When people talk about the dominance of SEC football, they often point to their growing collection of Waterford Crystal. However, despite racking up seven consecutive BCS National Championships, the conference’s reign atop college football begins in earnest on the recruiting trails.
For the last decade, the SEC as a whole has built a proverbial wall around the region of the country that they call home, and during the time it’s just so happened that the Southeast has been more talent-laden than anywhere else in the land. The amount of prospects in the region has produced a dynamic within the conference where recruiting has become so heated that coaches will do nearly anything in search of an edge.
In 2013, SEC football had 13 of its 14 members schools in the Top 30 of Rivals.com’s team recruiting rankings. Only the Missouri Tigers finished outside of the Top 30, though they still finished a respectable 41st in the nation. Meanwhile, the Kentucky Wildcats signed one of their best classes in recent memory, finishing 29th in the nation, but that was still only good enough for second to last in the conference. In other words, a class good enough to finish in the 77th percentile nationally only placed them in the 8th percentile within their own league.
In an effort to try to get a jump on the rest of the country’s most competitive conference, coaches are now routinely offering freshman and sophomores in high school in hopes of being the first to land on a big-time prospect. Recruiting timelines have accelerated accordingly and players are now often committing to a school a year or even 18 months prior to National Signing Day.
On Wednesday, the Tennessee Volunteers got their seventh commitment of the 2014 class (and their sixth in the last month) when four-star cornerback D’Andre Payne gave Butch Jones his verbal. Payne’s pledge gave Tennessee their fourth commitment from a member of the Rivals 250 and moved the Vols up to No. 4 in the 2014 team rankings.
All told, five of the top six recruiting classes in the country in the Class of 2014 call the SEC home, with Texas A&M currently holding down the nation’s top class. As of April 3, every single SEC school had at least one verbal commitment, and the conference as a whole has 65 commits, including a staggering 30 players in the Rivals 250. The 65 total commitments is more than double any other conference in the country except the ACC who comes in with 37 total commits.
And this is all with over ten months until National Signing Day 2014.
Of course, the SEC football schools aren’t the only people in the land that have identified the importance of getting on a prospect early. Mack Brown’s Texas Longhorns have routinely racked up double digit commitments nearly a year in advance of signing day at their annual junior day, and currently the Longhorns’ 11 commits are the only thing keeping the Top Five classes in the country from being an all SEC affair. Meanwhile, the Florida State Seminoles, Clemson Tigers and Miami Hurricanes give the ACC three Top 10 classes of their own.
All across the country, gaining early momentum on the recruiting trail by securing a few signature commitments during the early evaluation period has become critical to a team’s success. This realization has led to a clamoring for an early signing period like the one that they have in collegiate basketball.
An early signing period would certainly eliminate the hassle of having to continually fend off advances from rival schools on committed prospects. And as football recruiting continues to embrace an accelerated recruiting timeline like they have in basketball–where prospects often commit as sophomores, or even freshman, in high school–it does appear as if we’re on our way towards an early signing period at some point.
However, it’s difficult to support any new rules that takes even more leverage out of the hands of the student-athletes.
There are instances where being able to sign early may be of some benefit to an athlete–like when a kid who has lived in Tuscaloosa his entire life gets that dream offer from the Alabama Crimson Tide. However, what an early signing period ultimately does is create an atmosphere where college football coaches have even more power.
On the recruiting trail at places like Texas, USC and Alabama, space is often limited and the Nick Sabans of the world get to be incredibly selective about who they take. An early signing period gives these coaches the opportunity to say, “If you don’t sign now, we can’t guarantee your scholarship will still be on the table in February.”
Diehard fans of the Texas-type schools will defend this by talking about the honor of a man’s word and the meaning of “making a commitment.” But, none of them take into account the fact that circumstances ultimately change. Coaching staffs turn over, the position coach who has become a father-figure takes a coordinating job elsewhere, people get ill, etc. So why should a 17-year old kid be forced into a binding agreement up to a year before they ever actually get to take the field when so much can change?
Sure, the current procedure leads to some heartbroken fans on National Signing Day, but that’s a small price to pay to ensure that the people whose actual futures are influenced are afforded all the time they need to make the best possible decision for themselves. The dominance of SEC football is changing the way people approach the sport, but in this regard I hope everything stays the same.
Recruiting in the SEC is an absolute brute, and the conference is fueling the early commitment rage in college football, but we don’t need an early signing period. We’re not basketball… yet.