How the 2019 recruiting cycle made the SEC East a lot more interesting
Relax, Georgia fans.
By no means am I suggesting that the Dawgs are in major jeopardy of losing the division in 2019. You might have looked at that headline and assumed I forgot about the fact that Georgia didn’t lose an SEC East matchup the past 2 years. It went 12-0 with all 12 wins by double digits. And no, I didn’t forget that for the third consecutive year, Georgia signed a Top 3 class with at least 3 recruits rated as 5-stars.
But did the SEC East get a whole lot more interesting with this latest recruiting cycle? Absolutely.
There are a few reasons that happened:
The Kaiir Elam drama
If you don’t think the Florida-Georgia rivalry is back, perhaps you missed what happened with Elam. The 4-star cornerback was at the center of a tug-of-war between the 2 East rivals late in the recruiting process. Georgia stole Florida cornerbacks coach Charlton Warren right in the middle of Elam’s official visit tour, which sparked speculation that Kirby Smart was going to go into the Sunshine State and steal someone who was expected to commit to the Gators.
That speculation ended in trolling fashion via Elam:
Great crootin day for the Gators. After flipping Khris Bogle from Bama this morning, Florida adds top 50 commit Kaiir Elam (who intentionally or unintentionally hits UGA with a subtle pump fake) #NSD19 pic.twitter.com/EJiWjB7Gb3
— Marc Whiteman (@MarcWhiteman) February 6, 2019
Meet Florida fans’ new favorite player. Meet Georgia fans’ new public enemy No. 1.
If you recall, that’s the second consecutive year in which Florida trolled Georgia on National Signing Day. Dan Mullen had the “every blind squirrel finds a nut” comment last year that got Georgia fans riled up.
Let’s make this an annual thing. That is, whichever side loses in Jacksonville has to attempt to troll the other on National Signing Day. That’s the interesting thing is that despite the fact that Georgia has had a Top 2 class each of the past 2 signing days, it’s Florida that’s been a bit more outspoken.
I’m here for it.
How about Florida recruiting like Florida should
Are the Gators closing the gap on Georgia? I’d argue that winning battles for players like Elam are certainly a positive step in that regard, but there’s still a massive disparity in 5-star athletes.
Mullen signed Florida’s first Top 10 class in 5 years. In a year in which Miami and Florida State were both in shambles, that was key for Mullen. It’s easy to forget that while Mullen has a decade of experience recruiting in the SEC, only 1 recruit from the state of Florida who was rated 4 stars or better ever played for him at Mississippi State.
I say that because I was critical of the lack of in-state talent Mullen had heading into the Early Signing Period. But including Elam, Mullen still landed 9 4-star recruits from Florida. The fact that Mullen did that well in his first full cycle while also landing 4-star recruits from 5 other states is a good sign.
Is there room for improvement? Absolutely. The next step is for Florida to start winning these 5-star battles. Keeping someone like Nicholas Petit-Frere in-state or getting a 5-star Port St. Joe/IMG recruit like Trey Sanders is what will make Florida fans really feel like national titles are on the horizon.
But Tennessee was the biggest East mover
So think about this. In roughly a half-hour stretch, Jeremy Pruitt got commitments from 4-star California linebacker Henry To’oto’o, who was long considered an Alabama lean, and then he went to the East Coast and got 5-star offensive tackle Darnell Wright. Don’t underestimate how impressive that is.
Tennessee TE's coach Brian Niedermeyer currently listed as the nation's #1 recruiter for the 2019 recruiting cycle by 247Sports following the commitments of Darnell Wright and Henry To'oto'o
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) February 6, 2019
Pruitt knows better than anyone that Tennessee needed to be built from the inside out. Before the Vols were going to get back to East relevancy, they needed to load up on, as he would put it, “the big boys.” Pruitt got not 1, but 2 new 5-star offensive linemen to come and rebuild the Vols. Few teams nationally addressed their needs better than Tennessee.
The skeptics would point to the 2015 class, which finished ranked No. 4. Loaded with talent, it was, though obviously the coaching staff didn’t do the best job of maximizing it.
The jury is still out on whether Pruitt can lead Tennessee into the Florida and Georgia class of the division, but clearly, he’s going to be able to continue to recruit. Pruitt has done that everywhere he’s been.
The Vols still have a ways to go to get their roster depth needed to compete consistently. Still, signing 12 recruits rated 4-stars or better is a pretty good start.
And don’t sleep on South Carolina’s incoming studs
I know Gamecocks fans are excited, but nationally, I’m not sure how much attention the arrival of Zacch Pickens and Ryan Hilinski got. It sort of felt like because both committed so early and didn’t take official visits in the fall that they didn’t get a lot of buzz.
But Pickens is already getting Jadeveon Clowney comparisons — Pickens is South Carolina’s first 5-star recruit since Clowney — and Hilinski has the makings of an elite SEC quarterback. Those don’t kind of recruits come around every day for South Carolina.
Those are two things that the Gamecocks would have loved to have for that 2018 SEC opener against Georgia. The talent disparity was evident. The only way South Carolina could move the ball was dinking and dunking down the field. It didn’t matter that they had talent at the receiver position because they couldn’t get open. The ground game was non-existent, as was the Gamecocks’ ability to make a game-changing play on defense.
For now, everything that happens in the East has to be compared to Georgia. Could Pickens and Hilinski develop into guys who can make plays against anyone? Absolutely. The second and third top-100 recruits of the Will Muschamp era will have all eyes on them the next few years.
How many other divisions had 4 Top 20 classes?
One. The SEC West.
In fact, just so you can see how notable that is, here’s the Power 5 breakdown of top-20 class by division:
- SEC West: 4
- SEC East: 4
- Big Ten East: 3
- ACC Atlantic: 2
- Big 12: 2
- Pac-12 North: 2
- Pac-12 South: 1
- Big Ten West: 1
- ACC Coastal: 0
Let’s be honest. The East takes the heat it does because it’s had such a tough go in the SEC Championship since Nick Saban arrived at Alabama. But the division yielded 3 teams that won double-digit games in 2018, and now it produced 4 Top 20 classes. Not even the West can claim both of those feats. By the way, the East was actually 9-5 against the West in 2019 and nearly won a second consecutive SEC title.
I’m also just sayin’ that the East is more interesting than people are probably giving it credit for. At least it is after the 2019 recruiting cycle came to a close.