COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Look around the football facilities at Texas A&M these days and you can notice a significant difference from what they used to look like.
The Bright Football Complex, where the coaches and team are headquartered, is bigger, shinier and more well-lit than before thanks to a $4-million renovation of the lobby. On the second floor, where an outdoor patio used to reside, a $12-million nutrition center now exists.
Out of the front of the complex and to your left, the 17-month-old Davis Player Development Center serves as the football team's pristine weight room where strength and conditioning coach Larry Jackson puts the players through the paces. And of course, Kyle Field looks nothing like it used to, as it undergoes a $450-million renovation that will turn it into a 102,500-seat cathedral.
Add in some more renovations to the Bright Complex later this year and next and you have nearly $500-million committed to A&M football. Certainly, that buys a program some nice things.
On Wednesday, the Aggies took a huge step toward ensuring they field a product worthy of all their nice surroundings, one that can continue to be competitive in the SEC. At national signing day's end, Texas A&M hauled in 22 prospects that comprised the nation's fourth-ranked recruiting class, a sign of where the program is now.
Since recruiting entered its Internet age, the Aggies have never inked a class ranked this high.
"I think what people are seeing and prospects are seeing is the trend of where we are and where we can be, based on the commitment from the university to this program and the type of competitive games that we're in," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "I've said it in a lot of people's homes, we're a program that's trying to go from eight, nine, 10, 11 wins to 12, 13, 14 wins, and talent makes a huge difference in that."
Sumlin is talking about championships -- division championships, conference championships, national championships. Right now it's simply talk, a goal that the Aggies are aiming for. But it should come as no surprise that he mentioned Florida State on a couple occasions during his news conference today because of the momentum the Seminoles have maintained on the recruiting trail in recent years. That success led to the on-field success they enjoyed this past season, winning the BCS national championship.
That's the pattern the Aggies hope to follow. There are multiple components to building a championship program, but perhaps none more important than recruiting. With a top-five class this year and a top-10 class last year (the Aggies were No. 8 in the 2013 ESPN recruiting class rankings), the foundation is being built.
"Based on what you've seen in college football in the BCS era, recruiting has correlated to championships, the combination of coaching and recruiting," Sumlin said. "You look at the rankings of these classes, whether we want to admit it as coaches or not and give people credit, those teams have been very, very strong have been very strong in the rankings nationally. It can't be one or two [classes], you've got to put these things together. Hopefully we'll be able to continue that way."
To get a barometer of where the Aggies are, look at where they got two of their top three-ranked prospects. Five-star athlete Speedy Noil is a New Orleans product and was a player LSU wanted. It's no easy task to go into Louisiana and take prospects the Tigers want, as they're adept at keeping elite players in state. Kyle Allen, the nation's No. 1-ranked pocket passer, hails from Arizona.
Five years ago, it would be almost impossible to imagine that the Aggies would be able to get the No. 1 player at multiple positions from outside the state of Texas. But with their 20-6 record in two seasons of SEC play, the buzz created by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the television exposure and ratings the Aggies have received, it has allowed them to become a national brand that appeals to recruits across the country.
Still, the battle in the rugged SEC is an uphill one. The Aggies were fourth in the country with this recruiting class but third in the SEC West behind Alabama (No. 1) and LSU (No. 2). The Aggies started the day second but LSU and Florida State made late surges to grab the second and third spots.
Even so, the Aggies’ class is strong. Two five-star prospects, led by the nation's No. 1 defensive end and No. 4 overall player Myles Garrett, headline the class. There's a sense of balance with 11 prospects on each side of the football but five on the defensive line, an area that the Aggies need to continue to build to be competitive long term in the SEC. And of their 22 commits, 10 were ESPN 300 prospects. Garrett is the highest-ranked player and first top-five player the Aggies have signed since landing quarterback Reggie McNeal in the 2002 class.
Texas A&M still has a long way to go but it’s making big strides, as Wednesday's results showed.
"Are we gaining ground? I hope so," Sumlin said. "But we're doing the best we can right now and we're pleased with where we are. I think the key is when you're in that area, you've got to, just like playing in this league, you've got to scratch and claw to stay up in that area to stay in that area to really be competitive."