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10 SEC and ACC recruiting notes after Signing Day, led by Kirby Smart finding Georgia’s highest gear

Let’s unpack some recruiting storylines around the Southeast.

SEC Championship - Auburn v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

National Signing Day has come and gone. Over the next few days I’ll be emptying my notebook and brain, sharing my thoughts and observations about what happened and what is coming next. In this piece, I’ll discuss the Southeast, the only region which features heavy overlap between two Power 5 conferences — the SEC and ACC.

1. Those Georgia fans who for years sounded outrageous? They were right: Mark Richt did underachieve at Georgia.

You were right, Georgia fans.

I agreed with you that Georgia should have been better, but I didn’t think it should be this much better. What Georgia is doing is going to give so many other fan bases wildly unrealistic of what coaches can do in two years at schools without the resources Kirby Smart has in Athens.

Smart’s last two classes are head and shoulders above any Mark Richt ever brought to Georgia, on paper. Over the last two years, the state has produced 33 prospects rated 0.94 or better on the 247Sports Composite. Georgia has signed 19 of those 33.

Wednesday, Georgia signed the No. 2 class of all time. All time! Georgia signed more than twice as many five-star recruits as the rest of the SEC combined!

The Bulldogs signed a superstar quarterback in Justin Fields, the No. 1 running back in Zamir White (who, when healthy, was miles ahead of any other 2018 RB), a top-three tight end, and three of the best eight offensive linemen in the country. And 11 defensive four- or five-star recruits. The outlier example of Georgia is going to warp expectations in a bad way.

2. Imagine being a fan of Florida or Tennessee right now.

New coaching hires are supposed to come with a large dose of optimism.

Florida signed the No. 14 class, with 12 four-star players, Tennessee signed the No. 20 class, with eight four-stars.

And I won’t say that the honeymoon period is over in Gainesville or Knoxville, but a heavy dose of patience is going to be needed because the talent gap between Georgia and its two biggest division rivals is as big as it has been in 40 years.

  • Georgia has signed more four- and five-star recruits in the last two years (42) than Florida and Tennessee combined (36).
  • Georgia has signed more four- and five-star recruits in the last two classes (42) than Florida (37) or Tennessee (39) on their own has in the last four years.
  • Georgia’s roster is several years of recruiting ahead of the Gators and Vols.

The vast majority of elite players signed in the new Early Signing Period. That means that teams that made coaching changes got hosed. And it came at the perfect time for Georgia.

Florida’s class will be better in 2019, as will Tennessee’s thanks to not having to adjust to a coaching change. But Florida needs to hit home runs in 2019 and 2020 to close the gap with Georgia, and Tennessee is probably an additional year behind.

Dan Mullen and Jeremy Pruitt have a lot of work to do.

3. Florida can catch up eventually. Just maybe not now.

I really like some of the pieces the Gators brought in. Mullen got his QB in Emory Jones, a four-star from Atlanta who flipped from Ohio State. And don’t forget the transfer receivers in Ohio State’s Trevon Grimes and Ole Miss’ Van Jefferson, both of whom will be two of the more talented players on the roster the moment they step on campus.

It feels weird talking about a top-15 class as something other than a success, but Georgia has simply raised the bar.

For the next year or two, due to the talent it signed, it is hard not to see Georgia as the odds-on favorite (“odds-on” meaning the favorite is more likely to win than the field) for the East, much like Alabama has been for a decade now for the West. We’ve never seen Georgia do this.

4. The clock is ticking on LSU.

When the Tigers hired Ed Orgeron, the narrative was that LSU could execute the Clemson plan, but in a more talented state than South Carolina. The Clemson plan was supposed to be a dynamic recruiting CEO personality at head coach, like Dabo Swinney, surrounded by elite coordinators.

In theory, the Dabo plan should work at LSU. But so far it has not. Coordinator Matt Canada already left. LSU had a disappointing year on the field and followed it up with a recruiting class that ranked 15th. It is the first LSU recruiting class to rank outside the top 10 in a decade.

The disappointing finish was exemplified by Alabama landing five-star cornerback Pat Surtain Jr., a top prospect from Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) for whom the Tigers had the lead for much of the cycle. Surtain’s family is from Louisiana, and he made multiple trips to Baton Rouge. And yet he went to Alabama. The Tigers also missed on QB James Foster, a Montgomery (Ala.) prospect who chose Texas A&M, athlete Mario Goodrich (Clemson), and safety Ar’Darius Washington (TCU).

LSU was supposed to be gaining ground on Alabama on the recruiting trail. That is not happening. From 2015-16, Alabama signed 79 percent blue-chip players, while LSU signed 63. In Ed Orgeron’s two classes (2017-18), the gap is exactly the same.

Considering Alabama just made some awesome recruiting hires as well, good luck closing the gap in 2019 without a significant improvement in the on-field product being sold in Tiger Stadium.

Luckily for LSU and its staff, its home state is loaded with top talent for the class of 2019.

5. Texas A&M might be a pain in LSU’s side, too.

New coach Jimbo Fisher, despite having only eight weeks to do so, pulled Texas A&M’s class almost even with LSU’s. The Aggies finished 17th and signed the same number of blue-chip prospects as the Tigers: 13. That should concern LSU fans. Orgeron had a whole year to work on LSU’s class. Fisher basically equaled it in eight weeks.

The Aggies have a ton of momentum right now for 2019, especially in the city of Houston. Houston is a traditional battleground between A&M and LSU, and if A&M gains more of the upper hand than it normally has, it will hurt LSU. Recruiting is a zero-sum game.

6. Clemson’s approach is risky, but its hit rate has been unreal.

This is not a criticism. It’s just something I’ve been wondering about. ‘

Clemson signed just 17 players on National Signing Day. Part of that is a result of so many elite players returning to school instead of going to the NFL draft. But part of it is Clemson being super selective and not filling its spots.

The interesting thing is that Clemson signed just 14 players in the 2017 class, meaning it has signed just 31 players in the last two classes. That is a shockingly low number, much lower than elite recruiting counterparts like Georgia (52), Ohio State (47), and Alabama (46). It’s even 10 lower than notoriously selective USC (41). Just about the only top football school with fewer is Stanford, with 29.

Of course, this should set up Clemson to take quite a large class in 2019, with departing seniors and attrition.

But this has worked only because Clemson’s hit rate has been unreal. The Tigers sign super-talented recruits. Their prospects have developed rapidly, both physically and mentally. And for the most part, they’ve stayed healthy.

Clemson is no doubt on a great run with its hit rate. But part of me does feel that the Tigers are playing with fire taking so few prospects in a two-year span. When a school does this, any attrition is felt more than it would be at a school that signs more prospects, simply because it represents a greater portion of the whole. I don’t think you’ll see Clemson go this route again in 2019.

7. South Carolina is set up to consistently pull an upset and go to a bowl.

I like what South Carolina is doing. I know its fans think the program should be aspiring to much more than it is, but the facts are that South Carolina is in the midst of its best 15-year stretch ever, which includes 11 bowl appearances. In the previous 100 years, the Gamecocks bowled about once per decade. South Carolina is recruiting to sustain the successful run.

The Gamecocks know they have to pull some elite talent but that they won’t be able to consistently win recruiting battles against elite SEC teams. So the Gamecocks have been able to identify which top recruits they should invest their time with, and then they also do a good job scouting mid- and lower-level gems.

South Carolina seems particularly good at figuring out which players might fit as its Plan A, while being perhaps Georgia’s Plan B or Plan C. They win by showing plenty of love to the player throughout the process and letting the recruit know he is top priority, not just a player of interest.

Going after too many elite players can lead to a roster with big holes. Going after too few can create a roster with good numbers but not enough talent. Will Muschamp’s team has found a sweet spot.

8. A lot of talent left Florida this cycle, but look deeper.

A lot has been made of elite players leaving the state of Florida. It was a legitimate issue in the 2018 class. Only 25 of the state’s 66 players rated four- and five-stars stayed in the state.

But was the problem really that bad for the programs in the state? And if so, why?

The answer to the first question was no. It was bad, but the rankings in Florida are skewed by the inclusion of IMG Academy, an elite boarding school home to primarily players from outside the state who usually return to their home regions. Eleven of the 66 elite Florida players in this class attended IMG, and only one stayed in the state.

Removing the IMG set from the data presents a clearer picture: 55 four- and five-stars, 24 of whom stayed in the state. Miami kept 12, while Florida and Florida State each kept six. UCF, USF, FIU, and FAU signed zero. Considering that both the Gators and Seminoles had coaching upheaval this season, it’s not entirely surprising that the more than half of the players left the state. In a given year, the state’s big three should be expected to sign more than half of the elite Florida natives, but the talent flight this season was foreseeable.

9. FSU will have a huge in-state focus in the 2019 class.

FSU signed the No. 1 class of any school that made a head coaching change, at No. 11 overall. But as discussed above, FSU did not hold serve in its home state, mostly due to not having much time to put together the class. FSU has signed just 12 four- or five-stars from Florida combined in the last two cycles and will be looking to sign that many in 2019 alone.

Neighboring state Georgia has also become more difficult to recruit for all programs not named UGA, ever since the Bulldogs kicked things into high gear.

But the Seminoles whiffed on two key positions. The first, linebacker, can largely be remedied in 2019 by looking in-state. But quarterback, at which the Seminoles lost James Foster to Texas A&M, is not a strong position in Florida for 2019, so all three programs in the state may need to look outside for help.

10. Ole Miss desperately needs a better class in 2019.

I was going to write a few hundred words about Ole Miss, but this from Red Cup Rebellion really sums it up:

[Top-35 classes] won’t get it done in the SEC. So onward to the 2019 class in which eight of the top 10 targets inside the state of Mississippi are on the defensive side of the ball, per 247Sports Composite Rankings. Perfect, right?! Because that’s what the Rebs need, right? This next cycle is going to mold the next five years and dictate what kind of tenure [Matt] Luke has as head coach of the Rebels. Fair or not, the heat is on.

Ole Miss has seen the talent on its roster decline dramatically in the last two seasons, and Coach Luke must knock out the 2019 class or the Rebels will be the doormat of the West.