The Southeastern Conference has reason to celebrate following national signing day.
For the third consecutive season, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide pulled in the nation's top recruiting class, according to 247Sports. The same rankings indicate seven SEC teams garnered Top 10 signing classes; three more cracked the Top 25. Every institution in the conference finished in the Top 50 nationally.
|2014 SEC Recruiting Classes|
|School||National Ranking||5-Star Recruits||4-Star Recruits||3-Star Recruits|
Such a remarkable recruiting presence proves that although the SEC's reign of national championships has ended, the conference remains on top of college football. Case in point: The Southeastern Conference wasn't merely competitive with other leagues on signing day in 2014; it was comparable to the rest of the country.
The SEC has continued to perform well on the field, and the league is enjoying the recruiting fruits of its labor. Unfortunately, this dramatic influx of talent could end the conference's run of dominance.
An Established Trend
The relationship between recruiting and winning presents a "chicken or egg" scenario. Successful programs undoubtedly hold inherent advantages in luring elite prospects. Yet, recruiting talented athletes can't be done without winning, and many programs rebuild by attracting highly talented players.
In the SEC, the relationship is not causal in either direction. To the contrary, winning and recruiting are synonymous in the SEC. So while a case could be made that Alabama signs the nation's top class consistently because Saban runs the best program, that justification offers no explanation as to why Kentucky, a program that has not won an SEC game since 2011, is capable of pulling in a Top 25 recruiting class.
The only definitive trend in the SEC within the realm of recruiting is a vast improvement coinciding directly with the conference's recent run of success. The graph below demonstrates the conference's average recruiting class ranking since 2007 (the first class following the SEC's first of seven consecutive BCS National Championships). For ease of comparison, all 14 current member institutions were included in each year (even though Texas A&M and Missouri did not join the league until 2012).
Interestingly, the seemingly unified improvement of the conference as a whole is actually the reflection of two distinct movements.
First—and perhaps most obviously—the SEC is producing an inordinate amount of cream at the top of recruiting class rankings. The visual below offers a look at the league's yearly Top 10 and Top 25 recruiting classes since 2007.
The rich aren't simply getting richer in the Southeastern Conference, they are increasing in number.
Secondly, the bottom of the conference is demonstrating a tremendous rise in recruiting rankings as a byproduct of the league's stellar reputation. Proof of this bottom-sided strength is found in the average yearly class ranking of the conference's three worst recruiting teams.
Even these simultaneous phenomena, however, do not fully show what is happening in the SEC. Simply examining recruiting classes on an annual basis is an imprecise approach to evaluating talent. After all, college football teams are not comprised entirely of freshmen.
By analyzing a four-year period of recruiting class rankings, a better grasp of the conference's talent is obtained. While some talent departs after three years for the professional ranks or transfers out early, other players may redshirt and hang around for five years. A four-year trailing average of recruiting classes offers a well-rounded (if still estimated) synopsis of a give team's potential.
With that in mind, the SEC's reign atop the recruiting rankings is all the more impressive.
|SEC Four-Year Trailing Recruiting Class Average|
|Fourth Year of Trailing Period||Trailing Class Average|
Upon first glance, these improvements may seem negligible, but every movement in the data above reflects four years' worth of advancement across all 14 SEC teams. Accordingly, the data above supports the notion of an increase in parity within the Southeastern Conference.
The Value of Parity
The value of this parity is most enjoyed by fans and television viewers. This coexisting increase in talent and dispersion of athletes creates wildly entertaining scenarios, and last season was no exception.
Most obviously, Auburn rebounded to a national championship bid thanks in no small part to the Tigers' continued recruiting success. According to 247Sports, Auburn hasn't fallen out of the Top 15 in recruiting class rankings since 2009. Despite going winless in conference play in 2012, Auburn had enough stockpiled talent in 2013 to upset top-ranked Alabama and march to an SEC Championship.
The recruiting-induced parity also extends to SEC teams in the middle of the pack. Vanderbilt surprised perennial SEC contenders Georgia and Florida with two upset victories last year. While the Bulldogs and Gators were depleted by injuries, the fact remains that Vanderbilt outplayed both teams. Ten years ago, the Commodores' starting lineup could not have defeated a team of reserves from Georgia or Florida. An increase in talent at Vanderbilt cost both the Dawgs and the Gators a win.
Recently, even bottom feeders—like a down Tennessee program—have found success thanks to a slew of talent. The Volunteers are enjoying their fourth head coach since 2008. Despite that turmoil, each of the Vols' last six recruiting classes ranked in the Top 25, per 247Sports. Four of them ranked in the Top 10.
In 2013, a surprisingly talented Tennessee team kept South Carolina out of the conference title game with a 23-21 victory over the Gamecocks. South Carolina finished the season ranked fourth in both the AP Poll and the USA Today Sports Coaches Poll, but the loss to the 5-7 Vols kept coach Steve Spurrier short of a trip to Atlanta.
Gap Between Talent and Success
Unfortunately, this degree of parity is removing all margin for error in the SEC, and in a conference defined by talent and depth, perfection is unrealistic.
Accordingly, the most talented teams in the SEC are rarely winning the conference championship. In fact, when using the four-year trailing class average (described above) as the standard, the league's most talented team has claimed only one of the past five conference championships.
|SEC Champion Relative to SEC's Most Talented Team|
|Year||Conference Champion||Champion Four-Year Trailing Class Ranking||Most Talented Team||Most Talented Team's Four-Year Trailing Class Ranking|
Interestingly enough, despite having the conference's most talented team in each of the past three years, Alabama has managed just one SEC Championship. It would be foolish to equate this to a consistent shortcoming on the part of Nick Saban, who is arguably the best coach in the country. More logically, this is a testament to the overall strength of the conference.
But that very strength may prove to be the league's Achilles' heel.
For the past several years, the SEC has benefited from the reputation that accompanies national championships. Every team in the league gained from the success of Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn.
Ultimately, this rise of competitors hinders the potential of the league's best teams. If that trend continues, the title of "Nation's Best Football Conference" and the positive externalities tied thereto will soon evaporate.
If such a decline does in fact occur, the SEC—both in terms of recruiting and on-field performance—will revert back to the national mean. Such a thought may cut signing day celebrations a little short.
The Southeastern Conference gave another impressive display on the recruiting trail in 2014. Ironically, the SEC's unprecedented classes may trigger the conference's own implosion.
Unless otherwise noted all recruiting stats, rankings and ratings courtesy of 247Sports.com.