The Big East undergoes a major facelift this off-season, saying goodbye to Pitt and Syracuse while adding Houston, SMU and Memphis. The loss of the Pitt Panthers to the ACC means the Big East is the sole automatic qualifying BCS conference without a five-star prospect in this year’s signing class — a fact foreshadowing of the relegation to come, when the conference drops to the “other five” once the new playoff system is introduced in 2014.
Best Class: USF Bulls
Willie Taggart knows how to turn bad situations into winning football. Western Kentucky was winless a few short years ago, yet finished the last two seasons above .500 under Taggart’s guidance. The Hilltoppers’ appearance in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl was their first postseason foray since moving up to FBS.
USF is regarded as a sleeping giant, and with good reason. The Bulls are located in the epicenter of Southeastern football recruiting, and before the failed Skip Holtz, were on the rise. Taggart’s arrival reinvigorates some of the excitement around this program, evident in a recruiting class that features a pair of four-star signings from the Sunshine State: defensive back Lamar Robbins and defensive tackle Derrick Calloway.
Taggart worked primarily in state, but went to Georgia to land highly graded three-star prospects offensive lineman Jeremi Hall and defensive tackle Dominique Threatt, both from Georgia.
Worst Class: Memphis Tigers
You have to feel for Memphis head coach Justin Fuente. Tommy West achieved a minor miracle in coaching the Tigers to five bowl games in six seasons, then was unceremoniously dispatched after one down season, but the Larry Porter experiment sent Memphis off the rails. Fuente stepped into the smoldering wreckage and went 4-8 — a record unimpressive on its face, yet almost matching the combined win total from the previous three seasons.
Rebuilding from the sub-basement of college football in the heart of SEC Country is no easy feat; the best recruits in Memphis’ backyards are pillaged by the many titans roaming the territory. Rivals.com scored the Tigers’ signing class at a 2.21, after securing just six three-star prospects. Samuel Craft (Olive Branch, Ms.) was the sole three-star inked from the talent-rich Memphis area.
Most Surprising: Houston Cougars
The Cougars went from BCS bowl contender to sub-.500 in Kevin Sumlin’s first year out of the program, but second-year head coach Tony Levine recruited well enough to restore Houston in short order.
Levine exploited the Texas pipeline well enough. Nine of the 17 three-star commitments in the Cougars’ 2013 class came from the Lone Star pipeline. Another eight three stars coming from out of state is equally positive, as the sign of a strong signing class is winning locally while extending reach into other pools. Three of those came from California, a strong recruiting region that provided UH with a five-star commitment in 2012 (Deontay Greenberry).
Most Disappointing: Cincinnati Bearcats
A coaching change a little less than two months before National Signing Day might excuse a class averaging 2.6 stars per signee. Furthermore, Cincinnati has won a share of four Big East Conference championships in five seasons under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones.
Still, what Kelly and Jones accomplished is the exception, not the rule. At some point consistent success might attract higher level recruits than UC pulled into this class — particularly from within a state that boasts some high quality high school football. Meanwhile, new head coach Tommy Tuberville’s Texas Tech teams never overachieved, the way that UC has made its reputation these recent years.
Honorable mention goes to the Louisville Cardinals, which, despite winning a share of their second consecutive Big East championship and dominating Florida in the Sugar Bowl, signed no four-star prospects. UL actually had the highest per-recruit star average of any team in the conference, but the program’s pursuit of a national championship — which, make no mistake, is Charlie Strong’s ultimate endgame goal at The ‘Ville — is unlikely to be built on classes primarily formed from three-star recruits.
Names to Know
1. USF Bulls: Lamar Robbins, Derrick Calloway, Jeremi Hall
2. Louisville Cardinals: James Quick, Kyle Bolin, Richard Benjamin
3. Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Nadir Barnwell, Janarion Grant, Anthony Cioffi
4. Houston Cougars: Tyus Bowser, John O’Korn, Josh Thomas
5. Cincinnati Bearcats: Rasheen Jones, Travis Johnson, Tyler Cogswell
6. Connecticut Huskies: Tim Boyle, Dhameer Bradley, Brian Lemelle
7. UCF Golden Knights: Pete Dinovo, Shaquill Griffin, Micah Reed
8. SMU Mustangs: Kolney Cassel, Jeremiah Gaines, Zelt Minor
9. Temple Owls: Buddy Brown, Jarred Alwan, Averee Robinson
10. Memphis Tigers: Samuel Craft, Brayden Scott, Robert Davis