Although the success of a football program is built on wins and losses, recruiting has never played a more prominent role in maintaining a steady stream of talent for teams across the nation.
National signing day has become "must-see TV", with dreams of title contention made and broken depending on what hat is worn and major additions being hailed as the next savior on campus. Even with the pomp and circumstance that comes with landing high-profile talents, nothing in sports is ever guaranteed, especially in the cut-throat world of FBS competition.
Therefore, it is worth asking whether top recruiting classes have truly promised success over the past two decades, or if fanbases should cool their excitement until these young men actually hit the field?
*All recruiting class rankings courtesy of 247 Sports
Classes Make Championships
While winning a bowl game is still something to be proud of, the modern evolution of college football have given impetus to the motto "Championship or Bust". It comes as no surprise then that the top-ranked recruiting classes are often the same teams hoisting the CFP Trophy in January.
In just looking at top-three classes, there are plenty of examples where elite talent gives way to championship results. Florida and USC finished #1 and #2 in the 2003 recruiting rankings. Both programs would win a national title within the next four years.
Highly touted classes often occur after new coaching hires, showing the growing importance of the recruiting trail in today's FBS world. Nick Saban left LSU for Alabama in 2007, where he hoped to turn things around after four mediocre seasons that produced a 26-23 record under Mike Shula. In his first season , the new head coach immediately boosted Bama's recruiting class rankings from 12th to 3rd.
The results have been astounding in Tuscaloosa; under Saban's watch, the Crimson Tide have won five national titles, while claiming the nation's top recruiting class eight times in the past ten years. Part of this success has included plucking talent from recruiting battlegrounds that were once deemed impenetrable.
Coaches like Saban, Urban Meyer, Kirby Smart (a Saban disciple) and Dabo Swinney have consistently recruited within the top ten, if not top five in recent years. Even though other schools can occasionally get flash-in-the pan classes (more on that later), the ability to attract talent and get a large amount of kids ready for the NFL is a major draw.
For every champion, there is always another side of the coin to recruiting classes, with massive failures proving that talent alone is not a cure-all.
Tennessee, coming off a 10-4 season in 2007, looked to build off their success with the nation's fourth best recruiting class. The next four seasons would see the team go a combined 23-30, with the Vols likely struggling due to immense staff turnover.
Tennessee experienced recruiting letdown yet again in 2015, as the Vols claimed the nation's fourth best class under head coach Butch Jones, building off the seventh ranked class in 2014. The hype was real, as many claimed that after a decade of mediocrity Tennessee was finally back. Four years later, Jones was gone from Knoxville and the school had gone a pedestrian 27-23 in the SEC East.
Elsewhere in the SEC, Ole Miss ranked inside the top twenty for recruiting classes five times over the previous decade, including being placed fifth in 2016. However, the program has finished ranked over the past ten years just twice, finishing with a 64-69 record this decade. The 2016 class has been especially disappointing, going just 20-28 over four seasons at Oxford, with plenty of once-valued recruits failing to make much of an impact.
No list of disappointing results in college football would be complete without Jim Harbaugh's Michigan Wolverines. Granted, the team has certainly had much more success under the former Stanford head coach than Ole Miss or Tennessee during the past five seasons. Still, expectations were sky-high when Harbaugh came to Ann Arbor, reflected in the #8 and #5 ranked recruiting classes in 2016 and '17.
Since 2017, the Wolverines have gone 29-17, a respectable win total for most teams but woefully short of being the contender Michigan strives to be each season. During the Harbaugh era they have often struggled in big games against their top rivals, such as Ohio State and the rest of the Big 10 East. The head coach has helped beat a top ten team just once during his six-year tenure, and questions over his future at the school are heating up after a 2-4 record in 2020.
Doing More with Less
As some programs have squandered highly rated recruiting classes, others have managed to get the most out of a class that, on paper, doesn't look so impressive.
Since Paul Chryst took over as head coach of Wisconsin in 2015, the team has finished ranked four out of the six seasons since. His clubs have gone a combined 55-19, a solid mark that has kept the Badgers relevant year-in and year-out.
From 2015-18, the team never had a recruiting class rated higher than #35 in the nation, showing Chryst's ability to make something out of nothing, all while continuing Wisconsin's tradition of developing strong running backs, such as Jonathan Taylor, and staunch defenses. Recruiting classes have steadily improved, to the point where the Badgers are now ranked 25th for 2020.
Clemson under Dabo Swinney certainly feels like an odd placement in this category; since he took over as head coach in 2009 the Tigers have appeared in four national championship games, winning two.
Still, the recruiting classes Swinney has worked with ranked inside the top ten just five times, and reached the top five for the first time in 2020, ranked #3. Contrasting that with top rival Alabama, where finishing outside of the top two classes is considered a down year, makes Swinney's astounding .814 winning percentage look even more impressive.
Due to the consistent winning with stars such as Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers have become a CFP mainstay, making the tournament each of the past six seasons. While many coaches would kill to work with the talent that Swinney has had at his disposal, few would be able to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Nick Saban and come out on top...twice.
Recruiting is what keeps college football teams competitive on a consistent basis. That fact is indisputable. What is up for debate is whether it is the sole reason why schools are able to win at a high level. For some blue-bloods, such as Michigan and Tennessee, highly-ranked classes have failed to deliver on the lofty goals of their respective fanbases.
For others, such as Alabama, recruiting has become the most important aspect of the Nick Saban era, enabling them to stockpile depth and give talented freshmen time to learn before stepping out onto the field. However, Clemson has proven that recruiting within the top 5 every year is not the only way to win championships, combining smart coaching and stellar quarterback play into national success.
To recruit at a high level year-in and year-out, coaches must prove to high school athletes that they give them the best combination of opportunity, chances to win, and ability to be seen by scouts in the NFL. Recruiting is king in college football, but to be the best at it, one must convince prospects by actually winning games on the field.