Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The hills are steep and the way is hard

1. The Good Doctor on Alabama's 2009 recruiting class:
If you don't believe in the gurus, Nick Saban says you can suck it, hater, because two straight bumper hauls puts Tuscaloosa in the rarified air occupied the last few years by Southern Cal and Florida as the nation's truly fearsome talent magnets. Bama has reeled in 40 players rated four or five-stars by Rivals over the last two Signing Days. By comparison, the only other schools with more than 30 are USC and Michigan, with 31.
There is a chart ranking schools by Rivals points accumulated the last two Signing Days, and in the chart, Alabama is further ahead of the No. 2 team than the No. 2 team is ahead of the No. 9 team.

It's fair to point out that many of those "points" were awarded for players who went off to play baseball or failed to qualify academically. It's fair to question whether Saban's reputation as a recruiter is bumping up the ratings of a handful of players. It's more than fair to point out recruiting points in February are not the same thing as points on a scoreboard in late November.

However: what's not fair--or, at least, rational or intelligent--is to dismiss what Saban is doing out-of-hand. Whatever you think or don't think of the ratings' ultimate accuracy, very few schools put up classes rated like these back-to-back: USC, Florida, sometimes Texas, those kinds of schools. Since it does no one any good to run from the truth or ignore it or lie about the challenges Gene Chizik and crew face, we can say this: Auburn football now shares a state with a USC, a Florida, a Texas. And our state isn't exactly as big as a California, or a Florida, or a Texas.

2. Let's say you believe the Tide's class was overhyped, that Rivals cooked the books for them. Certainly, there's some evidence for it. Who, then, would we say had the actual best class in America? Here's some good news for you: we'd say LSU. No. 2 to Rivals, No. 3 to Scout, No. 1 to ESPN.

Truthfully, the difference between the two schools is completely irrelevant. Both signed a giant pile of outstanding players. Both, in all likelihood, dramatically improved the talent level of their team, particularly in 2010 and the years to follow. Both have an equal claim to the best recruiting class put together this season. And both, of course, are divisional rivals of Auburn's in the SEC West and represent two of the three biggest games on Auburn's schedule every single season.

3. That third game, of course, is Georgia, Auburn's "fixed" opponent from the SEC East. The Bulldogs signed what was by universal consensus--Rivals, Scout, ESPN, all three--the best signing class in the SEC East. The departures of Stafford and Moreno notwithstanding, there will be no long-term talent drain in Athens, not that any of us expected there to be.

4. Whatever you think about the ethics (or hilarity) of Ole Miss signing 37 different players--one of which, we feel obligated to mention, once stole and used the credit card of his friend's dead girlfriend--it changes nothing about the fact that the 25 players that do eventually squeeze through the Rebels' door are going to be good. Two of them were heavy Tide recruits. One of them, a quarterback, was by many accounts the best player in Auburn's first wave of commitments. The credit card thief was a former Florida Gator. There is no difference between this class and the classes signed by Ed Orgeron that paved the way for this year's season.

5. Arkansas: second verse, same as the first. 30 commits, No. 15 to Rivals, No. 20 to Scout. And unlike Ole Miss's recruits, who will be coached by the savvy-if-inconsistent Houston Nutt, the Hogs' recruits will be coached by Bobby Petrino.

6. Because I can't help but look these things up, I looked it up: this year's Mississippi St. class was the first since 2003 that Rivals ranked in its top-25. Its recruits turned down offers by places like Oklahoma, Michigan, Alabama, and, yes, Auburn. With State's inclusion, all six SEC West schools placed in both Rivals' and Scout's top 25.

7. Just to cover all our bases: Florida is still Florida; South Carolina also finished in both services' top-15; Tennessee improved on Fulmer's last couple of classes and simply will recruit well with the staff the Vols have put together; Kentucky allegedly had their best haul in years; and Vanderbilt is still coached by Bobby Johnson and still has a bajillion seniors returning after last year's bowl run.

SO ...

This is all bad news, bad news that could be summarized thusly: as long as the SEC's current coaches remain at their current positions, Auburn should no longer expect to have a significant talent advantage against any SEC teams save Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Auburn should be able to recruit much, much better in 2010, but which of their league rivals (aside from the Tide and Bayou Bengals) isn't saying the same? There were times in the Tuberville era when Auburn could count on beating Mississippi St. or Ole Miss or Carolina by virtue of simply having better players, times when the talent on either side of the Iron Bowl or Deep South's Oldest Rivalry or Tiger Bowl was just about equal. Those times, I believe, are past us. Auburn will have to be better than the Rebels and Hogs and Bulldogs (maroon version) because our coaching and effort and dedication is better, because the physical talent will be about the same; Auburn will have to beat LSU and Alabama because our coaching and effort and dedication is much better, because the advantage in physical talent will belong to them.

But there's good news, too. You did know I was going to get to the good news eventually, right?

For starters, even after two years spent signing one atrocious class* by Auburn standards and a second that, for all our optimism, still only rose to the level of "okey-dokey" by those same standards, Auburn will not run a meaningful talent deficit against anyone other than LSU and 'Bama, Florida and Georgia. And even that last one's kind of debatable--if we accept Doc Saturday's provision that any difference within 400 Rivals "points" as so small as to be meaningless, LSU and the Tide were the only teams that really recruited any better than Auburn did this year. Yeah, so Auburn won't be able to line up and just shove the Mississippi schools around anymore; it's not like they're going to be able to do the same thing to us.

Second, and much more importantly: if and when it comes down to coaching, I firmly believe we now have that coaching. I believe in Gus Malzahn's ability to make his offense work. I believe in Gene Chizik and Ted Roof's ability to maintain Tuberville's standards on defense. I believe in Trooper Taylor's ability to turn our receiving corps into something other than a group of glorified blocking dummies, I believe in Curtis Luper's ability to carry on Eddie Gran's fine work in the backfield, I believe in Tracy Rocker's ability to keep Auburn the home of Sen'Derrick Markses and Quentin Groveses and DeMarco McNeils and, well, Tracy Rockers. Because I believe in these gentlemen's ability, I have faith that Jeff Grimes and the other coaches Gene Chizik will hire will have the same level of ability.

So, yes, Auburn football faces a tremendous challenge in the coming years. There are no Mike Shermans head coaching in this league anymore, no Greg Robinsons, no Ty Willinghams, not even any Ed Oregerons or Sylvester Crooms or Mike Shulas. But that doesn't mean Auburn football can't face this challenge head on. It doesn't mean we should expect--or demand--less than success. It doesn't mean we shouldn't believe.

However steep the hill--and after last week, it's steep indeed--it doesn't mean Auburn can't climb it.


Marcus said...

Very good post. I can only add two things:
On the "glass is half empty" side, how do we know that Chiz isn't the new Croom/Shula/Orgeron of the SEC? I sure hope not, but it is a possibility.
On the "glass is half full" side, AU has done well in recruiting lately, but not as good as UF or LSU. Yet we held our own against LSU and beat a loaded UF team twice while they were coached by the current best coach in America (so you can't argue we beat a talented team because they weren't coached well). If Chiz can maintain what Tubs had going (before the Franklin debacle) we'll be okay, and if he can improve on it, then I'll be spending the first week of December in Atlanta.
War Eagle!
Keep up the good work.

jrsuicide said...

when i think about Ole Miss and Miss State being good it makes my head hurt. i still think the Bulldogs will be doormats until Mullen finds a QB to run his offense. but maybe that's just wishful thinking. as far as Auburn vs. the Big Three, the Tigers just need to start pretending they are Florida. if there's a team with TOP BLUE CHIP talent that we seem to be able to beat it's the Gators.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Marcus. I won't concede sh*t to Bama, UF or LSU. Our record shows we can win consistently in the SEC with Top 15 recruiting classes. LSU has been recruiting well for almost a decade now and we've certainly held our own against them. Florida can't seem to beat us despite their "loaded" recruiting classes. We've won forever with guys like Sen'Derrick Marks and Ronnie Brown. I'm not concerned about all the recruiting nonsense. Lets see how each of these classes plays out in a few years...

Hobbes said...

You've depressed me, Jerry.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Marcus, I considered the Croom/Shula/O comparison, too, but Chizik's staff appears to be light-years ahead of anything those guys brought to the table ... save maybe Ellis Johnson at State. I think it's really unlikely given how well Chizik has led to this point we'll end up lumping him in with those guys. But we'll see, I guess.

Anon, I'm not conceding anything. As I said: I think this staff can do what needs to be done to win these kinds of games. It's just not going to be be easy at all--we're going to have to bottle some of that old Tubby magic to do it. I just think we need to be clear about what we're up against.

And while it's true that Auburn's held its own against LSU for the most part this decade, they've also lost three of four to those guys; lost three in a row to Georgia; and are coming off of a horse-whipping at the hands of those bastards from T-town. The upsets of Florida notwithstanding, Auburn's got work to do to catch up to the SEC's top tier. Again, that 5-7 mark wasn't a fluke--we were every bit as bad as that record suggests.