College football players have a host of reasons to choose a school, but common themes include winning championships, path to the NFL and proximity to home. With that in mind, who are some of the recruiting powerhouses and who are some of the toughest teams to recruit against in the entire country?
It had long been said in the South that the right coach could turn the Florida Gators into a national powerhouse. There were too many resources at the disposal of the Mighty Gators. Insert Steve Spurrier, and the Gators have had the SEC in their rear view mirror ever since. Spurrier helped revolutionize the game in the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust SEC, but he was never known as an energetic recruiter. Spurrier’s immediate successor, Ron Zook, is recognized as one of the best recruiters in the country, and the current head man at Florida, Urban Meyer, is a blend of both. With two BCS championships under his belt, the most talent in a centralized location in Florida, and a work ethic exceeded by no one, Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators are the most prolific recruiting force in the nation.
Seated in the nation’s second largest media market, and the country’s third largest talent-producing state in the country, the USC Trojans simply needed something or someone to bring it all together. After years of underachieving, the Trojans have been at the pinnacle of college football for close to a decade under head coach Pete Carroll. A dynamic personality, Carroll’s greatest asset as a recruiter is his energy. For much of the past several years under Carroll, if USC was interested in a prospect on the West Coast, all of the other schools could start moving down its list of players to recruit. The Trojans have also gone national to recruit linchpins such as linebacker Brian Cushing (New Jersey), wide receiver Patrick Turner (Tennessee) and running back Joe McKnight (Louisiana), among others.
The flagship program in the nation’s biggest state for producing college football players, the Longhorns have a built-in advantage in recruiting that few can rival. Mack Brown’s arrival to Texas signaled a change in the entire atmosphere in Austin. The Longhorns secured the state’s best talent early and often. Texas doesn’t so much recruit these days, as they choose the guys they want at their annual Junior Days in February. Texas is typically done recruiting by the time the spring evaluation period rolls around. The Longhorns have averaged only one out-of-state signee the last six years.
The state of Louisiana has always been loaded with talent. While the overall numbers of players signed per year from Louisiana has dropped slightly post-Katrina, the Pelican State still ranks in the top 10 in the country for the signing of college football players. While the state of Louisiana doesn’t produce the same number of players as Florida, or even Georgia, in the South, there’s also little competition within the state borders for LSU. While Florida must bump heads with Miami, Florida State, an emerging USF and every school east of Texas, LSU has its pick of players that for the most part grew up Tiger fans. With two BCS championships this decade, LSU also finds itself able to pick a blue-chipper out of bordering Texas and other neighboring states.
In the heart of Big Ten country, Ohio State has been the conference’s marquee program this decade. Ohio State sits in the state that produces the most college football signees north of Georgia. The states of Ohio and Georgia have the fourth and fifth most college signees, trading spots depending on the year. The Buckeyes have historically gotten little in-state opposition for football players. The biggest rivals for Ohio recruits have been Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State. College football is finding out that Cincinnati can build itself a very good team by just keeping the players Ohio State doesn’t have room for from leaving the state.
While the state of Oklahoma produces about 1/10th of the college prospects that the state of Texas does, the Sooners have made a living going into Texas and are the only team that has successfully gone head to head with the Longhorns with any kind of regularity. Oklahoma recruits the bulk of its team from Texas and then supplements it with homegrown stars including quarterback Sam Bradford and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. A regular at BCS bowl games, the Sooners have a national draw, a high-profile alumnus who recruits relate to (Adrian Peterson), and plenty of hardware, from a BCS championship to a Heisman Trophy.
Georgia finds itself in a similar situation as Ohio State and LSU, a flagship program in a state loaded with college prospects. With roughly 150 players who sign college scholarships every year, and only two Football Bowl Subdivision programs, the state of Georgia has the highest ratio of athlete to FBS school in the entire country at 75 to 1. Georgia and Georgia Tech rarely go head to head for players with 150 to choose from, and under Mark Richt, the Bulldogs have made a living keeping the top players within its borders. The success Georgia had early under Richt enabled the Bulldogs to expand their reach and get two of their most recognizable stars from out of the region, Matthew Stafford (Texas) and Knowshon Moreno (New Jersey).
The most tradition-rich program in the nation’s most passionate region for college football, the name Bear Bryant is still a daily reference in southern football. While the Tide have struggled to find a suitable replacement for the legendary coach through the years, when Alabama is winning, there are few players Alabama targets and doesn’t get. The Crimson Tide brought in a proven winner to lead the team, and Nick Saban responded with the nation’s No. 1 class in his first full year on the recruiting trails. The state of Alabama ranks in the top 10 in producing college football players, and with the Tide’s national appeal and tradition, Saban and Alabama can get in the door of any player in the country.
Notre Dame is at a disadvantage when compared to other schools based on the amount of college prospects in its own state of Indiana, but it more than makes up for this hardship with a built-in nationwide fan base. Notre Dame didn’t realize its full recruiting potential in the early part of this decade, but even after two of the worst years in its history, Charlie Weis and staff continually go head to head with the big boys of college football and win more battles than they lose. Notre Dame’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class in 2008 after the worst season in its history is still, to this day, one of the best recruiting jobs ever seen.
Many schools would be lucky to have as many prospects in their entire state and neighboring states as Miami has within 40 miles of its campus in Dade and Broward Counties. The “it” school of the 1980s and ’90s, “The U” has all of the aspects to make it a true recruiting powerhouse: high-profile NFL alumni, advantageous location for local talent and quality of life, and trophy cases full of hardware. One of Randy Shannon’s first tasks as head coach of the Hurricanes was to lock down the Dade/Broward area after the previous regime had focused too heavily on out-of-region prospects. Teams are once again finding out if they want a player out of Dade/Broward, they need to find out if Miami is involved first.
A mainstay on any recruiting list, Bobby Bowden’s age and four consecutive seasons of four or more losses have made Florida State less of a threat in recruiting than the Seminoles were for much of the previous 20 years. Prior to the last several seasons, Florida State was the preeminent force in recruiting, and the Seminoles are still going to win many more recruiting battles than they’re going to lose. The difference between now and even just five years ago is that FSU doesn’t get everyone it’s after; now, it only gets ALMOST everyone it’s after.
It’s hard to discount what Butch Davis is doing at North Carolina. Long considered a basketball school, the Tar Heels currently have Scout.com’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class. The state of North Carolina is an underrated area for producing big-time college talent, but contrasting to Georgia, LSU and Ohio State, there are four BCS schools splitting roughly 60 players. This year, six of the eight highest-ranked prospects in the state have committed to the Tar Heels. Should North Carolina sustain this success for multiple years, they’ll find themselves in the top 10.
The pool of talent that is academically eligible for Stanford’s football team is considerably smaller than the general pool of football prospects. That being said, Stanford offers an experience academically and athletically few schools can match. If a traditional football power is recruiting against Stanford for a prospect, it’s wise not to discount the Cardinal.
There are too many good players in Southern California and the media market is too big for USC to have a run on recruiting with little or no opposition. The state of California produces nearly 300 college signees every year, more than enough to support more than one top-10 program. Rick Neuheisel has already made his mark on the recruiting trail in 2008. For the class of 2009, he made more news with high-profile switches in tight end Morrell Presley, the No. 1 tight end who had committed to USC, and Marlon Pollard, a four-star defensive back formerly committed to Notre Dame.
The state of Tennessee produces a fraction of the amount of college football signees many of its southern brethren produce, and therefore the Volunteers are forced to recruit nationally. Tennessee is at a disadvantage in that it has to recruit most of its players out of the backyards of its biggest rivals, but it also boasts one of the best game-day experiences in the country. A rejuvenated coaching staff full of top-notch recruiters should make tradition-rich Tennessee a team to keep an eye on.