And as players become more cross-regional, the sport seems more regional.
“Is it good for the sport? I don’t know,” said John Robinson, the 85-year-old coach who won a national title from out west at Southern California in 1978, who helps out LSU these days, and who lately withstood an inadvertent sideline hit from Alabama running back Najee Harris. “I grew up [in Chicago and Utah] and when I moved to the [West] Coast I was an adult. I was an Army fan. I can remember going to the movies and watching [Heisman Trophy winners] Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard. … I mean, now is the other end of the world from when I was a kid.”
Now he’s seeing stories such as Harris’s (even up close). For school, Harris went from Northern California clear to Tuscaloosa, something of a fashion if not (yet) a gusher.
Said Adam Gorney, a California-based national recruiting analyst for Rivals, “Fifteen years ago, that kid is at USC, no doubt about it.”
Said Robinson, referring to Californians going so far adrift: “That surprises me. I don’t know that I’m concerned, but it does surprise me, although it used to happen a little bit but not very much. There wasn’t the kind of communication. Information about Clemson: Hell, I didn’t know where Clemson was. Now if a kid gets a call or a letter from Clemson, you’re, ‘Wow.’”
Robinson, like others who love and analyze the sport, notes two of its eternal capacities: a tendency toward a handful of kingdoms and a cyclic nature.
“I think everything’s cyclical,” said Mike Farrell of Rivals, from his crucial vantage point as primo observer of national recruiting. “When you looked at Nebraska in the ’90s, you thought, ‘Who’s going to beat these guys?’”
He sees the cycles and the clouds. He had just wrapped up another national signing day apt to enrich the rich when he said Thursday morning, “There’s been a lack of parity since the playoff has been introduced, and that’s not because of the playoff, but it contributes to it.” Teams appear in the loud and shiny playoff, then players gravitate to those teams. “It will bounce back,” he said. “Everything is cyclical. Programs will rise. Georgia has the opportunity to. Florida has the opportunity to. Texas A&M under Jimbo [Fisher]. North Carolina under Mack [Brown].”
Yet anyone who so much as tilts an eye toward recruiting can spot an underlying curiosity that can spur an overarching worry: With a thousand miles not as long as they used to be and with these national brands burning brightly, the gap looks gaping.
Farrell: “I’ve noticed a talent discrepancy roster-wise between Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State and last year LSU, which, compared to the rest of the conferences and the rest of the country, is just wider and wider. The difference between Ohio State and Michigan is ridiculous. Clemson and the ACC, ridiculous.”
“Jarring, yeah,” he said. “People look at the recruiting classes, and they see, ‘Oh, Ohio State’s number two, and Michigan’s number 12. That’s not a big difference.’ You go down the roster and go down the roster at each position, and it’s glaring. Ohio State’s class is half-a-star higher than Michigan’s, and that doesn’t sound like a lot. But every position, almost, there’s a glaring difference, and that half-a-star average can mean the difference between the playoff and a three-loss season.”
Watch a game between, say, Clemson and Florida State (in years when they have one), and, Gorney said, “It’s just blatantly clear who the better team is. Kids want to be part of that.”
Moreover, the wide-eyed 18-year-old human of today has sat upon airplanes probably since he was young enough to annoy the hell out of the person adjacent. He thinks nothing of taking a five-hour flight (or more) to school. Tua Tagovailoa went from Honolulu to Tuscaloosa. D.J. Uiagalelei went from California to Clemson. Now factor in how social media has made distances less distant anyway, and take the recent case of Emeka Egbuka.
Gorney brought up Egbuka, a five-star phenom ranked 11th among all players and first among wide receivers. He hails from Steilacoom, Wash., on the Puget Sound, yet had narrowed his near future to Ohio State and Oklahoma.
“That’s not because he loves Columbus and Norman. It’s because they throw the ball,” Gorney said, and the people who catch it for those teams often wind up catching it on Sundays. Egbuka chose Ohio State, and consider this, too: He had been “in a group text for months with Ohio State commits,” Gorney said. By now, “he knows his [college] quarterback much better than he would have 10 or 15 years ago.”
As they have flown around, met at camps, forged friendships, there’s this other change, Gorney said. Unlike 10 years ago, they’re perfectly willing to go to a place already rich in their particular position because they have noticed this doesn’t seem to hinder anyone on NFL draft boards. Notice that Uiagalelei went to Clemson even with Trevor Lawrence cemented (and bronzed) in the starting quarterback job.
The Alabama of recent years has boasted so many frightening wide receivers that it can seem the entire NFL receiving corps went to Alabama even though technically it didn’t. In mentioning two South Floridians, Jerry Jeudy of the Denver Broncos and Calvin Ridley of the Atlanta Falcons, Gorney said, “It would be easier for Florida State and Miami to argue that those kids should stay home if Alabama was failing them, but they’re not.”
“I’m pretty confident,” he said, “that over the next 10 or 15 years, it would be surprising to me if Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida State or Miami, those schools that kind of dominated the national landscape, become the powers of college football [again].”
For the sport to muster the coast-to-coast variety that lends it vividness, it could use help from its left coast. Oregon still boasts “pizazz” — Farrell’s word — and stands fifth in Rivals’ team rankings, but any eastbound departure to another program with steeper riches by its coach, Mario Cristobal, who reached an agreement on a contract extension Thursday, could prove pizazz-paring. Farrell finds Clay Helton actually an excellent fit for USC and thinks it would help if the “hire Urban Meyer” chatter would ebb, and eyeballs Jan. 2, when dynamic defensive end Korey Foreman of Corona, Calif., makes his announcement after de-committing in April from Clemson. Foreman to USC would bring USC to more energy.
For now, circa 2020, there’s the view of Mark Richt, the ACC Network analyst who coached Georgia and Miami in the current era. “I’ll say this,” he said. “I’m super-excited to watch Clemson and Notre Dame play this weekend,” plus excited to watch either play, say, Alabama. “I’m sure some people get tired of Alabama, get tired of Clemson after a little while. It would be nice to spread it around a little bit, but it doesn’t diminish the excitement for me.”