Recruiting is an art that takes college football's elite programs years to truly perfect. Building up an immense network of scouts and alumni while attempting to nab as many blue-chip prospects as possible is a tricky balancing act that has led to the end of countless coaching tenures.
Amongst the sport's best, regions across the country have always been recruiting hotbeds. Now, with the rise of social media and easier ways to scout and communicate with young players, coaches are able to branch out beyond their home states, setting up battlegrounds that have altered the state of college football in the past decade.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out where the majority of five-star CFB recruits come from. Nor does it take much to figure out that states with larger populations are more likely to produce a higher number of quality players. Schools such as Texas and USC have long benefitted from being the most prominent programs in the two largest states in America, as well as a willingness to spend big on top coaches, recruiters, and other resources.
While much has changed in recent years as far as recruiting goes, the size factor still matters; Texas and California are still comfortably within the top five states in recruiting talent. Having such a wide array of options means that these schools should be competing for titles every year. However, this has not been the case. While still relevant within the national landscape, no school from either state has reached the College Football Playoff since it was introduced in 2014. Why is that?
The answer is not so simple; programs such as Texas, Texas A&M, and USC still pull in top-flight recruiting classes. However, they aren't able to simply pluck future stars from their own backyard in today's game. In fact, other teams have been luring stars away from them. Take California for example: In 2020, the state's three best quarterbacks ended up at Alabama (Bryce Young), Clemson (D.J. Uiagalelei) and Ohio State (C.J. Stroud); it's no coincidence that these three went to the three best teams in the nation. Remarkably, the state that landed the most California's Top 25 prospects in 2020 was Arizona State with five; USC had just one.
Staying Close To Home
So, if USC, Stanford, and UCLA are doing a poor job of regional recruiting, who is succeeding? The answer, as I'm sure you've already guessed by now, are schools in the South. Easily the most concentrated region of talent in the nation, the schools that make up the SEC and, to a lesser extent, ACC, have long benefited from a bevy of in-state high-schoolers. It comes as no coincidence that the schools who capitalize locally are able to consistently compete on the national stage.
Simply analyzing the list of top talent producers makes it clear that winning programs are bound to sap into the southeast stockpile. According to 247Sports, six of the top ten states that contained the most 'elite talent' (four-star or greater) hail from the South, a.k.a. below the Mason-Dixon line and east of Texas. For the most part, major schools located within these borders have excelled at keeping players from leaving home. The state of Florida, the nation's deepest state, has seen just two of their Top 25 leave the South, and Georgia (number two nationally) saw only one regional departure.
As opposed to California and Texas, population size simply doesn't register in the South. With an extremely high concentration of prospects, and many states where just one or two schools are national powers, southeastern programs have a major advantage. While some states have massive populations, that also means more competition in and out of state. Of the ten states where 5% or more of all high school football players are recruited by a D-I school, eight hail from SEC/ACC country.
In looking further at the list, Florida's astronomically high rate of almost ten percent, best in the country, likely explains why a wide array of solid programs (FSU, Florida, Miami, UCF, USF) have all stayed competitive or better in the last decade. Florida has had a total of twenty-two AP Top 25 finishers in this time among seven different schools. Texas' twelve FBS programs have produced just twenty-one, and California's seven have had just nineteen, all while possessing much higher state populations than Florida.
Going Out of State
At this point in the article, it's been established that the key to staying competitive despite recruiting competition is to take care of business within a program's state and/or region. However, programs like Tennessee and Maryland are the lone Power 5 schools in states rich with talent, yet rarely compete within their own conferences. Ultimately, what separates a decent team from a national championship contender is the ability to bring in blue chips from anywhere in the United States, not just your own backyard.
In this regard, no program has excelled at national scouting like Nick Saban's Alabama juggernaut. Heading to Tuscaloosa with the added experience of having coached previously in the states of Ohio, Michigan, and Louisiana, Saban's recruiting network has given the Crimson Tide an influx of talent that is simply unmatchable across the board, with no signs of slowing down any time soon. On an absolutely loaded 2021 recruiting class, just five of the Tide's twenty-six recruits hail from Alabama. There are more from Texas (seven) and Florida (six), neighboring states that Saban has made a habit of raiding.
In fact, Bama seems to attract players from just about everywhere; in his last four recruiting classes, Saban has brought in players from twenty-three different states. Of those players, just over 24% hailed from Alabama. Comparatively, (now former) Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt's classes from 2018-2020 were made up of about 34% in-state players. Just eleven of Pruitt's sixty-seven commits were from outside of SEC country, while Saban landed twenty five of his seventy-three recruits from outside the South. Although the Vols had solid recruiting classes ranging anywhere from the 10-20th ranked nationally, they were never ranked higher than seventh in the SEC, pointing to an over-reliance on local athletes.
College football has a massive gap between the best in the nation and everyone else, amplified ever since the advent of the College Football Playoff. Today's path to victory now includes a deep recruiting pipeline, one that stretches far beyond any home state. Blue bloods that have become complacent with hoarding neighborhood players are destined for failure, regardless of how many five-stars are nearby. As teams continue to battle each other for quality prospects, the lines that once mapped out where the sport's power lies are only becoming blurrier. One thing is for certain: the programs that are the most active and innovative on the recruiting trail are sure to dominate the sport in the years to come.