- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
In conversations I've had over the past year with college football coaches, many stated a deep appreciation for institutional support from their superiors. However, at some point during those conversations, nearly all of the coaches highlighted the same key component for success: players.
I recall Sonny Dykes telling me that. I recall Lane Kiffin telling me that. It doesn't matter if you're at Louisiana Tech, as Dykes was then, or at USC like Kiffin; players ultimately make or break the program.
In preparation for signing day on Feb. 6, we thought it would be worthwhile to identify major programs that have recruited well (and not so well) as of late. Which programs are rising? Which are falling?
Using ESPN's RecruitingNation rankings from the past five years (2008-2012) as a barometer, here is my recruiting stock report for six big-name college football programs.
Five-year ESPN class average: 23.4
Current 2013 ranking: No. 7
This is as obvious a place to begin as Nick Saban was in Monday's post about top recruiting head coaches. "Overnight" isn't a gross misrepresentation of how quickly coach Kevin Sumlin altered the perception of the Aggies. The young, affable Sumlin and his staff were recruiting at a lot of the same Texas high schools when they were at Houston, but they had a new air to them once they got after it at A&M (which also benefited from moving to the SEC).
They started turning heads almost immediately with that enhanced swagger, which blossomed once the season started. With the first freshman Heisman winner leading them -- and plenty of talent backing Johnny Manziel -- the Aggies evolved into one of the better teams in the country by November. Not surprisingly, given Manziel and the up-tempo nature of the offense, Texas A&M is currently loaded with receiver commitments, including high-end targets Ricky Seals-Jones (once a Texas commitment) and Sebastian LaRue. Who wouldn't want to join the fun?
Five-year ESPN class average: 12.4
Current 2013 ranking: No. 3
It might not be as noticeable a jump as the Aggies' leap, but if Notre Dame can hold serve in the final days leading up to signing day it will have its first top-five class since 2006. We talk a lot about the Irish being "back," but in many ways, that's most apparent in this area; recruiting is an indicator of just how back you really are. As noted by the five-year average, it isn't as if the program fell too far with its recent classes. Still, to be mentioned in the same breath as Florida, Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan has to feel pretty nice for Brian Kelly and his staff.
Replenishing the defense is a high priority, and linebackers Jaylon Smith (the lone five-star LB prospect) and Doug Randolph give the Irish the potential for immediate impact in the middle of the defense. Recruiting will not solely determine whether Notre Dame is indeed back, but it's where the process will be sustained. The Irish certainly don't want 2012 to be a one-hit-wonder season.
Five-year class average: 5.8
Current 2013 ranking: No. 10
The Seminoles have taken a half-step back so far in 2013, but that's actually not too bad considering a half-dozen assistants, including both coordinators, left Jimbo Fisher's staff. Beyond this class, and all of those assistant departures, it's tough to know what to make of the Seminoles. On the surface, recruiting has generally improved under Fisher. FSU has had top-10 classes each of the past four years, including No. 1 in 2011 and No. 2 in 2012.
But what does that mean if it doesn't correlate to success on the field? And, no, I don't mean an Orange Bowl win against Northern Illinois. That's not what Kirk Herbstreit and other intelligent analysts had in mind when they picked the Noles to win the 2012 BCS title.
How the Noles close this class and recruit for '14 could be telling about Fisher's future in Tallahassee, Fla. An on-the-fly staff makeover is tricky business. Regardless, Fisher and his new-look staff eventually will have to get recruits who reflect not only the historical expectations of the program, but also the consistently high recruiting rankings. At some point, it isn't the recruiting services missing on grades.
Five-year class average: 2.2
Current 2013 ranking: No. 2
Alabama isn't going anywhere, is it? While the trophies and rings -- and NFL draft picks -- continue to pile up in Saban's stay, so does the replenishing of top-tier recruits. It's a circle of life in title town; elite prospects arrive, play and leave (some early), and elite prospects replace them. And around and around we go.
Saban's recruiting classes at Alabama have included a consistently high number of ESPN 150 prospects in his five-year tenure: 7, 9, 8, 11 and 13. The Crimson Tide currently have 10 top-150 prospects in their '13 class. That's alarming consistency for a conference -- and country, for that matter -- that has watched the Tide win three of four national titles, knowing they will be favored this fall to win the final championship of this BCS era.
About the only thing that could derail the train is if Saban again gets the itch to coach in the NFL. At 61, if he's going to give the pro ranks another shot, you'd think it would be soon. The clock is ticking. At this point, though, he might be content to stick around and make that Saban-versus-Bear Bryant debate really heat up.
Five-year class average: 9.2
Current 2013 ranking: No. 20
The Sooners have sustained Big 12 success, though they have not flirted with a national title in five years. Plus, they have not had a top-10 class since 2010. Bob Stoops had to reach into the juco ranks more than ever before to rescue the 2012 class' reputation, though those final evaluations were a bit skewed because tackle Will Latu and receiver Courtney Gardner never got into school.
What gives? Good question. Some who follow OU, both fans and reporters, have theorized that it could be one of those been-there-too-long situations in which some elements of the program have gotten stale. Also, recruiting at Oklahoma used to be easier when coaches would wow high school players by pointing to all the championships; the modern recruit, however, doesn't seem to be driven as much by tradition. Staffers such as receivers coach Jay Norvell, reportedly a candidate for other jobs the past two years, have been extremely aggressive in attempting to keep OU where it is. But OU could use more Norvells.
One interesting undercurrent is how Oklahoma is faring in Texas. It had only five signees (excluding prep-school products who were actually in the '11 class) from the Lone Star State a year ago. There are already 11 in the 2013 class, which shows a bit of a rebound. But in general there's even more competition in the state with the rise of programs such as Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas A&M.
Five-year class average: 17.6
Current 2013 ranking: No. 29
This is a predictable reflection of the turmoil and turnover that has plagued the Volunteers since the end of Phillip Fulmer's long run as coach. The next UT coach, Butch Jones, is tasked with steadying things after some short-lived coaching hires (granted, Kiffin left voluntarily while Derek Dooley didn't).
It's going to take time for Jones, whose program has piled up nine decommitments, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. So it goes after three different waves of transition in a relatively short period of time.
What bodes well for Jones, those close to the program tell me, is that in just one month he already has shown more interest in connecting to, well, anyone than Dooley did in three years. That includes bolstering recruiting efforts. It's something of a dot in the larger picture, but Jones encouraging his assistants to be active on Twitter illustrates a new enthusiasm in Knoxville, Tenn. It's similar to the one permeating Vanderbilt, which anyone in the Volunteer State (not the Commodore State) understands is a jarring but accurate comparison.
Here's another: Vandy is ranked 21st in the ESPN recruiting rankings, eight spots ahead of Tennessee. That's an in-state balance of power you couldn't have ever anticipated shifting, and it's Jones' job to get it back to the long-held norm.