The lopsided College Football Playoff semifinal wins that brought No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia to Monday’s national championship were the product of dozens of smaller victories along the way.
Not just on the field. On the recruiting trail, where the sport’s superpowers form.
“This,” Florida coach Billy Napier said, “is a talent-acquisition business.”
And few, if any, coaches have a better mastery of it than the Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban and the Bulldogs’ Kirby Smart. Every recruiting class they’ve signed since 2017 has been ranked in the top five nationally, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. In ‘19 and ‘20, they were 1-2 and 2-1.
Of the 125 five-star prospects on Division I-A rosters this season, more than one-fourth were at either Georgia (19) or Alabama (14). In their semifinal romps, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide each had 11 starters who were former top-100 recruits. In their regular-season finales, Florida, Florida State, Miami, USF and UCF started 11 of them combined. Until the rest of the sport’s major programs (including the former powers in this state) start consistently beating Smart and Saban for top prospects, they’re not going to beat them consistently on the field.
Recruiting at that elite level requires three key things, according to a handful of coaches and analysts interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times: effort, identification and infrastructure. Those factors funnel into one all-encompassing belief that explains both the success of those juggernauts and why so few programs have come close to matching them.
“It takes,” Penn State coach James Franklin said, “a total commitment.”
Step 1: Effort
The simplest explanation for the recruiting success of Alabama and Georgia is that they prioritize recruiting success more than almost anyone else.
“It all starts with effort, first and foremost,” said Jeremy Crabtree, senior recruiting editor for recruiting site On3.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds because being committed to elite recruiting often means sacrificing something else.
When hiring an assistant, does a coach value a great recruiter over someone who’s a better teacher or tactician? How do you balance recruiting with game-planning? Every minute a coach spends on the phone with a prospect is a minute he’s not breaking down film or drawing up plays. The programs that recruit at an elite level understand the long-term value of the short-term loss and hire coaches who are willing to give up family time to text 17-year-olds.
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“It’s a relentless approach to recruiting, not just a relentless approach to football coaching,” said Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, a former Penn State head coach. “And that’s what Coach Saban has done here, and it’s been proven, and it’s been awesome.”
Saban’s system has also been awesome because he leads the Tide’s 365-day-a-year effort. It’s the same at Georgia. Of all the head coaches Sam Pittman worked under in his three decades as an assistant, none were as involved in recruiting as Smart.
Pittman has tried to adopt the same approach as the head coach at Arkansas, whose 19th-ranked 2022 class is the program’s best since 2004. There are no real vacations, no days off. Recruiting never ends.
“If you miss a day texting somebody …” Pittman said, “somebody else isn’t.”
Including the two coaches in Monday’s title game.
Step 2: Identification
Because recruiting is all about relationships, there’s a practical reason why the Alabamas and Georgias keep landing top players.
“I think what makes them so special is they identify guys early,” said Adam Gorney, Rivals’ national recruiting director.
Identifying promising players early gives coaches more time to build stronger relationships with them. When that ultra-talented player at an eighth-grade camp blossoms into an ultra-talented high school senior, the foundation is already set.
A longer recruiting runway also helps coaches learn which players not to sign. That, ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said, is vital, too.
“Are you collecting talent, or are you building a team?” Luginbill said. “Because you can collect all the talent in the world. If you’re bringing in a bunch of bad apples, you’re going to be in trouble sooner or later.”
Luginbill said that’s what happened at the end of Jimbo Fisher’s time at Florida State, where a string of top-six classes crumbled into a 7-6 season. It seemed to be happening at Florida, too, at the end of the Urban Meyer era.
Georgia and ‘Bama, however, show no signs of slowing down.
Step 3: Infrastructure
If the first two steps sound relatively easy, the last one does not. To recruit at an elite level, you need elite infrastructure.
“You can have the plan,” Luginbill said. “But if you don’t have the bullets in the gun or the horses in the stable to run the race, you’re always going to be running from behind.”
The bullets and horses take many forms. Facilities like the $85 million football building Florida will open later this year are one part. So are food, housing, technology, sports science and everything else. That’s why Franklin — who has the nation’s No. 6 incoming class at Penn State — said it takes an all-in commitment from the entire administration.
“Everybody’s fighting and scratching and clawing for literally the smallest margin that you can find,” Franklin said.
And if you can’t find it, someone else will — and they’ll use it against you in the living rooms of five-star recruits.
Massive investments also fund armies of support staffers who edit flashy graphics or break down film so coaches can evaluate more efficiently. When Pittman switches to recruiting mode at Arkansas, his staff is already prepared with everything he needs about who to write, call or text.
The biggest staffs can also spend the most time digging into the background of each recruit. Who’s the most influential adult around a blue-chip lineman in Tampa? His dad? High school coach? 7-on-7 coach? Grandma? Once recruiters know that, they can focus on building a relationship with those key figures to learn how to land the player.
“It just gives them the ability to look underneath every rock possible,” Crabtree said.
What it all means in Florida
As the Sunshine State finishes an eighth season without a national title — continuing its longest drought since rising to prominence in the ‘80s — the good news is that Florida’s power programs still have the potential to recruit at an elite level. They, like Alabama and Georgia, have brand-name recognition and rich histories. Their recruiting footprints remain loaded with talent.
Though FSU lost the nation’s top recruit, Travis Hunter, at the 11th hour last month, Mike Norvell still signed a top-15 class after a 5-7 season. A better 2022 season would lead to brighter signing days.
In his first remarks as Gators coach, Napier pledged to “work tirelessly” in recruiting; his predecessor, Dan Mullen, did not mention recruiting at all in the opening statement of his introductory news conference.
In addition to the new football facility, UF is hiring a support staff Napier said will be “unprecedented” in size. The Hurricanes are also upping their budgets under new coach Mario Cristobal, and the Seminoles have made a football-only facility a major priority for new athletic director Michael Alford. That all suggests the state’s most powerful programs are taking some of the steps necessary to land the best prospects.
It will not be easy. It will not be cheap.
But if it works, the reward will be enormous — as Monday’s national championship shows.
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