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How FSU football saved a potential top-10 recruiting class after a 5-7 season

Only four recent coaches have signed top-10 classes after losing seasons. Here’s how FSU got a shot at joining them.
Florida State coach Mike Norvell and his Seminoles have a shot at a top-10 recruiting class on national signing day.
Florida State coach Mike Norvell and his Seminoles have a shot at a top-10 recruiting class on national signing day. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Dec. 14, 2021|Updated Dec. 14, 2021

Florida State enters Wednesday’s national signing day with a shot at its best recruiting class since the Jimbo Fisher era.

If the early signing period goes as expected, the Seminoles will add the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect (Georgia cornerback Travis Hunter) and the state’s No. 3 recruit (Lake Gibson safety Sam McCall) as part of a class that was 11th nationally Tuesday afternoon, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.

It’s the kind of talent Mike Norvell’s Seminoles should be expected to land. Just not under these circumstances.

Related: Worst. Year. Ever. What went wrong with Florida college football?

“The fact that Florida State is knocking on the door of a top-10 class with five wins is not supposed to happen,” said Josh Newberg, the publisher of Noles247.

In the last 10 recruiting cycles, only four coaches have signed top-10 classes after losing seasons: Charlie Strong after his first two years at Texas, Brian Kelly after Notre Dame’s 4-8 anomaly in 2016, Butch Jones after his 5-7 first season at Tennessee and Will Muschamp after the Gators’ 4-8 flop in 2013. Steve Sarkisian’s Longhorns (5-7 this year) might also break through this cycle.

So why are Norvell and the ‘Noles on the cusp of joining that rare group? Start with a years-long focus on this class. Norvell said in August that he and his staff prioritized the ‘22 and ‘23 classes even as they were signing players for ‘20 and ‘21.

By late June, they had 14 commits (including Hunter, who committed in March 2020) and a top-five ranking. The fact that only two recruits decommitted during FSU’s 5-7 season is a testament to the relationships Norvell’s staff built and what they’re based on.

“Really it held together because of the message that the staff conveyed to these kids,” Newberg said. “This is a process.”

It’s the same message Norvell gave publicly in an impassioned news conference after FSU’s 0-4 start.

“I’m looking for guys that want to be a part of that process, guys that want to be successful, guys that want to be challenged,” Norvell said. “... It’s easy to point to (problems), but who wants to be a part of the solution? Those are the guys we’re going after.”

Norvell already had some. Because he and his staff didn’t sugarcoat preseason expectations, the ‘Noles attracted recruits who wanted that challenge — ones who wouldn’t run from a rebuild, even after the program hit its modern-era low in the Jacksonville State debacle.

Those prospects, crucially, got to see on-field progress that validated their decisions. After falling behind 31-7 against Louisville in Week 4, the Seminoles were competitive the rest of the way. They upset North Carolina on the road, took Clemson to the final play and topped Miami with a historic fourth-and-14 conversion.

Related: The one play that changed the trajectory of FSU, Miami

“I think the momentum that they gained on the field gave them some ammunition in recruiting,” ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said.

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The ammunition from those proof-of-concept performances helped FSU stave off negative recruiting from more successful teams.

Jordan Travis helped lead Florida State to a win over Miami that has been a big boost to recruiting.
Jordan Travis helped lead Florida State to a win over Miami that has been a big boost to recruiting. [ MARK WALLHEISER | AP ]

There are many other factors that have worked in the Seminoles’ favor. Hunter grew up an FSU fan, which gave the ‘Noles an inherent edge. Florida and Miami fired their coaches, so the in-state competition isn’t as fierce. The on-field struggles showed promising recruits their opportunities for early playing time.

And if those promising recruits like Hunter and McCall can contribute early next year to a team poised for a step forward, more top prospects will take notice.

“If you get some of these key cogs and they come in and they pan out … they become the foundation that helped build it,” Luginbill said. “Then you’ve got to add with another class. And then with another class.”

And then we can start talking about FSU as a championship contender again — one that’s a long way from 5-7.

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