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Really, this has happened.
Stop with all your — “But it’s June!” — Tweets and consider the accomplishment of first year head coach Mark Stoops. I don’t care what month it is, did you ever think Kentucky would be number two in the country in football recruiting?
Put simply, Mark Stoops has done a remarkable job snagging talent early in his Kentucky tenure.
Yes, Kentucky owes much of its rankings prominence to the fact that the Wildcats have more commits than many schools, but so does Texas, your erstwhile number one recruiting class in the country. In fact, Kentucky’s 17 recruits actually have a higher average star rating than Texas’s 19 recruits.
Stop with your a lot changes between now and February Tweets and emails as well. Actually, a lot doesn’t change. Over time, eighty percent of all verbal commitments are honored. So, yes, some recruits change their minds, but they’re a substantial minority of the cases. Recruits who change their minds just get more attention than the recruits who make a commitment and stick with it throughout the year.
At the absolute worst, Kentucky should finish with a top twenty football recruiting class, something they’ve never managed before in their gridiron history.
So, how has Stoops pulled off this level of accomplishment?
It’s simple, by changing the recuiting game.
See, for most of the last decade, and longer, Kentucky has looked South to fill its recruiting needs. Look at Kentucky’s recruiting classes over the past decade and these states are the most prominent when it comes to producing players: Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida.
That makes sense, in theory. The South produces a ton of top football talent and Kentucky plays in the SEC. Of course, the Wildcats should look to their geographic footprint to bring in recruits, right?
Except that’s where the Wildcats run into a bit of an issue. See, Kentucky is not very good at football. And when you go into the fertile recruiting regions of the South you’re competing with other top SEC schools that are historically pretty good at football. Odds are if Georgia, Tennessee, or Florida want a recruit that Kentucky is pursuing inside their state borders, that player is not going to Kentucky. The same is true for Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Mississippi and South Carolina.
Kentucky is not going to win SEC recruiting battles that often.
The Wildcats typically have to take the lower ranked Southern players, the diamonds in the rough, players that are not as highly recruited by other SEC schools or players that get looked over by the big boys. This means that Kentucky’s in the business of trying to beat other SEC schools with players that are inferior. (Football recruiting rankings actually do a pretty damn good job when you consider the numbers. That is, a particular four or five star player might “bust”, but as a group, the four and five star players vastly outperform the two and three star players. That’s even though there are a ton more two and three star players being recruited every year). How often do teams with worse players win games against teams with better players?
Not often, right?
Toss in the fact that the state of Kentucky produces less top football talent than any state in the SEC and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Kentucky can’t even rely on getting the best players inside its own state. Other SEC schools and some Big Ten schools come into the Bluegrass state and recruit against the Wildcats for the few top players that the state produces. As if that wasn’t enough, Louisville’s program is also ascendant at the moment, riding a Teddy Bridgewater/Charlie Strong high off the BCS bowl win. The Cardinals presently have the 15th best class in the nation, are headed to the ACC, and Kentucky has to beat out for in-state players as well.
Combine all these details with the fact that Kentucky’s football program is historically awful and has never recruited well in the past and this seems like a recipe for disaster, right?
Boy, you’d think, Kentucky is really screwed when it comes to competing in SEC football.
It’s why I’ve said that Kentucky is the 14th best job in the SEC. (Yes, worse even than Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.)
So with all these factors working against it how in the world does Kentucky have the number two recruiting class in the nation? After all, if you can’t win many recruiting battles in the South, your state doesn’t produce enough talent to lock down a top class just by recruiting within your borders, and the top in-state players often get poached by rivals, you clearly need a recruiting gamechanger, something that changes the parameters of a game that you’re presently losing, right?
Well, Mark Stoops went north, young man.
SEC, meet Ohio.
Sure, there are more, better players in the South, but that doesn’t necessarily help you if you can’t get most of the players. The question isn’t where are the players the best, the question is this, where are the players the best that I can get to commit to my school?
And for Kentucky the answer is Ohio.
Instead of looking at being the northern-most SEC school as a disadvantage, Stoops has embraced it, turning conventional wisdom on its head.
Cincinnati is just an hour north of Lexington. The state of Kentucky is so close people in Cincinnati choose to go out to party in the state of Kentucky.
But proximity has not always equaled success when it comes to Wildcat recruiting.
Ohio might as well have been 1,000 miles away for as aggressively as Kentucky recruited the state in past years.
But all that changed with Mark Stoops, an Ohio native who has attacked the state with a newfound alacrity.
Kentucky has 17 recruits committed so far this year — eight of them are from the state of Ohio.
How does this compare to past seasons?
It’s a gamechanger for sure.
Kentucky’s Ohio recruits by class
2013 — 3
2012 — 2
2011 — 0
2010 — 3
2009 — 0
2008 — 1
2007 — 0
Yep, the Wildcats already have nearly the same number of players from Ohio committed in the class of 2014 as they did in the past 7 recruiting classes combined. (Odds are that the Wildcats will end up with 10 or 11 players from Ohio in their 2014 class which would mean UK would have more Ohio players in the 2014 class than in the previous eight recruiting classes combined).
Going back even further, the lack of recruiting focus in the state of Ohio remains clear:
2006 — 1
2005 — 3
2004 — 4
2003 — 1
2002 — 0
Especially when you consider the lack of SEC competition that Kentucky has for players in the state of Ohio. Kentucky can sell Ohio with the same unique verve that Texas A&M sells Texas. The Wildcats sell the SEC brand as much as they sell themselves, can the rest of the schools recruiting you in Ohio offer the best college football in the country?
So far the answer is no.
Best of all, so far, Ohio is pretty much virgin soil for the SEC.
How many Ohio recruits do the rest of the SEC schools have combined in the class of 2014?
Tennessee has two players from Ohio and Alabama has one. (Kentucky offered all three of these players.)
So Kentucky has found a fertile new recruiting region that welcomes its SEC pitch without having to compete against very many SEC schools. Instead of being a second rate option in much of the South, the Wildcats are a premium product north of the Mason-Dixon line. As if that wasn’t enough, Kentucky is beating Louisville for recruits in Ohio because even though Louisville has a stronger team right now, the SEC’s brand is infinitely stronger than Bluegrass dominance.
Turns out, with the rise of the SEC brand — NFC, AFC, SEC — even kids from the Big Ten’s most fertile recruiting footprint want to play in the SEC too.
And they’re good players — three of the Wildcats five four star players are from Ohio. The other five Ohio recruits are all high three stars, hanging right on the edge of garnering fourth stars themselves.
Sure, so far Kentucky has only beaten Ohio State head-to-head for one recruit in the state of Ohio — wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass, who sounds like a Charles Dickens villain — but the state of Ohio still produces a bevy of football talent. And let me repeat this — Kentucky beat Ohio State head-to-head for a football player in the state of Ohio.
That really happened.
Plus, Kentucky is beating a lot of Big Ten schools for its Ohio players. Four star defensive back Darius West had eight Big Ten offers — plus Notre Dame. He picked the Cats. Look through Kentucky’s roster of Ohio pick-ups and there are a ton of Big Ten offers out there. That’s because many Big Ten schools have relied on players from Ohio to supplement their weaker in-state recruiting pools.
Credit Mark Stoops for expanding the SEC’s recruiting battlefield and realizing that instead of competing for lesser players by turning its gaze South, the Wildcats could go after the top players on their northern border and change the recruiting game.
Stoops gambled that the SEC brand has become such a selling point to recruits that he could go onto the Big Ten’s own turf and start snagging players.
So far Stoops is right.
Kentucky is poised for its best recruiting class in the history of the football program.
All thanks to the state of Ohio.
Have we reached an era when SEC schools are able to take all the best players from their own footprint — by far the best recruiting area in the country — and steal away the top recruits in the rest of the country thanks to the SEC brand?
I think so.
So does Mark Stoops.