The teams that do the most with the least in the SEC
To steal a phrase from Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal, the Jims and Joes of college football matter just as much as the X’s and O’s. Even with the best coaching, it’s tough to win big without top-notch talent. There’s a reason the elite programs in college football mostly remain elite, and don’t stay down long when they have an off couple of years.
There are teams that buck that, however. With excellent coaching and player development, even the most mediocre recruiting classes can be turned into All-SEC performers contending at the top of the conference.
SEC East: Missouri
Average class rank, national (2010-2014): 38.4
Average class rank, SEC (2012-2014): 13.3
Average star rating: 3.1
Total five-stars (2010-2014): 1
Average wins (2010-2014): 9.2
Even before transitioning to the SEC in 2012, Gary Pinkel and the Tigers weren’t exactly killing it on the recruiting circuit. In its last two years in the Big 12, Mizzou’s recruiting classes ranked 22nd and then 57th nationally. That was reflected in the Tigers’ first year in the SEC, a 5-7 campaign.
Over the last two years, Missouri has shaken off subpar recruiting classes — the Tigers finished dead last in the SEC on the recruiting circuit in 2013, and only moved up to 11th in 2014 — to win consecutive division titles. It started with developing a host of three-stars from the 2010 class; Justin Vincent, Jimmie Hunt, Bud Sasser, Matt Hoch and Marcus Murphy all grew into impact players.
Even that 2011 class, before Mizzou’s last season in the Big 12, produced two key contributors to the Tigers’ run of Eastern dominance: 2014 SEC defensive player of the year Shane Ray and linebacker Kentrell Brothers, as well as NFL first round pick Sheldon Richardson.
Missouri’s staff has done a good job of molding many other less-heralded players. Markus Golden came from junior college in 2012 as an inside linebacker, moved to defensive end and was a wrecking ball across from Ray.
Much of the credit goes to Pinkel’s defensive lieutenants, recently departed defensive coordinator Dave Steckel and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. They’ve brought along two consecutive SEC DPOYs (Ray and 2009 three-star recruit Michael Sam) and created a defense that’s kept Missouri afloat despite mediocre offense.
SEC West: Mississippi State
Average class rank, national (2010-2014): 29.8
Average class rank, SEC (2010-2014): 10.6
Average star rating: 3.0
Total five-stars (2010-2014): 1
Average wins (2010-2014): 8.2
While Dan Mullen hasn’t reached quite the same heights with Mississippi State as Missouri has in the last few years in the SEC, what the Bulldogs accomplished in 2014 is still a testament to how well Mullen and his staff have done with the deck stacked against them. Mississippi State has yet to rank in the top half of the SEC in recruiting in any year of Mullen’s tenure, and despite a class currently ranked in the top 20 nationally it doesn’t appear that will change in 2015.
Despite that, the Bulldogs won 10 games in the SEC in 2014, led by a three-star recruit at quarterback that every other program wanted to move to another position. Their best defensive player was a two-star defensive end recruit in 2011. The leader of one of the top offensive lines in the country was a former walk-on player.
Dak Prescott, Preston Smith and Ben Beckwith are just three examples of the stellar work Mullen has done with his recruiting classes. The Bulldogs have taken advantage of the top-flight recruits they have gotten; Chris Jones, the only five-star of the Mullen era, looks to be a star in the making at defensive end, while four-stars like Beniquez Brown, Kaleb Eulls and Matthew Wells all panned out.
There’s also De’Runnya Wilson, the former high school Mr. Basketball-turned-receiving threat, and Jameon Lewis, the 176th-ranked wide receiver in 2010 who turned into one of the most dynamic threats in the SEC.
Mississippi State has parlayed its recent success — five straight winning seasons and bowl appearances — into it’s best recruiting ranking of Mullen’s tenure in the last week before National Signing Day. With an increased level of talent on hand and Mullen’s ability to get the most out of that talent, it’s easy to imagine State continuing to trend in the right direction.