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College football recruiting might be getting top-heavy again

2017 and 2018 each had three different classes that could’ve ranked No. 1 in earlier years.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship Game-Alabama vs Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There are always plenty of story lines to go around following the end of each football recruiting cycle, and 2018 was no different. Michigan’s in trouble! USC surged late! Alabama wasn’t No. 1!

The most eye-catching story of all happened right at the top:

Holy crap, Georgia and Ohio State!

Per the 247Sports Composite, the Bulldogs and Buckeyes combined to reel in 10 five-star prospects and 35 four-stars among their 52 total prospects. Both classes were among the best ever recorded. No. 3 Texas crept above 247’s 300-point mark as well.

It was the second straight year that each of the top three classes scored at 300 points or higher.

In 2016, the No. 1 class (Alabama’s, naturally) was barely above 300.

Two years does not a trend make, but it’s something to watch.

I’ll refrain from going overboard with “It’s a new day!” talk, but two things might be worth noting:

1. The Early Signing Period didn’t change a damn thing here.

If anything, it made top schools more successful. That the top three classes produced almost exactly the same averages in 2017 (before the institution of the December Early Signing Period) and 2018 is noticeable. And the fact that the average top-10 and top-15 classes went up says that if there was any early signing effect, it benefited top schools.

(Funny how things always work out that way, huh?)

2. The sport’s upper class might be separating itself again.

For a moment, I’m going to flip from the Composite to the numbers I use for the recruiting portion of my S&P+ projections. Based on a blend of totals and per-recruit averages, first from Rivals, then from both Rivals and 247, I have been tracking recruiting rankings for more than a decade. Here are the average class percentile rankings for different groups of top classes:

From 2006-16, the top three classes had an average percentile ranking between 98.4 percent and 99 all but once. From 2006-15, the top five averaged between 98.1 and 98.5 all but twice. These numbers didn’t change much in that decade.

Right before that decade, however, came a pair of incredibly top-heavy years.

  • In 2004, the top six classes were all in the 99th percentile or better: USC 100.0 percent (the only 100th percentile I’ve collected since 2002), Oklahoma 99.6, Florida State 99.2, Michigan 99.2, Georgia 99.1, and LSU 99.0. Adding in Florida (98.9) and Texas (98.8) gave us the most top-heavy set of recruiting classes in the Rivals era.
  • In 2005, it was nearly as stark, at least at the top. USC (99.6), Florida State (99.3), and Miami (99.3) each signed classes that would have been No. 1 in 2006, 2008, or 2009.
Emerald Bowl - Boston College v USC
Pete Carroll and USC signed whoever they wanted in the mid-2000s.
Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

From there, though, the sport fell into its own version of parity. There is no such thing as parity in a sport that defined its blue-blood royalty 100 years ago and only rarely allows new entries into the country club. But compared to the middle of the 2000s, there was a stark difference.

How did this approximate parity take shape? Coaching changes. It’s always about coaching changes.

  • USC fell under NCAA investigation, then lost head coach Pete Carroll to the NFL after the 2009 season.
  • Florida State lost its way in Bobby Bowden’s final years before Jimbo Fisher took over in 2010 and began fixing the foundation.
  • Miami lost its way in Larry Coker’s final seasons and couldn’t find footing under either Randy Shannon or Al Golden.
  • Mack Brown’s Texas let its recruiting grip slip a hair in the mid-2000s, then fell apart late in the decade.
  • Florida fell into the wilderness following Urban Meyer’s departure in 2010.
  • Michigan stumbled in Lloyd Carr’s final season (2007) and failed to recover under either Rich Rodriguez or Brady Hoke.
  • Georgia fell into a brief late-decade funk under Mark Richt before putting together another charge in the early 2010s.

Most of these schools remained elite recruiters, and Alabama became a powerhouse under Nick Saban beginning in 2008. But what we think of as “elite” was, outside of Tuscaloosa, a lower bar.

It appears a lot of blue-bloods have begun to get their acts together again.

USC’s recruiting prowess was only ever slowed down by NCAA sanctions, Tom Herman just signed a top-five class (or better, depending on the measure you use), Jim Harbaugh put together dynamite classes in 2016 and 2017, Penn State’s recruiting profile is rising quickly under James Franklin, Urban Meyer’s last two Ohio State classes have been his best yet, and somehow Georgia’s firing of Richt made things better for both his former team and his new team, Miami.

Plus, there’s no immediate reason to believe Alabama’s 2018 recruiting stumble is permanent.

Two years into a potential trend, we only know so much, and as we saw in 2004-05, true recruiting dominance doesn’t tend to last long. (Alabama’s run of top classes was an outlier, as are most things regarding Saban’s unbelievable tenure.)

Things are coalescing for the blue-bloods; we’ll see how long it lasts.