LINCOLN — In college football recruiting, the SEC's not Southern comfort. It's Southern cutthroat.
After a few years of watching several Pac-12 and Big Ten teams launch their way into the top 10 of the nation's recruiting classes, the SEC had a fierce answer in 2014. And although Alabama and LSU turned their usual superstar classes, the league didn't use the Crimson Tide and the Tigers to make its biggest arguments.
The SEC left that to Tennessee's and Kentucky's raids into Big Ten country. The Volunteers (33 commits) and Wildcats (28 commits) both signed massive classes, and both used the new, expanded Big Ten footprint to do it. The best conference in college football already has the South on perma-lock. Now it's coming north for the best prospects that Ohio State and Michigan can't lock down.
UK took 11 from the Big Ten region. Tennessee took seven. Both landed major body shots in the state of Ohio, especially the Wildcats, who took 10 from that state alone. A name familiar to Husker fans, former graduate assistant Vince Marrow, was attached to several of those recruits. Having head coach Mark Stoops hail from Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, like Marrow, doesn't hurt, either.
“Marrow's just killing it for Kentucky,” Rivals.com National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell said. “That was what Nebraska was supposed to do. That guy is a machine. He's one of the best recruiters in the country. If you can sell Kentucky football to kids in Ohio with a ton of other options, you are a recruiter. He's going to be on the short list for recruiter of the year.”
Frequent readers of my recruiting column may recall my skepticism at the impact of Marrow's departure from Nebraska. I figured Marrow would help Kentucky — which was and is selling early playing time after a hideous 2013, when its only two wins were over 0-12 Miami (Ohio) and FCS squad Alabama State — but I equally figured the Huskers would hold their own in head coach Bo Pelini and offensive coordinator Tim Beck's home state.
I was wrong. Nebraska didn't sign an Ohio player for the 2014 class. Now, the Huskers offered only 13 players from Ohio in this cycle, according to Rivals' official offer list. That's dwarfed by the number of offers Nebraska put out in Florida. Still, NU didn't offer double-digit Ohio kids as a lark. Kentucky signed three of the players Nebraska offered. Tennessee — whose second-year coach, Butch Jones, coached at Cincinnati — signed two.
Farrell made a good point: Kentucky, Tennessee and any other teams hitting Ohio and the rest of the Big Ten footprint aren't hurting Ohio State. Or Michigan. Or even Penn State, where Farrell expects James Franklin to energize the Nittany Lion base. Those three schools will get the A-list prospects. It's hurting the rest of the league with the B-list. Alabama signs two of its six offensive linemen in Minnesota and Iowa, respectively. Arkansas gets a lineman out of Minnesota that the Gophers did nearly everything to court. LSU grabs a linebacker. After Tanner Farmer committed to the Huskers, his dad, Brian fielded calls from Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi State, among other SEC schools. He didn't return them. Other parents wouldn't be so disciplined.
In the 2010 recruiting cycle, the SEC took just 16 players from the Big Ten footprint — I'm including New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C. In 2014, buoyed by Kentucky and Tennessee, that number hit 30. Those are small numbers, really, but combined with the annual Midwestern haul for Notre Dame — which Big Ten teams thoughtlessly continue to schedule, granting the Irish commitment-free membership in the conference for a couple of games per year — the league often loses major talent.
Traditionally, bottom-feeding SEC teams like Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt tend to do better in recruiting than they should because with constant coaching turnover come new regimes that pitch playing time, the sun, the moon, the stars. Tennessee is on its fourth coach since 2008 — that's three “regime change” classes in six years. The Volunteers are 33-41 in those six years. The darkest days of the Callahan era at Nebraska weren't that ugly. But it produces eternal optimism on the recruiting trail.
As usual, Alabama's Nick Saban is smarter about all of this; he's on his third offensive coordinator in four years. The latest, Lane Kiffin, may be a maladroit as a head coach, but few can sweet-talk high school quarterbacks better than he.
Continuity has a way of tamping down recruiting rankings, if only because a coach prefers loyally developing the players he already has instead of angling to replace them before they reach their full potential. Michigan, signing a small class this year because of big junior and sophomore classes, is running into this. Pelini — perhaps the nation's most reluctant coach to run off non-performing scholarship players so long as they're handling business off the field — ran into this snag for several years after inking in 2008 his largest class just a month after being on the job full time. SEC teams operate with less of a conscience and more of an eye toward success at all costs, including the coach's job security.
But the SEC's performance transcends even those Big Ten-friendly arguments. Florida — which could be looking for a new head coach next December unless 2014 opponents Alabama, LSU, Florida State and Georgia magically disappear — will still cobble together one of the nation's best classes. There are so many good players just hours from Gainesville. So what if the Gators are on their third offensive coordinator in four years and ranked 115th in total offense last year? It still attracted Brandon Powell — a running back Nebraska hosted for an official visit — and top dual-threat QB Will Grier.
Even an SEC coach on the hot seat can work the recruiting angles. The league's never comfortable. Always cutthroat.
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