If the SEC took the slightest of breathers last year in recruiting, the league that's won seven straight national titles and four of the last seven Heisman Trophies found a new gear and pushed the pedal to the floorboard.
The big four in college football's dominant conference — Alabama, Florida, LSU and Georgia — all signed big, top 10 classes packed with speed and size. This is no big surprise. It's the SEC teams just beneath the big four, and the depth they're creating, that's impressive in 2013.
Ľ Mississippi, with little more than a couple big bowl wins in the last 30 years, signed the nation's top player in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's top receiver in Laquon Treadwell and the nation's top junior college player, defensive tackle Lavon Hooks.
Ľ Doormat Vanderbilt crafted a top-25 class. And at Kentucky, well, Nebraska fans know: The Wildcats are flipping commits and knocking on doors with zeal.
Ľ And despite new coaches, Arkansas, Tennessee and Auburn stayed aggressive on the trail and landed in the consensus top 30. In some recruiting rankings, Bret Bielema's done more in two months at Arkansas than he did — ever — at Wisconsin.
“It's definitely more of the rich getting richer in the SEC,” said Barton Simmons, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “Every kid in America seems to want to play in the SEC.”
And nowhere is that more clear, Simmons said, than the SEC's newest recruiting center, Texas A&M. The Aggies, fresh off a Cotton Bowl win and Johnny Manziel's Heisman Trophy season, signed 32 recruits, good for my No. 6 class overall. It helped that the talent around the Houston metro this year was even better than it usually is. But A&M stuck its nose firmly into Dallas, plucking several recruits from an area that Texas generally claims as its own.
How Texas ever let this happen — allowed its desires with a boondoggle of a TV network to run off its main rival and drag Pandora's Box into the Lone Star State — will be the recruiting story of the next decade. The Longhorns have messed around so royally in the wake of a 2009 run to the national title game, it's as if they got drunk on a sliver of success and let the house burn down. A&M simply has more to sell for the next three years. A better league. Better weather. A better quarterback. Likely more access to a playoff.
Texas and its 10-team Big 12 can't answer those advantages. The league's champion, Kansas State, is hanging out in the mid-50s of recruiting rankings. Iowa State and Kansas, cobbling together their best classes in some time, still don't crack the top 30. If you look at 247Sports' composite rankings, there isn't a Big 12 team higher than Oklahoma at 15. Seven SEC teams are ahead of that.
The Big Ten gets a bump from the league's two tent-pole programs: Michigan and Ohio State. Scout/Fox Sports Next has them No. 1 and No. 2 in the rankings, and every other service puts them snugly in the top 10. I'm personally more impressed with the Buckeyes than the Wolverines, but the two schools have set a bar that other Big Ten programs have to hustle to clear.
The Wolverines got players from five states outside the Big Ten region, including five-star running back Derrick Green, whose commitment reportedly brought UM coach Brady Hoke to tears. The Buckeyes went to nine states outside the Big Ten, grabbing players from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida and three from Texas. OSU's always been active in Florida, but Meyer's SEC connections help him pick apart some locks in other SEC states.
Aside from Nebraska, which will continue to inhabit that 15 to 25 range until it wins conference titles and gets playoff berths, and Penn State, doing the best it can, the rest of the Big Ten needs a retooling. Michigan State has allowed Michigan to win too many in-state battles in the last two years. Iowa's class borders on embarrassment. Northwestern waits for better facilities. Indiana needs to win more and find a defensive identity. Minnesota, Illinois and Purdue can't just settle for third-tier prospects from Texas and Florida who might be fast but have little size or strength.
The Pac-12's surge in 2012 has been slowed just a bit by Chip Kelly's departure from Oregon, USC's NCAA sanctions and, more specifically, the grease fire of a season coach Lane Kiffin cooked up for the Trojans.
Out in the ACC, Florida State is still the team most likely to make a top 10 appearance, but Clemson and Virginia Tech kept reasonable pace. Both were in our top 30. The class for Miami (Fla.) was so big last year that it was bound to shrink in 2013. It did, but the players the Hurricanes landed, including Nebraska tight end target Beau Sandland, were generally special.
The Big East, unsurprisingly, stunk; Louisville and Rutgers have the best classes of the bunch — both in the 40s — and they're both ditching the league anyway.
Notre Dame capitalized nicely on its run to the national title, addressing needs in the secondary to help shore up a pass defense that fell apart against Alabama. Among non-BCS programs and independents, the usual successful teams stood out: Houston, Boise State, Southern Mississippi, BYU, Marshall and Fresno State.
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