The landscape of college football had some different looks in 2021. Georgia dethroned Alabama for the top spot in the sport in a season where Nick Saban was defeated twice by former assistants (Jimbo Fisher and Kirby Smart) after never suffering a loss against his former protégés. Cincinnati cracked its way into the College Football Playoff. Ohio State and Clemson did not win a conference championship, and Texas and Oklahoma announced an eventual move to the SEC.
All of these developments can be traced to success on the recruiting trail, both in the past and moving forward because recruiting is a year-round activity as coaches look to build the best possible roster to compete at a high level.
The early signing period has led to most schools organizing the majority of their recruiting class before Christmas, but the finishing touches in every class are put together on the traditional first Wednesday of February. And with another signing extravaganza essentially in the books, it’s time to determine which schools had the best recruiting cycles and which schools are hoping for better returns next year.
Note: Class rankings referenced are according to the 247Sports Composite.
Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies were on a hard grind in this cycle and it paid off. Texas A&M put together the highest-rated recruiting class in the history of 247Sports' rankings. The historic haul includes seven 5-stars (and 19 4-stars in the 29-man class). Eleven players, including wide receiver Evan Stewart, are already enrolled and getting a jump on being a part of the program. But now that Jimbo Fisher has the talent on his roster, the next challenge for the Aggies is breaking their way into the SEC Championship Game.
The Aggies may have landed the nation's top class, but Steve Sarkisian didn’t do too bad for himself in Austin. The Longhorns pulled in the nation's No. 5 recruiting class, thanks in part to landing 5-star offensive lineman Devon Campbell on Wednesday, with the Arlington, Texas, product choosing Texas over Oklahoma, Texas A&M and a handful of other SEC schools. The Horns have the top class in the Big 12, but three SEC programs (Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia) ranked higher for those looking to the future of Texas football in its future conference home.
Dabo Swinney didn’t land the ACC's top recruiting class (North Carolina was one spot higher), but Clemson did manage to pull in a very talented group despite changes at both coordinator positions this offseason. The class already included 5-star quarterback Cade Klubnik out of Texas, added 4-star linebacker TJ Dudley out of Alabama, and beat out Florida for defensive lineman Caden Story on Wednesday. The Tigers may have slipped a little bit in 2021, but Swinney and the coaching staff did their part to ensure they will be on the prowl for years to come.
James Franklin turned in one of his finest performances on the recruiting trail. Penn State added plenty of quality depth across the roster, including Gatorade National High School Player of the Year and high school Maxwell Award-winning running back Nicholas Singleton as a prized in-state recruit. The Nittany Lions also signed a quarterback to, eventually, succeed Sean Clifford in Drew Allar out of Ohio. And Dani Dennis-Sutton figures to continue a strong legacy of defensive linemen in Happy Valley.
It’s rarely easy performing really well on the recruiting trail when you switch jobs, but new Hurricanes head coach Mario Cristobal seemed to do alright in his first recruiting effort in Miami. One of the big victories on National Signing Day was landing 4-star running back TreVonte' Citizen out of Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is a two-hour drive from LSU's campus in Baton Rouge. Additionally, simply finishing higher in the recruiting rankings than Florida and Florida State is always a reason to smile for the Canes.
For the second straight year, Deion Sanders has landed an honorable mention for Jackson State, and for good reason. Securing the commitment of the nation’s top-ranked player is no small feat. Cornerback Travis Hunter, the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2022 class per 247Sports, choosing Jackson State over Florida State was monumental for Coach Prime. Adding a 4-star wide receiver in Kevin Coleman was even better. Throw in 13 transfers from FBS programs and Jackson State will be must-see TV next fall at the FCS level.
It’s hard to recover from losing the nation’s top-ranked recruit from your list of commitments to an FCS school, even under this unique set of circumstances. But Mike Norvell still has some catching up to do after lagging behind North Carolina, Clemson, and Miami in the ACC recruiting rankings, and the Florida Gators are one spot ahead of the Seminoles as well. Of course, a top-20 recruiting class is far from horrible. It’s just a slightly tougher sell given the current situation in Tallahassee.
It’s a good thing Auburn has a basketball program captivating the fan base, because Bryan Harsin hasn’t exactly been having the greatest time lately. Auburn pulled in the No. 18 recruiting class, but that is good for just eighth within the SEC in a year where Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia took the top three spots, LSU has injected some confidence with Brian Kelly as head coach, and Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee all signed higher-ranked classes. (And don’t look now, but Oklahoma and Texas each had significantly higher-ranked classes).
Chip Kelly hasn’t exactly shown he has what it takes to transform the Bruins into a version of his old Oregon Ducks squads. UCLA has the No. 57 class in the nation with just 11 players committing to the program. And it’s not about to get any easier recruiting players to come to UCLA with the recent developments at USC.
Speaking of the Trojans, new head coach Lincoln Riley didn’t have much time to string together much of a recruiting class. The Trojans landed the No. 65 recruiting class with just eight commits. But that doesn’t include the transfer portal additions, including former Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams, who should help Riley get the Trojans back on track as a Pac-12 power.
Lane Kiffin is the self-proclaimed transfer portal king (although Lincoln Riley may challenge that title), which makes the recruiting cycle for Ole Miss an intriguing one. Kiffin has taken advantage of the transfer portal with good success in recent years, including his stint at FAU before his return to the SEC.
Big Ten championship and a trip to the College Football Playoff? Who’s got it better than Michigan? Well, according to the recruiting rankings, Ohio State and Penn State do. And there also was Jim Harbaugh exploring a return to the NFL. The Wolverines still pulled in a terrific class, ranked ninth in the nation, and Harbaugh appears to be staying put after interviewing with the Minnesota Vikings on Wednesday. So Michigan should remain a Big Ten contender in the years to come. But Ohio State is still Ohio State and if Penn State’s talent lives up to the hype, the Wolverines could easily take a step back in the Big Ten pecking order after a tremendous 2021 season.
Podcast: Roster Rankings, Recapping NSD, Overachievers/Underachievers in Recruiting and Jim Harbaugh's Return to Michigan