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America’s greatest unofficial holiday came and went yesterday, and for those of you who were paying close attention (which I suspect is everyone reading this article), something sort of weird happened towards the end Signing Day 2015.
No, I’m not talking about Butch Jones’ bucket hat….. although, let’s get real here for a second: That was pretty weird.
Nope, instead it happened at the top of the rankings, where for the first time in what seems like forever, Alabama didn’t finish with the consensus No. 1 class in the country. Instead, according to some services, that title actually went to the USC Trojans. USC took home the No. 1 spot in both Scout and Rival’s recruiting rankings, with Alabama still edging them according to ESPN and 24/7.
But regardless of whether the Trojans finished No. 1 or 2, the incredible part is that they finished in the Top 2 at all. Unlike other teams in the Top 5, they didn’t win a national championship (Ohio State), play in the college football playoff (like Florida State), or even make a run at their division title in the Pac-12, let alone the conference title.
In essence, there was no reason for recruits to choose USC at all, other than that…. well, they’re USC.
Only those recruits did choose the Trojans, with three five-stars committing on Signing Day alone (with a fourth committing the day before), making them the first team since 2010 to knock Alabama off its perch as the undisputed kings of recruiting. By the way, you know who was the team that topped Alabama in the rankings that year? If you guessed USC….well you get a hug and a bucket hat, because you’re absolutely correct.
And in thinking about the Trojans on Signing Day, thinking about their long-term recruiting success, it led me to this realization: USC is the best ‘brand’ in college football right now. Not the best program. Not the most successful. But the best ‘brand.’ The only school in the country that kids keep choosing, regardless of who’s coaching, who their teammates are going to be, or what kind of NCAA sanctions get thrown their way.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s look at everybody else in the sport.
And let’s start with Alabama, since they’re basically the gold-standard in how all this stuff gets done. At this point, we all know what Alabama has to offer. Go there, and you’re almost assured of playing for National Championships (or at least making the playoff), and if you do what Nick Saban says, you’ll probably end up in the NFL within three years too. Not a bad deal, and it’s impossible to blame any high school kid for choosing the Crimson Tide.
At the same time, how much of their ‘brand’ is inexplicably tied to Saban? As best I can tell, the answer is basically all of it. I’m not saying that Alabama is a ‘bad’ program without him, but at the same time, they were pretty pedestrian in the years before he arrived. Just looking at recruiting, they finished with the No. 24 class in 2004, No. 18 in 2005, and No. 11 in 2006, and even those numbers are a little inflated, since in two of those years they over-signed like crazy. Since then, recruiting has obviously picked up. But it’s also pretty clear that kids are choosing ‘Nick Saban’ much more than they’re choosing Alabama.
It also leads to this question: If Saban left, how much would their recruiting drop off? My guess is quite a bit. If there was no Saban, no conveyor-belt to the NFL, and no guarantees of 11 and 12 wins a season, what would separate Alabama from pretty much any other school in the SEC?
The answer is ‘not much at all.’ And that’s not a knock on Saban or Alabama. That’s just reality at pretty much every program in college football other than USC.
Until Kevin Sumlin arrived, Texas A&M never recruited nearly as well as they do now. Ohio State always recruited well in-state, but never recruited as well nationally (in places like Georgia, Florida and Texas) before Urban Meyer got there. Florida State has always recruited well, but winning a National Championship two seasons ago unquestionably helped this class. Crap, even Texas, a school which was once a recruiting juggernaut (remember when we used to call Mack Brown Mr. February? That was cute, huh?), proved this year that they’re not immune to a bad cycle or two.
Basically, every school has a “reason” for recruiting as well as they do. Even schools like Clemson and Notre Dame have at least played in big bowl games of late…. but USC?
What reason have they given any kid to come to their school in the last few years?
The simple truth is that while everyone still looks at USC through the prism of what they were doing in the Pete Carroll glory years, they haven’t had that program for some time now. Instead, they’ve basically been a good, but not elite program for about a decade.
Here are some facts on USC: Their last conference championship was in 2008; for perspective, the first iPad didn’t come out until two years later. Since they last played in a BCS bowl, schools like UConn, Cincinnati, Boise State and Georgia Tech have all played in BCS games. Since they last played in the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin has played in three and Stanford has played in two (and four BCS bowl games overall).
Now of course you can’t blame USC for all that futility; they were obviously under NCAA sanctions during that stretch. But you also can’t hide the fact that in five of the last six years, they’ve finished the season with at least four losses.
That’s also what makes their recruiting over that stretch all the more incredible. Despite losing, and despite the fact that the NCAA literally did everything in its power to try and bring down the program, the USC recruiting train has kept rolling. According to Rivals, they have finished with five Top-10 classes during those six years.
That number is staggering. It’s even more incredible when you consider four very interesting facts:
1. Again, I cannot emphasize this enough…. THEY WERE ON PROBATION during three of those years. The NCAA literally did everything they could to stop them, and they still couldn’t. In three of those years, USC only had 15 scholarships to give out, when everyone else had 25.
2. The only year that USC finished outside the Top 10 was in 2013, when they were actually on pace to have the best recruiting class in the history of college football. Then the team started losing big at the end of the regular season, leading Lane Kiffin to dress like this, and leading a slew of five-star guys to decommit right before Signing Day (including current stars Jalen Ramsey, Torrodney Prevot, Eddie Vanderdoes and others). That year, they still finished 13th in the country, despite signing just 12 guys.
3. They’ve gone through two head coaching changes during that stretch, and four if you include interims (of course one of those changes ended with players getting Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. So it’s not like they got a totally raw deal).
4. Speaking of coaching changes, remember how I mentioned earlier that they finished with the top class in 2010? Well that came just weeks after Pete Carroll left for the NFL… call me crazy, but that’s freaking incredible! Especially when you consider that Michigan and Florida barely managed decent recruiting classes after making coaching changes this off-season. Let alone, the No. 1 class in the country.
It also means, that as I tweeted Tuesday, if Lane Kiffin hadn’t crapped the bed during the regular season (which led to that disappointing 2013 recruiting class), USC would now be sitting on six straight Top 10 recruiting finishes (even more if you go back to the Pete Carroll era). And they would’ve done it through several slightly above-average seasons, through coaching changes and through NCAA sanctions.
And frankly, I don’t think there’s another program in college football who could’ve done that.
Now obviously it doesn’t mean all that much if USC doesn’t start winning at some point. But at the same time, it is still pretty incredible that in an era where the success of a program is inexplicably tied to the man who coaches them, and to a smaller degree, the stars who carry them, USC keeps chugging on.
Nothing, not even the NCAA can slow down the Trojans at this point.
They’re the best brand in college football.