Two teams are playing for the National Championship in college football, while 126 others hit the recruiting trail
Outside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX, there’s a mounting flurry of activity. Slowly over the next four days, waves of scarlet and green and a smattering of college football fans of all shades will descend upon the home of the Dallas Cowboys to behold the largest spectacle the sport has ever known. The finale of the inaugural College Football Playoff is on the precipice and it has us utterly captivated.
Over the course of the next several days, we’ll be inundated with everything Oregon and Ohio State before ESPN blankets their airwaves with wall-to-wall coverage of a national championship game unlike any other we’ve had before. We, the college football fan, are the raccoon and the College Football Playoff is our tinfoil.
Yet, while our curiosity is captured by these two teams and this one game, 126 other programs at the Division-I level are desperately trying to further their own College Football Playoff aspirations. Their offseason has begun, but as the dead period winds to a close, recruiting season is officially here.
College football coaches across the country are replacing 100-hour weeks in the football facility with red-eyes and rental cars, burying themselves in their cell phones in hopes of finding the next Marcus Mariota on the other end of the line.
At this stage of the game, most of the work is done, though the job doesn’t stop until pen meets paper and paper meets fax. Recruiting season culminates less than a month after the College Football Playoff National Championship game, but coveted prospects remain uncommitted and commitments (shockingly, I know) are wavering. Anyone who isn’t where the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Oregon Ducks are, is angling to get to where they need to go.
Like Tennessee’s Butch Jones.
On Wednesday Feb. 4, Jones will put the finishing touches on his third recruiting class at the University of Tennessee. For three years, he’s sold a vision and he’s done so very successfully.
With just two months to cobble together his first recruiting class, Tennessee finished with a Top-25 class nationally and got a lot of immediate contributions from the Class of 2013 on a roster that desperately needed it. A year later, Butch Jones put together his first full class and finished No. 7 in the country, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, which gives credence to each of the four major recruiting services’ evaluations.
That recruiting class saw 23 true freshman see the field in 2014, and after a strong finish and a bowl win over Iowa saw Tennessee finish with a winning record for the first time since 2009, Jones isn’t just selling a vision. Ultimately, the goal remains distant–Tennessee hopes to see a unique variant of orange approaching in waves outside a national championship site of the future sooner rather than later–but now Butch Jones is making tangible strides and the sales pitch has gotten easier.
This week, nine players from the Class of 2015 made it to campus. Earlier today, the Vols secured the commitment of a four-star quarterback by the name of Sheriron Jones. The significance of Jones’ pledge and those early-enrollees is still to be determined. Rankings high school football players on an individual basis as it pertains to their ability to contribute at the next level is far from an exact science and stars fade, but the commitment moved Tennessee into third nationally on the 247Sports composite rankings and those team recruiting rankings do have an incredibly strong correlation with success in college football.
The Tennessee Volunteers are far from where they want to be, but while the nation’s gaze is drawn by the College Football Playoff, they’re making headway. As is UCLA.
Jim Mora Jr.’s bunch is coming off a solid season that ultimately fell short of expectation. In 2015, the Bruins return 17 starters and promise to be a load in the PAC-12 South, provided they can replace megastar QB Brett Hundley.
Enter Josh Rosen.
Rivals.com declares him to be the No. 1 player in the nation. 247Sports.com and Scout.com claim him to be the No. 1 quarterback available. He arrived on campus on Jan. 5.
The headlines will make you roll your eyes. The declarations will disturb you. My first week of college I lost my pants at a party and had to scurry through the lobby past resident assistants only to be stranded at the door to our wing without a key… which was in my pants. In Josh Rosen’s first week, he’s been labeled as the future of UCLA football, and, for better or for worse, he likely is.
The Bruins won 10 football games in 2014 and folks were disappointed because we all bought into the idea that Brett Hundley’s final season would pit UCLA in the Final Four. Now, without Hundley, the assumption is that they could be better and a lot of that is because of Rosen.
Yet, Jim Mora Jr. hasn’t been idle beyond Rosen by any means. Part of why Hundley and the 2014 Bruins couldn’t get the job done had to do with the fact that UCLA gave up the ninth-most sacks in college football. So Mora aggressively addressed the offensive line. At publication, the Bruins had three four-star prospects committed on the offensive line. And, while UCLA only had nine players complete their eligibility in 2014 making it unlikely that they’ll have space for a full class, with 17 commitments, Mora will still be a factor down the stretch on the recruiting trail.
The Bruins will be able to cherry-pick, choosing to recruit only the best prospects down the stretch as they round out a small, high-quality class that currently ranks No. 15 in the country. We arrived to the conclusion that UCLA was a CFP contender a year early to account for Brett Hundley’s accelerated timetable, but if Josh Rosen is as advertised, the Bruins could be even better in 2015 and it’s because of the work they did on the recruiting trail.
On Monday, we’ll see a champion crowned in a new era of college football. It’s understandable that this has captured our complete attention. But, right now, there are coaches at 126 schools across the country (and the two playing for the title, for that matter, because recruiting never stops) scouring over the film trying to find that next big star.
It is the lifeblood of the sport and talent trumps almost all. Big recruits win big games.
See: The Biggest Game.