Extra Points: Pandemic, Playoff format exposed widening recruiting gap between elites and everybody else
Zoom calls and FaceTime. Texts and direct messages.
And phone calls, whenever and whatever allowed by NCAA rules.
A day removed from the start of Early Signing Period, 2020, and coaches are still decompressing from the wildest, most difficult recruiting season ever.
More collateral damage from the season of COVID.
“A train wreck trapped inside a hurricane,” a Power 5 coach told me. “And that’s underselling it.”
Said a Group of 5 coach: “This year was bad, but the real impact will be felt on this year’s (high school) juniors. The evaluations of those players, a year away from their senior seasons, is when the process really starts. Seniors this season, for the most part, it was simply reselling what we already sold – but spending significantly more time doing so because of the unknown. That time spent impacted evaluation of the junior class.”
It also further highlighted a growing chasm between a handful of programs and the rest of FBS heading into Championship Weekend. One that could potentially damage the sport worse than any truncated season.
I spoke to 10 FBS coaches over the last 2 weeks, and each had a high-level concern about the sport’s true bluebloods eliminating everyone else from championship play.
Specifically, the recruiting heavyweights – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia – have created a perfect storm that goes like this:
— Social media has distorted the way high school players look at college football programs. The elite want to play with the other elite, and want to win championships to sell their brand on social media. The idea of multiple elite players going to a growing program just isn’t reality.
“At the end of the day, our young people now have a greater sense of their social value – and a much greater ability to reach others and build their brands,” a Group of 5 coach told me. “We can scoff at it, we can say it’s not like it used to be. What good is that? It’s our reality. We have to adjust.”
Said a Power 5 coach: “Has it changed the way we recruit? One hundred percent. Our coaches have used this unique season to really understand what recruits are doing on social media. Really dive into it and get on their level. If we want to reach these kids, we have to be genuine. These guys can tell fake from genuine.”
— The recruiting heavyweights continually land elite classes, which has led to them dominating the College Football Playoff. That, in turn, has led to the inevitable every fall.
And that’s not good for the overall health of the sport.
“If you asked me before the season who I thought would make the Playoff, I would’ve told you Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Georgia or an unbeaten Big 12 or Pac-12 team,” a Power 5 coach said. “That’s the formula right now. Unless something absolutely crazy happens this weekend, guess what? We’re pretty damn close.”
Said another Power 5 coach: “I get it, people are going to say we should quit complaining and work harder. We can get 1 or 2 of those elite difference-makers. We’re not getting 7, 8, 9 or 10 of them. That’s the difference.”
A look at the current 247sports recruiting rankings clearly shows who runs recruiting in college football. Alabama is currently ranked No.1 after Day 1 of the Early Signing Period and is followed in the top 5 by Ohio State, Georgia, LSU and Clemson.
If you dig deeper, it’s even more disturbing:
The 2020 Alabama recruiting class, according to 247sports, signed 4 players who were ranked No. 1 at their respective positions (OT, CB, C, WDE). The Tide also landed 4 players who were No. 2 at their respective positions (OT, WR, OG, CB), and 2 who were No. 3 (ILB, DT).
Ohio State signed 3 players who were No. 1 at their position (WR, RB, OG), 1 who was No. 2 (AP), and 3 who were No. 3 (SDE, Pro-style QB, CB).
Clemson, which in 2019 signed 4 players who were No. 1 at their respective positions, followed that in 2020 with 2 players at No. 1 in their position (AP, TE), 1 at No. 2 (ILB) and 1 at No. 3 (OLB).
Meanwhile, Alabama and Clemson have the most CFP appearances (5), followed by Oklahoma (4) and Ohio State (3).
“Now Oklahoma is a different animal altogether,” another Power 5 coach said. “They recruit well, and they’re in a conference that they have dominated. And frankly, they hit on 3 transfer quarterbacks (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts), and (OU coach) Lincoln (Riley) did a masterful job developing those guys. But if you look at this season, they’ve taken a step back because they haven’t had that elite quarterback. He’s got a young guy back there who has a helluva lot of talent, but also makes young guy mistakes.”
Every coach I spoke to said he and his staff must do a better job identifying and evaluating – and later developing – players to keep pace.
“What’s that old saying? Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” another Power 5 coach said. “Well, if you have 10 elite talents, and 10 from the year before and 10 from the year before that, you’ve got a pretty good chances of those dudes working hard and pushing each other. At the end of the day, they police themselves and hold each other accountable.
“I’m not minimizing what (Alabama coach) Nick (Saban) and (Clemson coach) Dabo (Swinney) do, because development and motivation go hand in hand. They do great work. What I’m saying is, if I have a 5 and he’s topped out at 100%, he’s just not going to beat that 10 who are at 100%. The only time he’s going to beat him is when that 10 isn’t motivated or doesn’t want it bad enough. As we’ve seen with those teams, that ain’t often.”
Alabama hasn’t lost to an unranked team since Nick Saban’s first season in 2007. Ohio State has lost 2 Big Ten games in the last 4 years, and both were to unranked teams. Clemson hasn’t lost to an unranked team since 2017.
Look at the four-year, senior class records of the 4 best recruiting programs from 2017-2020, according to 247sports:
- Clemson: 50-4 (1 national title).
- Alabama: 48-4 (1 national title)
- Ohio State: 43-4.
- Georgia: 43-9.
“I knew all that, but hearing you say it out loud — boy, oh boy,” another Power 5 coach said. “They’re averaging 1 loss a season. One darn loss. That’s a championship season – every season. Everyone knows who’s playing in that Playoff. It’s obvious. Players win games. We all know it. It’s as simple as that.”
Every coach I spoke to agreed the only way out is to expand the CFP. While it may not change the outcome, at the very least it allows other programs to use the idea of reaching the Playoff as a recruiting tool.
The more carrots you can dangle in front of recruits, the easier it is to sell your program.
“Think about all we just talked about,” a Group of 5 coach said. “Now think about selling what you have — against what they have and have won over the years — during a pandemic, where there’s no human interaction other than on a phone. That’s what our life has been for the last 10 months.”