How Florida State and Auburn were built: Championships demand elite recruiting

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What's it take to build a college football program that can compete for national titles? Above all else, it takes talent. Let's look into what this year's BCS National Championship teams are made of.

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Winning a national title takes luck, whether that means bounces, staying healthy, or scheduling breaks.

But to win a national title, a program must first be able to bring on more blue-chip talent than it brings on average players. That sounds simple. And it's incredibly hard.

It's been done by almost every champion in the BCS era for which comprehensive recruiting rankings are available. This year's national championship contenders, Florida State and Auburn, are two of nine current teams to meet the mark in the last few years. Of the other nine, only Notre Dame has failed to win a recent BCS title.

Recruiting rankings are often maligned by those focusing on individual examples and anecdotes, like that of Eric Fisher, a former two-star who went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. In the aggregate, however, they are both accurate and predictive of a team's success.

Development and coaching matter, to be sure, but when a program is signing 50 blue-chips in a four-year period, a lot has to go wrong for the school not to win games. Even if a good number of the elite recruits bust, there is still plenty with which to work. It's a numbers game -- one favoring the team that hoards stars.

Florida State's stars, Auburn's quality depth

Florida State's starting lineup features about 40 percent more former elite recruits than Auburn's does, which means Auburn has twice as many former three-star recruits starting as Florida State does.

Of course, a team is more than its starters, and both Auburn and Florida State have a lot of former blue-chips on the bench, providing championship depth.

The Tigers frequently use freshmen five-star defensive linemen Monatravius Adams and Carl Lawson, along with four-star freshman defensive lineman Elijah Daniel. Lawson is second on the team in sacks, while Daniel is fourth. On the offensive side, sophomore receiver Ricardo Louis is a former four-star. College football fans remember Louis as the player on the receiving end of the miracle pass against Georgia in Jordan-Hare.

Florida State also has a lot of talented depth. At running back, its deepest position, it also has two former five-stars as its backup running backs in James Wilder, Jr., and Karlos Williams, and the Seminoles rotate the pair in with starter Devonta Freeman. The trio of former elite recruits has combined for 2,190 yards and 32 touchdowns.

Red dirt and sunshine

Let's take a look at some of the nuances of the talent on each team, and specifically, in the starting lineups.

Come January 7, 12 of the 16 BCS-era championships will have been won by teams from the Southeast. Thirteen of the 32 teams to ever play in BCS National Championships are Alabama or Florida schools.

As you might have guessed, the Tigers and Noles don't have to go very far to get players. Florida State features 17 starters from the neighboring states of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. Auburn has 18. To put it another way, one three-state area provided 80 percent of the BCS National Championship's starters.

Another three come from traditional SEC states Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee, while another two come from new SEC state Texas. Only two players come from outside the combined footprint of either conference: one from Colorado and one from New Jersey.

Overall, an incredible 43 percent of the players rated four-stars or better by Rivals.com for the class of 2014 are from the Southeast. That is followed by 17 percent for the Atlantic East, 16 percent for the West (with California supplying the vast majority of prospects), and 14 percent each for the Midwest and the Midlands (made up mostly of Texas prospects) regions.

The three states that supplied the most starters for Auburn-Florida State have more elite talent than any other three adjacent states in the country. And this year, about 50 percent more elite talent by themselves than those four non-Southeast regions.

This really should not be much of a surprise. Teams from the Southeast have long had an enormous advantage in recruiting talent. And youth and high school football are extremely important in the Southeast. Sure, there are states that place as much value on youth and high school football as a Florida or Alabama, but no region can match the Southeast's.

Thursday, Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, a former Alabama high school coach and Crimson Tide assistant, talked up the quality of the state's prospects.

Experts and coaches often talk about the biggest advantage for the region being on the defensive line. Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has often spoke about every part of the country having big players and fast players, but the Southeast having more players who are both big and fast.

The numbers back up the idea. Rivals.com rated 22 defensive tackles four-stars or better for the class of 2014. Of those, 46 percent are from a Southeastern state.

Andy Staples covered the South's excellent production of elite defensive linemen for Sports Illustrated in 2011, and did an excellent job examining why the numbers are so strong. He also spoke with then-college coach Chip Kelly:

Oregon coach Chip Kelly believes teams in a defensive lineman-rich region have an inherent recruiting advantage. While Kelly can pluck skill players from Florida or Texas that fit his offense -- but maybe not the offenses at Florida, Florida State or Texas -- he can't easily grab a defensive lineman because all those schools want elite linemen just as badly. A 300-pounder who can run fits in every scheme. "Most of the recruiting we do is geographic -- on the West Coast," Kelly said in a July interview. "We've expanded, but I think you can expand to get a skill kid. I'm not sure you can expand to get that type of d-line prospect. That's always the toughest one."

I spoke with Charles Fishbien -- president of Elite Scouting Services, one of the premier scouting services used by colleges all over the country -- about this phenomenon.

"I think it is [because of] year-round football," Fishbien said. "Guys go from fall football to spring football to summer football and seven-on-seven. They're constantly competing and being coached up. Being outside and playing all the time, it matters."

"Everyone comes to the Southeast to recruit. They know where the players are."

"Seven-on-seven has also helped a lot," Fishbien said of the passing-skeleton sport that has become more popular in the Southeast in recent years. "It's helping them become more advanced. They get better at running routes, and they can compete all year. Being able to compete against other top kids makes these kids better, too."

Iron sharpens iron, and Fishbien thinks having so many talented players competing against each other forces everyone on the field to take their game to the next level. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the secondary.

"You see the speed and the press coverage constantly, and from an early age," Fishbien said. "Guys have to make plays happen because they are constantly being challenged."

Mindset and culture matter.

"I definitely think football in the Southeast is more important. Like basketball in New York and Chicago. For some, football is the way out of bad situations. And a lot of these kids also don't have the money to play youth travel sports, like baseball. Football becomes more important at a younger age. These kids are competing against so many other great players from an early age."

"Everyone comes to the Southeast to recruit. They know where the players are," Fishbien said.

The money classes

Unsurprisingly, the bulk of each team's best players are upperclassmen -- players in their third, fourth, and fifth years from the recruiting classes of 2010 and 2011.

In 2010, Rivals.com rated Auburn's class No. 4 nationally and Florida State's class No. 10. Both classes had an average star rating of 3.5 (on a two-to-five scale), but Auburn maintained that average while signing 32 players to FSU's 24.

In 2011, Rivals.com rated Florida State's class No. 2 and Auburn's No. 9. Florida State took 29 players to Auburn's 24.

Almost all of Auburn's best players on offense -- including running back Tre Mason, tight end C.J. Uzomah, receiver Sammie Coates, receiver Quan Bray, and tackle Greg Robinson -- are from the fantastic 2011 class Auburn signed weeks after winning the BCS National Championship. Quarterback Nick Marshall is a member of the class of 2013 by way of junior college, but he was originally a member of the class of 2011.

Auburn's rushing attack, and thus its offense, dominated once it started to click, and the Tigers have averaged 402 yards over their last four games.

Most thought it would take new head coach Gus Malzahn a year to get things going. He needed only two months. Given that his quarterback was not even enrolled for spring practice, what Malzahn Tigers have done, and the speed with which they have done it, is remarkable.

Auburn was not as dominant over the full course of the year as Florida State was, but the Tigers turned it on after September. Auburn put up the most yards-per-carry allowed by Missouri, Alabama, and Tennessee and the most total rushing yards allowed all year by six of its nine SEC opponents. Auburn's rushing attack, and thus its offense, dominated once it started to click, and the Tigers have averaged 402 yards over their last four games.

Of course, Malzahn was already familiar with Auburn's players when he returned in 2013. He was at Auburn from 2009 to 2011, and personally scouted and recruited many of Auburn's most important players -- including those in the all-important 2011 class.

Florida State also has an offense loaded with players from the 2011 class, including star receivers Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin, tight end Nick O'Leary, and linemen Tre' Jackson, Bobby Hart, and Josue Matias. Star reserve running backs James Wilder Jr., and Karlos Williams were also members of the class.

On pace to score the most points in the history of college football, and in turn, become the first squad in 112 years to outscore its opponents by at least 550 points (hello, 1901 Michigan), this Seminoles team looks more like a championship team than any of the non-SEC squads the SEC has defeated for its nine BCS titles. Advanced statistics, which account for opponent quality, agree -- FSU has the No. 1 offense and the No. 2 defense, according to the F/+ system.

Fisher recently spoke with USA Today about his 2011 class:

"Yeah," Fisher said with a smile. "That's a pretty good class. And again, they're applying it. That's the thing. They've done a great job of going to that next level. And that's one of the big foundations of our team."

At the time, Fisher says, he and his coaching staff thought they had put together an elite group. But Fisher said you can never really know for sure until a couple of years later, after the players have been allowed to grow and mature within the program.

"We thought it was special," he said of the class. "We really did. But I've been in this business long enough to know that sometimes they don't always pan out. ... Like I say, it's like hunting dogs. Wait 'til they're about two or three and then you can really tell how good they are."

A history of recruiting battles

Kevin C. Cox, Getty

Florida State, Auburn, and Alabama rank No. 1, 2, and 3 in the country. And all three recruit against each other for many prospects every year. Look no further than at quarterback.

Florida State's Jameis Winston, a native of Bessemer, AL, was heavily recruited by Alabama and Auburn (he calls the BCS National Championship his personal "rivalry game"), yet chose Florida State because of his close relationship with former FSU quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig. Making things even more intertwined, Craig is now at Auburn and, in the '90s, played quarterback at Auburn under offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher.

Auburn's quarterback, Marshall, was targeted by Alabama and Florida State coming out of high school in Georgia. Interestingly, he did not have an offer from Auburn. After his stints at Georgia and a junior college, Marshall came to Auburn without being re-offered by Alabama or Florida State. Recruiting is a strange business.

Florida State also beat out Auburn and Alabama for a pair five-stars from the D.C. area in consecutive years, for cornerback Ronald Darby and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman. When Darby signed over Auburn on ESPN, Craig turned his hat around and looked to wave an imaginary towel above his head while chest-bumping -- apparently mocking then-Auburn assistant and ace recruiter Trooper Taylor.

But Auburn has defeated Florida State and Alabama on the recruiting trail several times as well. In 2012, the Tigers beat out Florida State for Louis, a four-star receiver from Florida. Louis was a long-time Auburn commitment and actually decommitted from the Tigers late in the process and swung to FSU before turning back to Auburn. Both Florida State and Alabama wanted star left tackle Robinson and promising right tackle Avery Young, but both chose Auburn.

12 of FSU's 22 starters held an offer from Auburn, and 13 were offered by the Crimson Tide.

Auburn back Mason, of Park Vista High School in Florida, was not offered by Florida State or Alabama. 2011 was an excellent year for running backs in Florida, and FSU signed Freeman and Wilder Jr.

"Mason was a solid player in high school. But was he a must-have? No," Fishbien said.  "And now the kid is up for the Heisman Trophy. There are so many of those stories down here, because there is so much talent," he added, noting how difficult it can be to stand out.

In all, 12 of FSU's 22 starters held an offer from Auburn, and 13 were offered by the Crimson Tide. Seven were offered by both schools, and five were offered by neither.

Up the road, eight of Auburn's 22 starters were offered by Florida State -- the same number Nick Saban offered. Seven Auburn starters held offers from both schools, while 13 were not offered by either school.

Takeaways

These two schools have recruited very evenly over the last four years, with only a few percentage points separating them, no matter the metric. In some years, recruiting rankings can be very predictive, and while Florida State does have a noticeable edge in its starting lineup, it is not one that would be predictive of a blowout.

The main lesson here is how hard it is to assemble a roster that's good enough to play for a national championship. Only a dozen or so teams in the country have a realistic chance of putting together that level of talent for multiple years in a row.

And it's even harder for schools outside of the Southeast, Texas, and California. Even with a few power schools in the Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 being capable of winning titles, the BCS' trend of dominance by Southeastern teams should be expected to continue into the College Football Playoff era.

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