There's a saying in Napa: Only a good winemaker can make good wine, but nobody can make good wine out of bad grapes. This is why many fans, some of us otherwise respectable individuals, invest our emotions in the soap opera that is college football recruiting. My wife is partial to The Bachelor, a show on which desperate women degrade themselves to win the affection of some dude they just met. This season, that dude seems to have inherited a winery but seems still not to have moved on from his middle school haircut. I cannot, or at least should not, make fun of my wife for watching this. What I do with my stolen moments is watch desperate 50-year-old men (coaches)1 smooch the hindquarters of high school kids, and as I watch I hope my school's coach can smooch with finesse and passion superior to the other coaches. I hope the guy who coaches my team doesn't offend, doesn't under-promise; I hope that he comes on strong but not too strong; I hope that he doesn't balk at the recruit's mother's salty-ass cookies or that he doesn't unintentionally snub the recruit's high school coach. The guy on The Bachelor is a douche by virtue of being The Bachelor, and the teenage football recruit is as likely to be a bust as he is to be a star as he is to be a run-of-the-mill starter. It doesn't matter. The premise is that we're supposed to want this guy and so we want him.
The most fascinating part of college football preview magazines is the feature where they list the top recruits from four or five years ago and report what became of them. On one end of the spectrum is the NFL Rookie of the Year.2 At the other end are such varied destinies as grievous knee injury — had to give up football; multiple arrests leading to dismissal from team and transfer to D2 Abilene Christian; struggled to get on the field consistently — three career sacks, degree in small business management; switched to baseball as a sophomore after getting beat out in spring practice — now a member of AA Richmond Flying Squirrels; joined Tacoma-based cult that centers around the belief that Mount St. Helens is a portal to the gods — is awaiting rapture with hundreds of others at a defunct lumber mill.
This is one of the contradictions we face in the course of following recruiting. Though it's true lots of these four- and five-star recruits don't live up to expectations, it's also true that if you land enough of them, some percentage will. If a school gets more top-rated prospects than its rival, it has a mathematically better shot at winding up with better players two years down the road. It's true. And it's also true, since much of recruiting is regional, that a kid one school gets is a kid the rival does not get. Each blue-chipper Auburn claims is a kid they keep away from Alabama. Right now those schools are wrangling over Kwon Alexander, a star outside linebacker from Oxford, Alabama. We don't know which grapes are the classiest, but we'd rather have the fruit a bunch of insiders are vouching for than some fruit somebody left by the roadside, and the insiders are vouching for Kwon.
And the fact is, when a guy commits to your school, you don't think about him not panning out. What fun would that be? Pessimism is for the season. The offseason is a time of hope. You think of former greats the kid reminds you of, like the way Cal's incoming safety Shaq Thompson seems like the next coming of Sean Taylor. You think of a guy fitting perfectly into your team's system, like Arkansas JUCO receiver commit Courtney Gardner, who should step in and help fill the void left by three graduating wideouts. You don't think about the fact that one of your defensive end recruits weighs 220 pounds soaking wet, like Florida commit Alex McCalister. So what? As soon as he gets in that fancy weight room and starts chowing down on some university-level nutrition, I'm sure he'll add 40 pounds of muscle without losing his agility. You don't think about the fact that many of these recruits built their résumés against weak competition. You certainly don't think about the fact that anytime before signing day they're free to de-commit, which happens all the time.
And then there are the contradictions within our own thought processes. A common one is the praising of a recruit's character and goods sense3 based on nothing more than his choosing our school. When a recruit is up for grabs, we hope he makes the "right" choice, and if he doesn't we'll say: "If he wants to go there, he's not the kind of kid we thought he was. Him and Rival U will be perfect for each other." That's how we do it. We want the kid until he doesn't want us. Look, kid, you're gonna do the hooking or you're gonna get hooked. You're either a Gator or you're gator bait. A recruit who selects my school made a well-reasoned decision. If he selected Rival U then he's been sweet-talked and I feel sorry for him, sorry that he fell for whatever lies and gifts they showered on him. I'm not sure I would want a kid so easily swayed, a kid of such flimsy character, playing for my team anyway.
If my team has a need at corner and a great in-state cornerback decides to go elsewhere, my response is: What's wrong with these kids? Don't they have computers? Can't they see the depth chart? That other program must have given him a Lincoln Navigator and a bunch of gift cards to Chipotle! Yet when a guy who might have to wait a couple years to play commits to my school, that young man is a bastion of wisdom and foresight. Instead of being seduced by the siren song of immediate playing time, he has chosen his new home according to higher concerns. He liked the family atmosphere and the commitment to doing things the right way.
So, no, I won't defend the practice of hanging on every juicy recruiting plot twist rather than doing the sensible thing and waiting until National Signing Day (February 1 this year) to appraise the haul. Recruiting is reality television that exploits 17-year-olds. It's not as bad as the show where they make 5-year-old girls compete in pageants, but it's not much better. And it's getting worse, like all things in the world.4 Now, press conferences are held for the sole purpose of a recruit announcing his decision. I'm not talking about the thing with the hats at the all-star games — that we've had for a while and it seems organic and untroubling. I'm talking about a bunch of media people gathering at a certain time and waiting for one kid to say the name of a school. More pre-accomplishment publicity — it's an American epidemic. Often, it's not even the kid's idea. The kid just wants to please the people around him. I can't reliably remember myself as a 17-year-old, so I don't know whether I would have had the wherewithal to recognize and refuse a terrible idea like a press conference. Mentors — they ain't what they used to be. But here's the thing. People like me can't complain about recruiting being a circus because if we didn't check in on Scout and Rivals and ESPN.com three times a day, if we didn't sit glued to the high school all-star games and stare at the ticker on ESPNU like day traders down to their last thousand bucks watching the stock market — if we didn't do all that, the press conferences would never have started happening.
Here's the bottom line: We care very much about our college football teams and we have absolutely zero control over their success. It's a nerve-racking position. It calms us to see that efforts are being made to improve the team. It comforts us to know that help might be on the way, and to know how many tackles that help registered in his junior year of high school and to know his 40 time and max bench press. Maybe we can even watch some video of that help. Essentially, we need help.
Random, Too-Quick Rundown of the 2012 Recruiting Cycle
As I write this, the top five classes are Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Florida, and Michigan. These are the only classes of at least 20 recruits that also include at least two Rivals 5-star players and an overall star average greater than 3.5. In other words, quantity and quality.
The Tide will be trying to find their footing next season after major losses from the championship squad, but with classes like this it won't take long for them to regain form. Five-star T.J. Yeldon will be an immediate complement to big Eddie Lacy in the backfield, and a quartet of receiver recruits will try to reinvigorate Bama on the outside. We've been watching to see what happens with Landon Collins, the blue-chip safety out of Louisiana. He committed to Alabama at the Under Armour game as his mother, with him at the table, shook her head in earnest defeat. ESPN's Dari Nowkhah asked why she was unhappy and she said her boy belonged at LSU. The son was yanking on a pair of Alabama gloves and the mother was doing Tiger chants.5 Landon is still listed as solid to the Tide, so I guess his mother doesn't rule with an iron fist, which is unfortunate for LSU.
Also unfortunate for LSU, Gunner Kiel's mother has a bit more sway. Gunner is the top-rated pro-style quarterback this year and he was committed to LSU until the day he was expected to report to campus. (He's enrolling early, as many recruits do.) Well, Louisiana was too far away for the Kiel matriarch from Columbus, Ind., and Gunner wound up at Notre Dame. And speaking of the Golden Domers, they're putting together an interesting class themselves. Gunner, the jewel in their crown, is an in-state pickup, but on the whole Notre Dame is utilizing its famous national recruiting. They've landed commits from California, Texas, both Carolinas, Illinois, Florida, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, New Jersey, and Nevada.
The University of Texas may be the easiest place from which to recruit. I say that because they always have their class together months before anyone else. They were the clubhouse leader this year, sitting and watching the other programs scurry around trying to unseat them from the top spot — which it seems Alabama has finally done. Ohio State may be next to overtake Texas. Meyer is warmed up, back to doing what he likes to do, which ain't watching girls' volleyball. Quick note on the sting of NCAA sanctions: Ohio State has a huge, terrific class coming in and a head coach/quarterback marriage made in heaven. In the end, the outcome of all that trouble is turning out to be a forced coaching upgrade. The Buckeyes will still have the best players in the Big Ten, just as USC will have the best players in the Pac-12. At this moment, Southern Cal's star average is 3.92 — tops in the nation.
Michigan: A five-star on both lines, each ready to contribute immediately. Toughness has come to Ann Arbor, and more talent is on the way. This is the kind of class Hoke & Co. will need to attract consistently to compete with Meyer past next season. So, the good news is the Wolverines are bringing in a good class; the bad news is that they can never do any worse than this good class if they expect to stay with the Buckeyes year after year.
The Florida teams: Miami is bringing in more than 30 guys. Because of looming NCAA trouble, or maybe because Al Golden has made sure to keep the kibosh on the dearly held Hurricane tradition of yachting with hookers, Miami hasn't been able to compete with the 'Noles or Gators for most top in-state prospects. What they have done is plundered the second tier of Sunshine State recruits, and Florida's tier two sometimes turns out to be top-shelf. Miami lost a ton of players to graduation and early defection, and their coaches have effectively sold immediate playing time. This is a true rebuilding class, the group that will determine the fate of Miami football for the next several years.
Florida State has a cornucopia of talent on campus and they're bringing in more, including a herd of front-seven studs and the top-rated dual-threat quarterback in the country, Jameis Winston. Winston is listed in some circles as a "soft verbal."6 Apparently, LSU, jilted by old Gunner Kiel, is coming hard after Winston. Either way, FSU has the talent to win the ACC next year, and if they fail to do so Jimbo Fisher's seat will begin the heating process.
Meanwhile, for Jimbo's BFF over in Gainesville, the only thing holding off a fan mutiny is the top-five class Muschamp is pulling in. Coach Champ has chased legions of talent off campus since his arrival, and the only way to make that seem like a plan rather than a disaster is to replace the lost talent with younger, better-fitting talent.
Top 10 Players Still Up for Grabs
Dorial Green-Beckham (WR)
Man among boys on the outside. Said to be leaning toward Arkansas. He and Tyler Wilson might make each other very happy.
Eddie Goldman (DT)
Top remaining defensive tackle. He's from D.C., but Miami, Auburn, and FSU seem to lead for his services.
Stefon Diggs (WR)
Hard to cover, both on and off the field. Has the feel of an NSD surprise.
Darius Hamilton (DE)
Top pass-rusher still on the board. Home-state Rutgers was in the lead, but with Greg Schiano headed to Tampa, Hamilton's phone must be ringing itself silly.
Tracy Howard (CB)
Ball-hawking corner will stay in Florida. Gators were thought to be ahead of the Seminoles for this one, but Miami is making a late push.
Zach Banner (OT)
Brobdingnagian lineman (6-foot-9 — 310 lbs) will be swallowing up defensive ends for USC, Oklahoma, or his home-state Washington Huskies.
Nelson Agholor (WR)
Used mostly as a running back in high school. Tampa kid who likes USC's passing attack but is getting the full-court press from the close-to-home Gators.
Kyle Murphy (OT)
West Coast kid being wrangled over by USC and Stanford. It's battles like this that either keep Stanford in the Pac-12 conversation or put USC that much further ahead.
Josh Harvey-Clemons (LB)
Best remaining linebacker. More speed than brawn, but not timid when it comes to popping a ball carrier. This is a Florida/Georgia battle. Georgia wants him; Florida needs him.
Andrus Peat (OT)
Huge, but carries his weight splendidly. He starts at center for his Tempe Corona del Sol basketball squad. His brother is already on the Nebraska roster, so they appear to have a leg up on Stanford.