Recruiting has an odd relationship with college football fans. It means everything, and it means very little. Some of the most fascinating, intense, memorable recruiting battles took place over players who didn't necessarily live up to the hype. In fact, of the 10 players involved in Rivals.com's "Best recruiting wars" from last summer, only two became true stars, while others were just solid instead of spectacular. You never know which battles truly matter and which ones don't, but hype meets production just enough to continue caring.
While Ryan Perrilloux's eventual commitment to LSU crushed Texas fans at the time, Perrilloux failed to make much of an actual impact on the field before getting kicked out of school. But a year later, when Tim Tebow chose Florida over Alabama, it defined each program's near future to an incredible degree.
We don't know which recruits from the 2012 class will have a program-changing effect, but it might be instructive to look back at the impact a single recruit can have. It is the reason we are so passionate about recruiting, even when we know the downside of following it so closely.
Tim Tebow has been inescapable over the past six football seasons. He won two national titles (first, as a de facto short-yardage running back in 2006, then, as a quarterback and the face of college football in 2008) and a Heisman Trophy at Florida, and since moving on to the Denver Broncos, he has been one of the most strangely polarizing sports figures in recent memory. But before he was a household name, he was a five-star high school prospect trying to choose between two programs in serious transition.
In December 2005, Urban Meyer was wrapping up his first season in Gainesville. He took over a Florida program that had faded under Ron Zook, but in his first season, the Gators improved from 7-5 to 8-3. They were preparing for a January 2 meeting with Iowa in the Outback Bowl (a game they would win, 31-24), and Meyer was putting the finishing touches on would become an incredible recruiting class. He had scored 16 commitments for his 2006 class, including a five-star offensive lineman (Carl Johnson) and a boatload of four-star prospects, including athlete Jarred Fayson and defensive tackle Brandon Antwine.
But he was still in need of a quarterback. Chris Leak would be a senior in 2006, and the backups were questionable. True freshman Josh Portis struggled with ball security in limited action in 2005, saw his playing time drying up, and ended up transferring. Meanwhile, former blue-chip quarterback Cornelius Ingram was moved to tight end. Fayson was a high school quarterback, and some thought he could take to the position, but things had been thrown into the air after blue-chipper Jevan Snead de-committed from Florida in favor of his homestate Longhorns in mid-November. (Supposedly Snead grew wary of the Gators when they continued to recruit other quarterbacks like blue-chip junior college quarterback Brent Schaeffer and a kid from Ponte Vedra Beach named Tebow.)
Meanwhile, a different story was playing out 450 miles northwest of Gainesville. Still feeling the effects of probation and scholarship limitations, Mike Shula was slow to get rolling at Alabama. He inherited a 10-3 team but after some odd coaching drama -- the Tide had hired Mike Price to succeed Dennis Franchione, then fired him in May 2003 because of what we will call some extracurricular activity -- had gone just 4-9 in 2003 and 6-5 in 2004. Facing intense pressure to succeed quickly, however, he fielded an excellent, experienced team in 2005. Behind quarterback Brodie Croyle and a stifling defense led by linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Freddie Roach and veteran safeties Roman Harper and Charlie Peprah, the Tide had begun the season 9-0 and found themselves ranked fourth in the country when No. 5 LSU came to town. However, they frittered away a 10-0 halftime lead and lost in overtime, then lost by 10 points at No. 11 Auburn.
The Tide had exceeded expectations but finished poorly, and heading into 2006, they had no experience at quarterback (sophomore John Parker Wilson was getting ready to take over), and they had to replace six of their top seven tacklers. A step backwards was likely, and Shula was not on solid enough footing to endure another rebuilding year with his job intact.
In other words, Shula needed Tim Tebow. To date, he had put together a solid recruiting class. Fifteen players had committed, including a five-star running back (Mike Ford, who would never make it to campus) and seven four-star prospects. He was still in on players like Andre Smith (a five-star lineman from Birmingham who would go on to sign with the Tide and thrive), five-star running back C.J. Spiller, five-star linebacker Brandon Spikes, Javier Arenas (a less-heralded "athlete" from Tampa) and four-star Mississippi back Terry Grant. There was a lot on the line, but he still needed a quarterback. John Parker Wilson had played a bit as a true freshman, senior Marc Guillon was experienced and redshirt freshman Jimmy Barnes had been reasonably highly-touted, but the position was certainly in flux.
On the morning of Tuesday, December 13, 2005, Tebow, a likely early-enrollee (if he should decide to give up on baseball), was ready to announce his decision. Coaches from Florida and LSU had come to visit on Sunday, and Shula came by for a lengthy visit on Monday. His top five also included Michigan and USC. ESPNnews was on hand as he chose the orange and blue.
In the end, Tebow chose Florida for any number of reasons. He claimed to have been a lifelong fan of the Gators, and he was drawn to both Urban Meyer and the offense Meyer and coordinator Dan Mullen were putting together. It was, as we would find out, perfectly suited for his odd, fullback-who-can-pass skill set. Alabama offensive coordinator Dave Rader had learned to adapt through the years, thanks mostly to a wealth of injuries (moment of silence, please, for Tyrone Prothro's career), but looking back, it is easy to understand what Tebow may have seen in Florida.
But he still could have very easily ended up at Alabama.
Such small things end up tipping a player's recruitment. Perhaps Snead holds steady with the Gators instead of flipping to Texas. Perhaps any number of other factors sway Tebow ever so slightly toward Tuscaloosa. Whatever the case, this is the perfect example of one player's decision dramatically impacting two different championship programs and the college football landscape as a whole. Both Matthew Stafford and Mitch Mustain ranked higher on the Rivals' 100 list (Stafford was the No. 6 overall prospect, Mustain No. 10 and Tebow No. 22).
Nick Saban: Miami Dolphin
If you're going to have a poor season in Tuscaloosa, it better be your first season. Otherwise, it will most likely be your last one. Mike Shula had gone 4-9 under odd circumstances at Alabama in 2003, and his Tide showed marked improvement in 2004 despite poor luck with injuries; they had lost Croyle to a torn ACL early on and patched together a 6-6 season with third-string quarterback Spencer Pennington and backups and true freshmen littering the skill position ranks. Despite the breakthrough in 2005, however, patience was thin. Shula needed a strong season in 2006, and it didn't come to pass. John Parker Wilson ended up faring reasonably well at quarterback (2,707 yards, 57-percent completion rate, 17 touchdowns, 10 interceptions), but he was inconsistent at times, and the Tide were particularly frustrating in the red zone. Meanwhile, the defense was still decent but definitely regressed as expected. In all, Alabama went 2-4 in one-possession games and finished the regular season 6-5. That was not good enough. Shula was fired the week after their 22-15 home loss to Auburn.
While it is rather difficult to project what Tebow may have done if landing a starting role at Alabama in 2006, and while that would be somewhat unfair to the perfectly decent Wilson, it isn't hard to see Tebow playing a role similar to what he filled at Florida that first year. Leak took most of the snaps for the Gators, but Tebow was utilized occasionally, most of the time in short-yardage packages. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 358 yards, five touchdowns and an interception, but more importantly, he rushed 89 times for 469 yards and eight touchdowns. Florida ranked third in the nation in Red Zone S&P+ in 2006, while Alabama ranked 89th. That wasn't all because of Tebow … but he certainly played a major role.
How might improved red zone performance have impacted Alabama's play in 2006?
- The Tide made five trips inside Arkansas' 20 on September 23 in Fayetteville, but they scored just two touchdowns and were forced to attempt, and miss, field goals of 30, 33 and 37 yards. They lost, 24-23, in overtime.
- On September 30 in Gainesville, the Tide were stopped at the Florida 4 in the second quarter and forced to kick a 21-yard field goal. Meanwhile, Tebow scored a two-yard touchdown for the Gators late in the first half. Then, another Alabama drive stalled early in the fourth quarter, and the Tide kicked a 26-yard field goal. Because of this, they trailed, 14-13, instead of taking a lead of anywhere between 21-7 and 17-14. Alabama was driving again with under five minutes left, but Reggie Nelson picked off a pass and returned it 70 yards for the clinching touchdown in a 28-13 win.
- On October 21 in Knoxville, Alabama drives stalled out at the Tennessee 7 and the Tennessee 1. Instead of scoring 14 points on those drives, the Tide scored six … and lost, 16-13.
- In Tuscaloosa on November 4, Alabama advanced the ball to the Mississippi State 1, 2, 8 and 14, and scored a combined nine points on those four drives. They had to settle for three field goals, and on the last play of the first half, Wilson was stuffed at the 1 on a quarterback sneak. 'Bama lost, 24-16.
- Against LSU on November 11, Alabama lost a fumble at the LSU 18, missed a field goal from the LSU 23, threw an interception from the LSU 23 and missed another field goal from the LSU 32. Six trips inside LSU's 35 led to 14 points in a 28-14 loss.
- In the Iron Bowl, Alabama stalled out at the Auburn 6 on their opening drive, then turned turned the ball over on downs from the 18 in the fourth quarter. They lost, 22-15.
How much would an improved red zone presence have helped Alabama? An immense amount. In all six regular season losses, red zone iffiness played a key role. The Tide probably do not win all six games with Tebow, but it isn't unreasonable to think they would win three. And Mike Shula probably does not get fired for going 9-3 with a stud freshman quarterback playing a key role.
Obviously it becomes more and more difficult to project what may have happened from that point forward, it is pretty clear that Shula is not fired in early December and eventually replaced by Nick Saban. Perhaps things fall apart eventually for Shula, even with Tebow, but it is far from a slam dunk to assume that Saban -- under whom Alabama has won two national titles in three years -- is available for the taking whenever that happens. With the money they have to throw around, odds are good that they would have hired a pretty big name no matter what, but Saban is not just any big name.
Percy Harvin: USC Trojan?
On December 19, 2005, Rivals' No. 1 prospect in the 2006 class, Virginia Beach receiver Percy Harvin, committed to become part of Meyer's increasingly impressive recruiting haul. Among other things, he told Rivals reporter Mark Wheeler the following:
Last week when Tim Tebow announced he was going to Florida, it was icing on the cake. It's certainly important when you know you have a quarterback of that quality already committed to the school you're looking at."
Harvin had narrowed his options down to Florida and USC by mid-December, and by all accounts he may have chosen the Gators even if Tebow had shouted "ROLL TIDE" to ESPNnews on December 13. It was, after all, much closer to his family; in the same article, he talked about not wanting his mother to have to travel across the country to see him play. Still, Tebow's commitment may have cast at least a sliver of doubt in Harvin's head.
(This, of course, sets off its own chain of what-ifs. USC lost two games in 2006 -- 33-31 to Oregon State and 13-9 to UCLA; is Harvin worth six extra points, especially for a team that returned neither kicks nor punts very well?)
Cameron Newton: Florida Gator
At this point, we know Cam Newton's saga almost as well as Tebow's. A year after landing Tebow, Urban Meyer also reeled in high-four-star quarterback John Brantley and Newton, a five-star signee from Atlanta's Westlake High School. Newton was the No. 28 prospect in the 2007 class, one of four five-star athletes Meyer landed that year. Florida's haul was monstrous: Newton, Brantley, Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden, Aaron Hernandez, Major Wright, Chris Rainey, Ahmad Black, the Pouncey brothers, et cetera. This class played a huge role in Florida going 25-2 in 2008-09, but as we know, Newton made but a small contribution.
From the start, it was pretty clear that Newton was a special talent. Despite Tebow being just a sophomore, he served as backup quarterback his freshman season, completing five of 10 passes and rushing 16 times for 103 yards. He began the 2008 season in the same role but was slowed by an ankle injury. He took a medical redshirt, but his career took a left turn when he was arrested for laptop theft. He did not get kicked out of school, but he ended up transferring in January 2009, after Tebow announced he was returning for his senior season in Gainesville.
It is probably safe to say that, with Tebow in Tuscaloosa, Newton remains a Gator. He and Brantley fight it out for the starting job from Day One in 2007, and, Newton being Newton and Brantley being Brantley, that is probably a battle he wins. We don't know if Florida still wins the national title without Tebow in 2006 (he did make a difference in a couple of tight games), but we do know that they were probably going to be in pretty good shape long-term, or at least as "long-term" as can be applied to Urban Meyer's tenure in Gainesville. Perhaps the Gators don't win in 2006, but perhaps they win in 2009-10 instead.
Greg McElroy: Texas Tech Red Raider
A third national championship quarterback was involved in this saga, too. When Tebow committed to Florida, Shula and Alabama doubled down on their pursuit of a Texas Tech commit from Southlake Carroll (TX) High School. Greg McElroy had committed to Mike Leach and the Red Raiders in mid-September, but he visited Tuscaloosa in early-January and made the switch soon after. If Tebow comes to 'Bama, McElroy doesn't; instead, he becomes Graham Harrell's successor in Lubbock. (And hell, for all we know, with McElroy on board, maybe the Red Raiders don't have a scholarship to give to Adam James, who committed to Tech two weeks later. Though that is a what-if of a what-if of a what-if.)
Tim Tebow's ESPNnews cameo on December 13, 2005, was, in effect, the Butterfly Effect of championships. It made a somewhat direct impact on the 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010 BCS championships, and it indirectly ended up costing a coach (Shula) his job and redirecting the career path of another (Saban). We have no idea which player in the class of 2012, if any, will have a significant impact, not only for the team he chooses, but the teams he doesn't. But we will continue to care far too deeply about every prospect, just in case he's that one player.