Every Pac-12 champion since 2011 has signed multiple top-30 classes. Does that make USC the team to beat in 2017?
There's no way around it: Winning takes talent. In college football, talent is cultivated on the recruiting trail.
Plenty of factors beyond recruiting class rankings determine the success of a program. Developing athletes once they arrive on campus, both on the field and in the weight room, is as important
For example, Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre is yet to put together a top-25 recruiting class, and has consistently had some of the Pac-12's lowest-rated classes. However, this did not prevent the Buffaloes from winning the South division in 2016 or being ranked in the polls throughout much of the breakthrough campaign.
Still, recruiting class rankings function as a trustworthy predictor for success. Each of the last three Pac-12 title-winning teams landed multiple top-30 classes in recent years. Prohibitive 2017 Pac-12 favorite and reigning Rose Bowl champion USC has flourished on the recruiting trail, hence the hype for the Trojans' upcoming campaign.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for Pac-12 schools over the last five classes according to 247Sports Team Composite rankings and each team's record over the last five seasons. Obviously, this doesn't take into account attrition but, over time, this should be considered relatively even across the conference.
Ranking the Pac-12's College Football's Rosters in 2017:
USC Maintains Talent Advantage
USC has lost nothing on the recruiting trail, despite repeated coaching changes over the last eight years. Clay Helton has continued the recruiting dominance established under Pete Carroll and maintained through the short-lived Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian eras — and with a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance in 2015 and Rose Bowl win to cap '16, Helton's produced at a higher level with the program's cachet of talent.
Can UCLA Turn Talent into Wins?
The Los Angeles rivalry between USC and UCLA does not stop on the field. UCLA has routinely been the primary challenger to USC's recruiting dominance, taking advantage of the same Southern California pipelines that flow into Heritage Hall. However, UCLA lacks results commensurate with the victories on National Signing Day. Rick Neuheisel struggled despite stellar signing classes, and Jim Mora has yet to return to the Pac-12 Championship Game since his debut campaign in 2012.
Stanford's National Base
Stanford owes its sustained success under head coach David Shaw to his uncanny ability to recruit nationally. Such is the inherent challenge of coaching at Stanford, a university that rivals the Ivy Leagues in the classroom, but that seeks to compete with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world on Saturdays. The 2017 Stanford recruiting class features signees from seven states, covering all corners of the continent: Washington in the Pacific Northwest; Utah in the Rocky Mountains; Texas; Georgia in the South; New Jersey in the Northeast; and California, for some local flavor.
No conference has seen programs exceed recruiting expectations quite as well as the Pac-12 in recent years. Last season's championship game illustrates that, with Washington beating Colorado in a matchup of underrated rosters. Arizona reached the league title tilt in 2014 with a roster of middling recruiting ratings. Washington State won nine games each of the last two seasons, and has yet to rank out of the 40s on signing day.
Utah's enjoyed one of the most consistent standards of success in the conference over the last three seasons, despite never boasting a recruiting class higher better than a national rank in the 30s. Of course, overachievement akin to Utah's begins to attract more interest on the recruiting trail, evident in the Utes' climb to No. 33 this season.
New Coaches, Different Situations
Pac-12 football welcomes two new head coaches in the 2017 season: Justin Wilcox at Cal, and Willie Taggart at Oregon. Neither is new to the Conference of Champions; Wilcox had a successful stint as defensive coordinator for Washington from 2012-13, and a less successful tenure in the same role at USC from 2014-15. Taggart was part of Jim Harbaugh's Stanford staff before resurrecting his alma mater, Western Kentucky, and flourishing in his time at South Florida.
The two newcomers take on much different-looking rosters in 2017. Oregon's run atop the conference through the first half of the decade led to some outstanding recruiting classes. Wilcox seeks to reestablish Cal as a player, but must first overcome a underwhelming initial recruiting class that impressed few, if any.