First and foremost, recruiting means little to nothing if the coaching staff in place is not able to fuse the various working parts into a smooth-operating machine. There are infinite examples of collections of talented student-athletes falling to the wayside due to poor coaching and development.
But the elite college coaches understand that recruiting is equally as important as X’s and O’s, and that’s why the programs that frequent the BCS national rankings also appear on a regular basis near the top of the recruiting rankings.
"People that say that recruiting is everything are wrong, and people that say that recruiting rankings don't mean anything are wrong," said Scott Kennedy, Scout.com’s Director of Scouting. "Obviously, it means something. There's a pretty strong correlation between the top-ranked recruiting teams every year and the top teams every year."
The facts back those comments up. The last seven BCS national champions all had at least one top-five recruiting class on their roster, and in most cases, there were numerous top-10 classes. Florida’s 2007 national championship included four recruiting classes ranked in the top-8, while LSU’s 2008 title team had four classes that finished seventh or better on National Signing Day.
Sixteen different programs competed in the BCS extravaganza over the past two seasons (Oklahoma, Ohio State, Virginia Tech and Southern California each made two appearances), and all but four of those squads had a top-20 recruiting class on its resume.
Kennedy insists that recruiting rankings are merely a guide to determining which schools are stockpiling talent, and doesn’t pretend to think that whoever wins on Wednesday is destined to win a conference championship years down the road.
"It doesn't take the most talent to win, you just have to have enough talent to win," Kennedy said. “Recruiting rankings are a compilation of individuals – you get a certain amount of points per player. The best team wins football games, and those aren't necessarily one and the same."
For most teams, competing for a national championship is a pipedream. Leagues crowns are difficult enough to win, but the combination of talent and coaching ability needed to hoist the BCS trophy is rare and essentially limited to handful of programs.
As with all things in life, there are exceptions when it comes to recruiting rankings. Skeptics quickly toss out names like Boise State, BYU and Utah when attempting to prove that the rankings system is ruse. But a closer look reveals that Boise State has signed the top recruiting class in the Western Athletic Conference in three of the past five seasons, while BYU and Utah have landed the top-two classes in the Mountain West Conference for four consecutive years.
The Utes’ victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl was no doubt a surprise, but their 12-0 record heading into that game was not.
Two ACC head coaches that are proven winners on the field despite not earning praise on Signing Day are Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe and N.C. State’s Tom O’Brien. Few have questioned their ability to evaluate talent, but the results thus far in their careers have shown a possible ceiling as to what they can get out of their diamond-in-the-rough types.
In 20 combined years at the BCS level, they only have one outright conference championship between them (Wake Forest’s ACC crown in 2006). Grobe is 29-36 in league play during his eight seasons in Winston-Salem, while O’Brien owns a 44-43 overall conference record at Boston College and N.C. State.
Cincinnati and Kansas have both earned recent BCS appearances despite consistently ranking near the bottom of their respective conference standings on Signing Day.
When Butch Davis was introduced as North Carolina's head coach on Nov. 13, 2006, the talk in Chapel Hill immediately turned to the possibility of competing for national championships. Doubters pointed out that recruiting at North Carolina was a far cry from the talent-rich area of South Florida, but 27 months later, the former Miami head coach has UNC on the doorstep of landing its first top-10 class in over a decade.
The obvious key to the current coup on the recruiting trail has been in harvesting local talent. The Tar Heels will sign eight of the top-10 in-state prospects on Wednesday, according to Scout.com. The state of North Carolina is not a huge producer of talent, and with five BCS schools within its borders, the pickings can sometimes be small.
"You've got more teams fighting over fewer players, and it dilutes the talent level a little bit," Kennedy said. "But what's impressed me the most is that North Carolina has been able to secure the top-level talent in-state, with the exception of possibly Xavier Nixon and that's about it."
Nixon, the nation’s top-rated offensive tackle out of Fayetteville’s Jack Britt High School, is headed to Florida. Davis did secure three of the other top-four prospects, however, in Jacksonville’s Donte Moss (#1 DE nationally), Smithfield’s Justin Dixon (# 4 SLB) and Gastonia’s Jheranie Boyd (#7 WR).
"Those four guys would be four of the top players in any state in the country, so the top of North Carolina is pretty good," Kennedy said. "As a state, I think North Carolina has really been growing leaps and bounds over the past few years."
Gary Fowler, head coach of the 2008 N.C. Shrine Bowl squad, agreed in an interview with Inside Carolina on Monday afternoon, indicating that the in-state ACC schools are finally realizing the talent in their own backyard.
"I think you've got coaches that realize that there are kids that can play in North Carolina," Fowler said. "I tell you what – the talent in North Carolina has gotten a heck of a lot better in recent years. Go look at some of the out-of-state schools that are coming into this state to recruit. If the talent wasn't any good, they wouldn't be coming in here.
"So these four guys, and even [Skip] Holtz down at East Carolina, they know now that there're enough athletes that they better start taking care of home first, instead of letting your Penn State's and your Clemson's come in and steal one. That's going to always happen, but what I've seen recently is that these coaches have made a commitment to make sure they get as many in-state kids as they can. "
Fowler was specifically impressed with the talent on the defensive side of the ball during Shrine Bowl practices, singling out Moss, defensive tackle Jared McAdoo (UNC commit) and safety Quan Rucker (Wake Forest commit) as strong candidates to excel at the collegiate level.
The 32-year coaching veteran – the last 24 at Clayton High School – saved his highest praise for Boyd, a big-time wide receiver prospect that garnered dozens of national offers, including Oklahoma and Florida.
"That kid worked his butt off all week blocking," Fowler said. "Sometimes you get kids in a game like this and they're the big dog back home… He's going to be something. If he keeps that attitude, then watch out, because he blocked his butt off all week long and never once demanded the ball."
Davis proved at Miami that he was capable of coaching talented players to the top of the college football world. By signing the recruiting class that he is expected to on Wednesday, along with his previous two classes in Chapel Hill, he’s putting North Carolina in a similar position to ascend that national ladder as well.