanderbilt commits, most notably quarterback Trace McSorley. Franklin, a renowned recruiter, helped elevate the Commodores' profile the past three seasons by selling previously unattainable three- and four-star prospects on the allure of both playing in the SEC and attending an elite university. As it turns out, many of those recruits were primarily interested in playing for Franklin, who also flipped key pledges from Cal (four-star athlete Koa Farmer) and Rutgers (four-star receiver Saeed Blacknall).
"After we evaluated the kids that were committed and where [the Nittany Lions] were numbers-wise, we went back to the kids we had the best relationship with, guys we'd been recruiting for one and a half, two years," Franklin said on Wednesday afternoon. "To come here and start recruiting guys we don't know -- I wasn't comfortable with that."
Following Franklin's Jan. 11 departure, Vanderbilt's once-promising class imploded, dropping from a high of 20 commits to a low of nine. His replacement, former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, did yeoman's work patching things up, even landing one of his former Cardinal commits, four-star defensive lineman Nifae Lealao. Still, the Commodores' final class -- once ranked in the top 25 -- barely cracked the top 50.
For all the turnover, though, the industry was generally unfazed. "Recruiting is a business," said Farrell. "Short of cheating, everything's fair game."
Franklin's situation was a bit unique. While he moved to a traditionally stronger program, there was no shortage of Vandy commits capable of making an impact at Penn State, particularly given the Nittany Lions' depleted state.
"Usually when [a coach] leaves one place and goes to another," said Franklin, "the recruits don't fit -- don't fit socially or academically, it's a different kind of conference, it's a jump. Our list -- we didn't have to find new guys. We could use the list of guys we already had."
Like Franklin, Chris Petersen's move from Boise State to Washington caused a ripple effect on both ends. A number of Broncos' commits reopened their recruitment after Petersen's departure, with six ultimately following him to Seattle. Bypassing a Mountain West offer for one from a Pac-12 team seems like a no-brainer, but one Idaho prospect, four-star tight end Chase Blakley, went the other way. He flipped from the Huskies to Boise State on Jan. 28.
Finally, Louisville lost one of the sport's top recruiters when Charlie Strong left for Texas, and it also lost a good number of his recruits. Ten Cardinals pledges defected on the heels of Strong's exit, in addition to offensive line transfer Ian Silberman (who instead enrolled at Boston College). Only two, defensive tackles Poona Ford and Chris Nelson, made their way to Austin. Louisville's resulting class ranked 10th among next year's ACC members, according to Rivals.com, disappointingly low for a team that went 23-3 the last two seasons. But that was Louisville under Strong. In recruits' minds, Louisville under Bobby Petrino is an entirely different school.
"Once the kid narrows it down to three or four schools," said Franklin, "then it comes down to relationships."
With coaches now beginning to recruit players nearly two years before Signing Day, it's going to be increasingly difficult for their successors to retain prospects they've only known for two weeks.
• Always be closing: Fewer high-profile recruits wait until Signing Day to commit than a decade ago, but LSU's Les Miles did his best Bobby Bowden impression on Wednesday. He landed five-star receiver Malachi Dupre, four-star defensive tackle Travonte Valentine and a pair of three-star defensive linemen in rapid succession. As a result, the Tigers jumped from outside the top five to No. 2 in Rivals.com's final team rankings. Ditto for USC's Steve Sarkisian, who nabbed two five-star players, athlete Adoree' Jackson and defensive back JuJu Smith, and a four-star talent, offensive lineman Damien Mama. Sarkisian's late push lifted USC into the top 10.
• Impressive loyalty: Virginia went 2-10 in 2013, its fifth losing season in the last six years. Yet a pair of five-star in-state prospects, defensive back Quin Blanding and defensive tackle Andrew Brown, signed with the Cavaliers. Both committed long before last season, and, despite mounting losses and standing offers from numerous national powerhouses, both stayed true to embattled coach Mike London. Virginia's small haul didn't come close to cracking the top 25, but it did include more five-star recruits than the classes at Ohio State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma, among many others.
• Even better than hoops: The best story of the 2014 recruiting cycle was unquestionably Kentucky, the recent SEC doormat that managed to sign a top-17 class. That's even higher than John Calipari's squad is currently ranked in the latest college basketball AP Poll. Second-year coach Mark Stoops did most of the heavy lifting last offseason, securing a May commitment from prized in-state quarterback Drew Barker and invading Ohio to sign five of that state's top 16 prospects. Stoops even beat Saban for heralded in-state defensive tackle Matt Elam.
• Another Jersey debacle: Rutgers did not go through a coaching change. It's moving to the Big Ten. Still, coach Kyle Flood's once-promising class completely fell apart -- 13 of the Scarlet Knights' recruits decommitted in the last six months, including their four most touted prospects. Four-star safety Kiy Hester landed at Miami, while four-star quarterback Tyler Wiegers wound up at Iowa. As a result, Rutgers -- which signed a top-25 class two years ago -- finished in the low 50s on Wednesday. Rival coaches may be about to endure some unexpected traffic.
• Momentum builder: Five years after former coach Lane Kiffin skipped town, Tennessee is still digging out from under his disastrous one-year tenure (which was exacerbated by ill-qualified replacement Derek Dooley). But coach Butch Jones finally has the Volunteers heading in the right direction. On the heels of a more-promising-than-it-looked 5-7 debut campaign, which included an upset of South Carolina, Jones has assembled a top-five recruiting class. Most impressively, six of the top seven players in the state opted to sign with Tennessee, headlined by five-star wide receiver Josh Malone and five-star running back Jalen Hurd.
• Notable potential sleeper: On Wednesday morning, Florida, now five years removed from its last formidable quarterback (one Mr. Tim Tebow), flipped intriguing dual-threat prospect Treon Harris from Florida State. The Miami native became the second four-star quarterback in the Gators' 2014 class, joining Will Grier. Recruiting analysts seem more enamored with Harris because of his throwing ability. "He's overlooked," said Farrell, who compares Harris to Russell Wilson. "He can change the face of a program."
• Annual reminder that nothing is final until ... How certain was Auburn that it would land homegrown prospect Evans? The school had an official bio and a highlight video ready to go -- both of which, unfortunately, went live on the Internet (and were picked up by my colleague Martin Rickman, among others) just a few minutes before Evans announced his decision to sign with ... Alabama. Ah, Signing Day.
• Annual internal family drama: Two years ago, Landon Collins' mom balked on national television when the safety picked Alabama over LSU. Last year, running back Alex Collins' mom ran away with his National Letter of Intent when he chose Arkansas. This year, Joya Crowe, the mother of five-star defensive end Malik McDowell, didn't want her son to attend Michigan State. Well, wouldn't you know it, after McDowell chose the Spartans on Wednesday, the school did not receive a signed NLI. Remember the first rule of recruiting: You've got to win over the mom.
• Prediction: There are three tried-and-true formulas that lead to high recruiting rankings within one year. One, a new coach takes over a powerhouse program. Two, a school appears in a national championship game. And three, the school is Alabama. So go ahead and bookmark this. Your top five in 2015, in some order, will be: Florida State (BCS title), Auburn (BCS runner-up), Texas (Strong), USC (Sarkisian) and Alabama (Alabama) -- with Penn State (Franklin) not far behind. See you this time next year.
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