Texas is on a recruiting tear, and along with Oklahoma, they may save the Big 12
The Sooners and Longhorns have top-10 classes with Texas landing four top in-state players
The long-term survival of the Big 12 is too murky for a crystal ball to accurately predict. The annual offseason expansion stories -- save for this year, of course -- have proven shallow, yet stand as a clear sign that no one in this conference is quite sure which direction to go. That's not a promising omen for the future.
In the here and now, though, the Big 12's paramount problem is more identifiable ... and fixable. It's on the recruiting front, namely with Oklahoma and Texas. And the problem is already starting to be rectified.
On Monday night, Texas received a verbal commitment from four-star wide receiver Brennan Eagles of Alief Taylor High School in the Houston area. Eagles, whom 247Sports measures at 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, is considered the No. 3 overall player in Texas. Per Burnt Orange Nation, Eagles "ran a 4.51 40-yard dash, recorded a 3.99 shuttle time and posted a 37-inch vertical leap" at The Opening, putting him among the "freaks" category for a pass-catcher his size.
Eagles' commitment comes three days after four-star cornerback Jalen Green pledged to the Longhorns; Eagles is Texas' third verbal in the past 10 days. First-year coach Tom Herman is officially on a recruiting tear with his team capturing four of the top five in-state products. The Horns now have the top class in the Big 12 and fourth overall class in the country. Though 14 commits this time of year is huge, quality matters more than quantity until we get closer to National Signing Day.
Oklahoma has done well on the trail, too, since Lincoln Riley took over as the Sooners' coach in early June. Riley and his staff have landed seven verbal commits to give his team the No. 9 overall class. First-year coaches can have it tough on the recruiting front since they typically have to salvage or otherwise patch together a class within one to two months. Even with the "excitement bump," that first class doesn't always represent what a coach is trying to do. Riley won't have to worry about that. The players he's recruiting now and in December/January are a reflection of him.
The aforementioned hot streaks are impressive, but without context, they're just numbers. Recruiting is an imperfect science -- there's no hard and fast formula -- but teams generally have to annually recruit at a top-10 level (or just outside) to legitimately contend for or win a national title. A quick glance over the last five national champions shows this to be true. Alabama routinely has No. 1 classes, and Florida State and Ohio State aren't far behind. Clemson, last season's champ, was a bit of an outlier with a top 12-ish class average from 2013-16.
Stars don't matter in every light, but they do matter in championship-level recruiting.
Oklahoma and Texas are beginning to recruit at that level again. It's hard to imagine a world in which the Sooners and Longhorns don't recruit at an elite level, but that's been the case for about the past six years. The Sooners have generally hovered around 15th. Certainly not bad by any means; that's been good enough for a College Football Playoff and New Year's Six bowl appearances. Texas has technically recruited better, but as we've seen, some of those classes, with 2012 being the prime example, ended up being decimated by attrition and general underachievement.
So why is all of this important?
The Big 12's chase for the playoff and a national title depends on recruiting -- more so than the so-called "13th data point" that conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby has hammered home when bringing back the Big 12 Championship Game., which is fine, but it's impossible to tell if it will actually help. At the very least, adding a 13th game to a round-robin conference schedule is redundant.
In the three years of the playoff format, the Big 12 has been left out twice: in 2014 and 2016. The first time was the co-champions fiasco with Baylor and TCU. Both teams missed out on the playoff with Ohio State getting the final slot. Would an extra game mattered for the undisputed Big 12 champ? Maybe, but as we've learned, #brands matter in the selection process, too, whether it's admitted publicly or not.
The second time, Oklahoma lost convincingly early in the season to Houston and Ohio State. The Sooners were a hot team by season's end, but the field of four is supposedly set based on an entire body of work, not who's best at year's end. Otherwise, last year's playoff may have included USC or the Sooners.
Dan Wolken of USA Today opined during Big 12 Media Days that as long as the conference lacked an elite team, it would be on the outside looking in for the playoff. Part of building an elite team is putting together elite recruiting classes.
It remains to be seen whether Riley and Herman are elite coaches at this level, but if they have a championship-caliber roster, they don't necessarily need to be. Gene Chizik won a national championship at Auburn in 2010-11 with a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback talent in Cam Newton. (Multiple things about Auburn's title run that year were an anomaly.) Chizik was fired two seasons later.
There's a lot of time between now and the December signing period and signing day. Things can change. Even after that, there are another two or three years before Oklahoma and Texas' classes will fully flesh out. For now, both programs are trending in the right direction. For the Big 12's two bell cow programs, it's a start.
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