The 2011 recruiting season has been full of surprises, none more shocking than the rise of underdog programs who are learning how to succeed on the trail from their more successful opponents.
I consider the following 10 teams surprise faces among the top 25 recruiting classes for 2011 for one reason or another.
Whether fielding a new coach, facing down a poor record or dealing with off-the-field fiascoes, these teams and their coaches are overcoming more than just competitive offers to get the players they're after.
Putting them together in a slideshow is the least I could do.
Maryland's rejuvenated efforts on the recruiting trail have landed them 12 early commitments and a spot on ESPN's top 25.
The Terps were the subject of a must-read article from ESPN's Jamie Newberg, who felt that Maryland's new approach has been twofold: seek out the speediest recruits, and try to be speedy themselves in being the first to offer.
It worked with under-the-radar WR Marcus Leak, WR Nigel King, fullback Tyler Cierski, and cornerback Jeremiah Hendy, a local prospect from Bowie, MD.
They have an outside shot at four-stars Darius Jennings and Blake Countess, and local five-star prospect Cyrus Kouandjio (Hyattsville, MD) has been linked to the program. If he decides to stay close to home, the Terps could be his surprise choice.
USC is no stranger to the top of the recruiting pile. But few could have expected them to keep their entire 2011 recruiting class intact in the wake of crushing sanctions, or to add three commitments since.
Monster OT Marcus Martin and top 2011 K Andre Heidari have joined the seven elite commits already in the fold, plus USC added an early verbal to their 2012 squad in monster OT/DT Arik Armstead, one of the players to watch in the 2012 class.
Only QB Max Wittek appears to be wavering, and with another QB, Cody Kessler, already in the fold, that could be an intentional move on USC's part. The Trojans need all the space they can get in the class should the scholarship reductions remain post-appeal.
I'm sure the USC fanbase will feel a heck of a lot better on the occasion of the next four- and five-star commitment, but they would be wise to remember it could be much, much worse. A lesser program would have buckled under the NCAA pressure, but Orgeron never says die.
I'm not certain Virginia is on any official top 25 lists at the moment.
But with 16 commitments in the bag, including two from four-star athletes that held competitive offers from LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Miami, I'd be glad to put them on mine.
The infrastructure was always there for Virginia to recruit well (and, for the most part, Al Groh did). The campus is gorgeous, the fans are loyal, and the school has had some measure of success in the past, which has contributed to tradition.
Pair that with a fast rising coach with great connections and inexhaustible energy, and you get what you're seeing now. London has put not only Virginia, but Florida, Maryland, DC, North Carolina and Louisiana in play, with at least one commitment from each area.
I see UVa popping up more and more in final five lists, in possible destinations for an official...even as the recipient a surprise visit from five-star OT Cyrus Kouandjio.
The Cavaliers have gotten what they asked for from the London fhiring: recruiting success way beyond, or perhaps in spite of, the result on the field. The word is out, and the rebuilding effort is on.
I'm amazed that, in the midst of everybody and their grandmother getting a B/R account just to dump on Rich Rodriguez, the program has been able to sell some semblance of stability to its 2011 targets.
But there the Wolverines are, sitting just outside the top 15, with a four-star cornerback (Detroit, MI's Delonte Hollowell), a four-star defensive end (Plymouth, MI's Brennan Beyer) and a rising star at QB (Orlando, FL's Kevin Sousa) joining four other solid commits in the fold.
Granted, they've had to remain local, and the losing record and sanctions have made in-the-bag verbals from OT Anthony Zettel and RB Demetrius Hart more than difficult to pin down. But how good do you expect the highest-profile hot seat coach in the country to do? Just another of the many reasons to keep the guy around.
Texas Tech is used to making their run at the Big 12 title with the leftovers from Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M's recruiting efforts.
But Tommy Tuberville is too gallant to eat another man's leftovers. The Tuber has put together a nice little offensive nucleus to build off of in four-star QB Michael Brewer, four-star RBs Bradley Marquez and Kenny Williams, four-star TE Jace Amaro and four-star OL Tony Morales.
That's it the nucleus for a more run-based offense we'll leave to future generations to sort out...and if it's successful, will Texas Tech fans care it's not the Airraid?
Another class heavy on early commits, Washington's spot in the Top 25 rests largely on a big-time commitment from Fresno, CA. Running back Brendon Bigelow, Rivals' No. 26 player overall and it's No. 7 RB, committed to Washington over offers from Tennessee, Cal, Notre Dame and USC.
Bigelow is still just a soft verbal, but even so, I like the direction Steve Sarkisian is taking Washington. It's an overused meme, but Sark is bringing in more athletic players. Kids like LB Matthew Lyons, WR Aubrey Coleman and DE Taniela Tupou will enroll as projects, but could fill out to become beastly.
What Sarkisian started with a monster 31-man 2010 class, he is continuing in 2011, filling in the gaps left behind by attrition, transfer, poor development and other symptoms of Tyrone Willinghamitis.
Time was Michigan State took the in-state recruits that couldn't get a Michigan offer and called it a great class.
While that may still be true academically (suck it, Sparty), MSU has shown how to capitalize on the waning strength of their biggest rival.
The Spartans straight-up beat Michigan for the top linebackers in the state two years running, grabbing five-star DE/OLB William Gholston in last year's class, and five-star MLB Lawrence Thomas in this year's class.
Athlete Onaje Miller held a Michigan offer, but is also in the Spartans' fold, and QB commit Connor Cook is a prospect on the rise. The two programs are doing battle for in-staters RB Justice Hayes, OL Anthony Zettel, OLB Ed Davis and WR DeAnthony Arnett, with Hayes, Arnett, and Davis rumored to be MSU leans.
If Michigan struggles, the Spartans could beat the Wolverines on the trail for the first time since Mark Dantonio was in short pants. The current tiebreaker could come down to that little meeting in the Big House on October 9th.
Even with a new hotshot coach at their direct rival, and sitting in the most difficult recruiting conference in the country while it operates at peak strength, the Kentucky Wildcats have put together a top-25 effort out of local products and players abroad.
The Wildcats best signees joined early. TE Jon Davis is an absurdly talented athlete unlike anything I've seen from Kentucky's offense.
He joins four-star defensive back Glen Faulkner and athletic tackle Darrian Miller—who chose UK over offers from Alabama and Tennessee—as Kentucky's top signees. WR Darien Thomas and DT Clint Tucker are two more great gets, though they fall under the project heading.
In all, Joker Phillips has pulled in 14 commitments so far. If the SEC is to ever have parity again, it will be because of coaches like Phillips who are capable of recruiting against all odds.
Mississippi State has kicked off 2011 strong. The Bulldogs hold big in-state verbals from inside linebacker CJ Johnson, Rivals' sixth-best prospect at the position, and CB Jermaine Whitehead, a 6'0", 183 lb shutdown corner who also held offers from Auburn, Stanford and Notre Dame and has a fade straight out of a Desmond Howard highlight reel.
Whitehead is so good that Ole Miss probably committed a secondary recruiting violation in attempting to lure him away from his verbal. Seems like more bad blood is spilled in that in-state recruiting rivalry than in any other across the country.
Dan Mullen cut his teeth under Urban Meyer, so expect an utterly relentless war for other top Mississippi prospects like safety Darion Arrington, ATH Nickalos Brassell and LB Marcus Mayers.
After a fast rising season that saw a straight-up win against USC, a second-place Pac-10 finish and a starting RB grabbing second in the Heisman voting, I was willing to accept Stanford would have some recruiting mojo on the West Coast.
But Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh is once again channelling Pete Carroll, reaching all the way across the country to grab verbals from four-star linebacker James Vaughters (Tucker, GA); four-star running back Remound Wright (Fort Wayne, IN); three-star OLB Anthony Sarao (Absecon, NJ); three-star WR Devon Cajuste (Flushing, NY); three-star QB Kevin Hogan (Washington DC); three-star OL Kevin Reihner (Scranton, PA) and three-star WR Ty Montgomery (Dallas, TX).
The Cardinal also nabbed four-star DE Charlie Hopkins from up in Spokane, WA.
Add in the local talent Stanford has accrued—guys like under-the-radar quarterback Evan Crower, a top pro-style QB; and four-star RB Amir Carlisle (Sunnyvale, CA)—and Stanford isn't just in the top 25; they're shooting for top 10 or better.
With 19 commitments in the bag and more than a year to go, much could change. But I don't think Harbaugh is selling these kids on Stanford's recent success. I think he's selling them on what they will all do together in the future. Rule number one is that good recruiting always begets good recruiting. I hope Harbaugh is around to enjoy it when it all comes together.