Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

On signing day, Georgia cleans up and Georgia Tech stays afloat

By the end of the day Wednesday, the first day of college football’s early signing period, the people who follow recruiting closely declared Georgia’s class second-best in the country. UGA’s reign as recruiting champ lasted for one cycle. Alabama is back on top, as usual.

That’s the picture from Wednesday. The longer view is that, if Georgia doesn’t match Alabama in player talent, it comes closer than any other program. 

The difference on the field between the teams the past two seasons was a handful of plays: first in the last national championship game, then in the recent SEC Championship game. The difference between the programs is negligible because Georgia coach Kirby Smart is building a foundation of player talent that rivals that of his old boss, Nick Saban. 

Smart was at it again Wednesday. He and his staff convinced Michigan prep quarterback Dwan Mathis to sign with Georgia after once he said he would play at Ohio State. It could end up being a swap: Georgia freshman QB Justin Fields reportedly is considering transferring to Ohio State. 

Nolan Smith, the nation’s top prospect per the 247Sports Composite rankings, also signed with the Bulldogs. He said he would do so a while back, but you never know. 

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Notably, 11 of the 15 UGA recruits who signed Wednesday are from outside of Georgia, with seven states represented. 

“You look at success we’ve had over the last few years, the places we’ve played, our brand is strong,” Smart said during an ESPN interview. 

At Georgia Tech, incoming coach Geoff Collins lost some recruits who had declared their intention to play for the Yellow Jackets, including the highest-rated among them. The class is ranked 54th overall by 247Sports, 10th in the ACC. But Collins managed to hold together most of Paul Johnson’s class, which is a win under the circumstances. 

It’s worth paying some attention to recruiting rankings because they do matter. A study by Football Study Hall showed that aggregate rankings pretty much determine a program’s station. CFD Data Lab calculated that eight of every 10 to-tier recruits from 2000 to 2013 ended up on NFL rosters. 

Georgia has recruited at an elite level for a while. To finally surpass Bama, the Bulldogs needed to do a little better, and Smart is delivering. Lots of other factors are involved, including coaching, but there’s a reason Smart said coaching can be overrated and the key to is to “have better players.” 

Smart has a lot to sell recruits. UGA pours considerable resources into football. Its fans care. The Bulldogs play for championships, and their former players are starring in the NFL. 

Lots of SEC teams can make similar boasts, but right now only UGA is on the top tier with Alabama. To keep it that way, Smart must keep adding waves of elite recruits to his roster. He helped Saban do it at Alabama, and now he’s doing the same for Georgia. 

The recruiting landscape is different at Tech. In the ACC, only Florida State and Clemson recruit at an elite level over the long term (along with quasi-ACC team Notre Dame). Tech’s recruiting peer group includes the the likes of North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh. 

They hadn’t matched those programs in recruiting with Johnson who, as mentioned, was able to wrong-foot more talented foes for a stretch. Collins’ Tech teams likely will play better defense, but he doesn’t have a scheme that cuts opponents down to size. He’ll need to do better than Tech’s composite recruiting ranking of 10th in the ACC over the past four cycles, per 247Sports. 

Apparently, Collins aims to do better than that. According to a report by the AJC’s Ken Sugiura, Collins told one high school coach that he intends to “win the state back” from UGA in recruiting. 

I like the boldness, but good luck with that. 

Collins has a strong track record as an effective and innovative recruiter. He doesn’t have Smart’s resources, nor can he point to many recent ex-Jackets starring in the NFL.

Tech’s academic profile is a challenge. Collins said he intends to use it as a draw. I would love it if that works. It certainly would help with my cynicism. 

Realistically, Collins would do well to land, say, two or three of the state’s top prospects each year. In the past four cycles Tech signed a total of three recruits, from anywhere, who were rated as high as four stars by the 247Sports composite. There’s a good chance Collins will improve Tech’s recruiting after he has his program fully up and running. 

Meanwhile, Smart has his player talent-acquisition machine humming in Athens. Saban proved he still can bring the best class to Tuscaloosa. But his ex-assistant is making it harder.

About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 

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