Recruiting. It is the lifeblood of a college football program. The age old adage goes "it's not about the x's and the o's, it's about the Jimmy's and the Joe's." Never has that become more apparent in the game than in the last decade. And in the state of the Florida, the first two years on the trail has set the tone of who may win a national championship, and who might be looking for work in the not-so-distant future.
Urban Meyer arrived in Gainesville in 2005. His initial class was neither large nor loaded with blue chip talent (only 35.3%); this is possibly due to not taking the job in full capacity until after the bowl season. But in year two, Meyer landed a star-studded class that would be the backbone of his 2008 national title team and a group that was a win away in 2009 from playing for a second straight championship. The 2006 class featured an incredible 75% blue chip rate (with 24 total signings). The class included Tim Tebow (QB), Percy Harvin (WR), Carl Johnson (OL), Brandon Spikes (LB), Jermaine Cunningham (DE), and Riley Cooper (WR). It is no wonder Meyer went on to win 48 of 55 games between 2006 and 2009 as well as two national championships, and maybe most importantly, he took complete control of the state of Florida, not just in terms of recruiting, but on the field as well, beating Florida State five straight times (05-09) as well as Miami in 2008.
Enter Jimbo Fisher in Tallahassee in 2010. Fisher took over for the legend, Bobby Bowden, in January 2010. Having been on staff, he was in position to capitalize immediately having already established strong networks in the state. His 2010 class would be a consensus top 10 pull, despite only netting 30% blue chips on 30 total signings. The foundation of that class, and players who would ultimately lead FSU back among the nation's elite, included Lamarcus Joyner (DB), Christian Jones (LB), Telvin Smith (LB), Kenny Shaw (WR), Terrence Brooks (DB), Chad Abram (DB), and Cameron Erving (DL), all of whom started on the 2013 National Championship team.
Fisher used the momentum of that class combined with a mythical state championship over the rival Hurricanes and Gators in 2010 to bring together what may stand as his best class when all is said and done, in 2011. The 2011 FSU class was as jam packed with elite talent and impact players and ranked #1 on ESPN (51.7% blue chips). The class was headlined by Tim Jernigan (DL), Nick O'Leary (TE), Rashad Greene (WR), Kelvin Benjamin (WR), Devonta Freeman (RB), James Wilder Jr. (RB), Karlos Williams (DB), Josue Matias (OL), and Bobby Hart (OL). The 2011 class was so loaded, it even included Alabama's 2015 national title winning quarterback, Jacob Coker. Those initial two classes have helped Fisher to a 68-14 record while allowing him to put a death grip on the state of Florida, where the Seminoles enjoy elite recruiting and dominance on the field versus their top two rivals (11-1 combined record against UM and UF).
Meyer abruptly exited Florida after the 2010 season, and Will Muschamp was tapped as his replacement. A defensive guru and a fine recruiter, Muschamp immediately proved his ability on the trail with an impressive opening class. Though on the small side, 19 commits, the class featured 63.1% blue chips, including top talent on both sides of the ball like Jeff Driskel (QB), Jacoby Brissett (QB), Mike Blakely (RB), Ja'Juan Story (WR), Marcus Roberson (DB), Loucheiz Purifoy (DB), and De'Ante "Pop" Saunders (DB). Despite an up-and-down initial season (7-6 record), Muschamp would sign another blue chip heavy class (65.2%) in 2012 that featured Dante Fowler (DE), Jonathan Bullard (DE), Brian Poole (DB), Marcus Maye (DB), Matt Jones (RB), and Antonio Morrison (LB).
Now a theme is beginning to develop here: the most recognizable names are predominantly on the defensive side, and while UF fielded some of the most fearsome and talent-laden defenses in the country under Muschamp, the lack of development on the offensive side ultimately led to his downfall and firing. Despite a fan-rousing 11-2 in 2012 that included a victory in Tallahassee over FSU, the ineptitude on offense eventually cost Muschamp his job, as he would go just 10-13 over 2013 and 2014.
While Muschamp was collecting talent and struggling to win games, down in South Florida, Al Golden was trying to bring the swag back to the U. Golden, hired from Temple prior to the 2011 season, either did not care to or did not know how to attract and land elite talent. The numbers spell it out quite clearly: the talent at the U was not elite. In 2011 they signed a class of 21 players-- only 19% were blue chip, and those players were Anthony Chickillo (DE), Kevin Grooms (ATH), Jalen Grimble (DE), and Dallas Crawford (DB). Miami struggled on the field as well, going 6-6 in year one of Golden's tenure.
National Signing Day 2012 would not be that much better for the 'Canes. Choosing to over sign, possibly in hopes of improving the roster, the Canes took 33 players; 27.3% were blue chips, better than 2011, but still not in the neighborhood needed to compete in their own conference with FSU and Clemson, let alone nationally. The 2012 class featured Duke Johnson (RB), Tracy Howard (DB), Jelani Hamilton (DE), Tyriq McCord (DE), Deon Bush (DB), Raphael Kirby (LB), Ereck Flowers (OL), and Malcolm Lewis (WR), and while most of them had very nice and productive college careers, the lack of more talent around them, particularly in terms of functional depth, contributed to subpar team results. Miami went 7-5 in 2012, and actually began to show promise in 2013, starting 7-0 before a November showdown with the Seminoles. But a soul-crushing beatdown sent their season into a spiral, and they would ultimately finish 9-4. Golden and company never had the confidence of the fanbase again. Miami went 6-7 in 2014, and after starting 4-3 in 2015, Golden was relieved of his duties.
Which brings us to Jim McElwain's debut at UF in 2015. A National Championship winning offensive coordinator at Alabama under Nick Saban, with the pedigree and experience at the highest of levels, Florida's confidence and optimism was expectedly high from the beginning. The 2015 class cannot be properly judged for a few more years, but on paper, only signing 20% blue chips is not the beginning for which many were hoping. With signing day 2016 upon us, the Gators sit at 37.5% blue chips and, given the way the second half of 2015 ended on the field for UF, the continued question marks at quarterback, and the fact that FSU does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon in terms of acquiring talent, either the coaching needs to get significantly better in a hurry, or UF could be in need of a fourth head coach in less than 15 years. A combined 30% rate over the first two classes is just not up to standards, and would rate outside the top-20 nationally.
If you blindly compared what McElwain (30%) has done to the first two years of Fisher (41%), Meyer (59%), Muschamp (64%) and Golden (24%), the closest match is to Al Golden. That doesn't mean it won't improve, but things certainly did not trend up in Year 2 like it did for Jimbo Fisher in 2011.
Stars matter, folks, especially at the macro level. You can scour the rankings and find terrific stories of 2 and 3 star kids who were missed in evaluations or found the right time and place to showcase their abilities, but at the end of the day, teams with the most talent win the most games. Alabama has won four national titles since 2009, FSU has a title, UF under Meyer has two since 2006, Meyer won another at Ohio State in 2014, and LSU and Texas each have one in the last 11 years. All of these programs recruit at the highest of levels, they are mainstays in the recruiting top 10 rankings, and their success on the field is not a fluke. New coaching can spark enthusiasm and excitement around a program, but at the end of the day in college football, it all comes down to recruiting. If you don't have the players, you probably won't win (enough). It is really as simple as that.