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Is the rest of college football finally closing the gap on the SEC?

Unless you’re a college football junkie, a high school football coach in Southern California, or one of those weirdos who spends entirely too much on Rivals.com’s message boards, chances are pretty good you’ve probably never heard of S’ua Cravens. It’s ok, you’re hardly alone; only the junkiest of all college football junkies knows of Cravens, the top high school safety recruit in the class of 2013, who committed to play at USC this week.

Given Cravens’ stature as an elite prospect, his commitment is plenty newsworthy in its own right, but the real story is what his verbal means to USC “big picture,” where Lane Kiffin is in the process of putting together a class for the ages. Limited to just 15 scholarships because of NCAA sanctions (although you figure Lane Kiffin and Co. will figure out a way to finagle a few more by Signing Day), USC has accumulated so much talent so quickly, that by the time they all sign on the dotted line in February it could down as one of the best classes, player-for-player in the history of recruiting.

As things stand the Trojans have eight total commitments, all of them four-star or above, six who are in ESPNU’s top 80 players, and three of which are ranked as Rivals.com’s Top 10 players in the country nationally. Those three are Cravens, Washington quarterback Max Browne (generally regarded as the best quarterback in the country), and Maryland’s Kenny Bigelow (the best defensive end in the country), and when you factor in two of the top running backs in high school football in Ty Isaac of Illinois and Justin Davis, from Stockton, CA, and elite cornerback Chris Hawkins, it’s easy to see why everyone around the program is excited for the future. And the scary thing is the Trojans are hardly done, and are still involved with a handful of other elite recruits.

Safe to say, it’s a good to Lane Kiffin. And he’s hardly the only one cleaning up early.

By any tangible measurement Brady Hoke and Michigan are setting the pace in the 2013 cycle, with a class of 21 commitments, a group which is basically considered the best in the country by every single scouting service. Michigan’s best verbal comes from quarterback Shane Morris (considered to be behind only Max Browne nationally), and their class is so deep that they actually got a commitment from a high school long-snapper yesterday. Now, that’s not to imply long snappers aren’t important. At the same time, when you’re offering a long snapper (especially this early in the process), it’s usually a pretty good sign that you’re doing pretty darn well for yourself.

As for everyone else, Ohio State is doing some big things in Urban Meyer’s second recruiting cycle (11 verbals so far, including six of ESPNU’s Top 150 players), Penn State already has commitments from the top tight end in the country as well as a star quarterback of their own, and incredibly, Notre Dame is actually doing quite well for themselves too. Add in Texas and Oklahoma doing Texas and Oklahoma things on the recruiting trail, and Florida State- a notoriously strong finisher- looking like they’ll have another Top 10 class (thanks to a quick start, ironically) and there are no shortage of top teams making early hay in recruiting.

Now, with all that out of the way, do me a favor and look closely at the list I just provided. What do USC, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida State all have in common? Well, besides the fact that over the last decade Jon Gruden has been rumored to be the next head coach at just about every one of those schools, the real commonality is that not a single one of the teams I’ve mentioned is in the SEC. That might not mean a ton to you, but over the last few days it got me thinking: Could the rest of college football finally be catching up with the SEC?

I know, I know, that sounds crazy. But please hear me out.

And let me start, by giving a few qualifiers.

The first is I want to make it clear that by praising the early recruiting efforts of the schools mentioned above, in no way am I implying that somehow the SEC isn’t recruiting well. They are, like they always do. Georgia and LSU are in their permanent spots atop the early rankings, Florida and Auburn are each filling out the strongest classes they’ve had in years, and Texas A&M has undoubtedly seen their profile increase with the move to college football’s best conference. Not to mention that Alabama has so many four and five star guys committed for 2013 that frankly, I don’t how they’re going to find practice jerseys for them all. Simply put, this year is no different than any other, and as long as college football is played, there is also going to be a higher volume of elite players (not to mention coaches and resources) found in the Southeast than anywhere else. That’s never going to change, and there will never be a time in the near distant future where any number of SEC teams won’t be competing for Nati
onal Championships.

I’m also not implying that this entire article is based solely on the abstract world of early recruiting rankings. Anyone who watches college football knows that elite recruits come and go, and for every guy who pans out, there are two or three that don’t. I get that. I also get that basing this entire column on how a bunch of 16 and 17-year-olds look on paper heading into their senior years of high school would be irresponsible and short-sighted of me.

At the same time, I do think those recruiting rankings can kind of be the “face” of my argument, something quantifiable to prove my point. That point? While the SEC might not be slowing down (it never will), the best programs outside the conference have never been in a better position to catch up.

Look, it’s no secret that in the grand scheme of college football, there are about 12-15 teams that have everything needed (resources, coaching, access to players) to compete for National Championships in just about every single year they compete. It’s also no secret that a disproportionate number of those teams are found in the SEC. You’re probably familiar with schools like Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama, Auburn, right?

Is it also fair to say that the list of programs outside of the SEC which truly have all the pieces needed to compete year-in and year-out for titles looks like this: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, USC, Florida State, maybe Oregon (don’t have access to a ton of great athletes, but have great coaching and resources) and maybe Miami (the opposite; access to great athletes, lack of funding)? That’s basically it, right? Sure there’s a chance that a Clemson, Stanford, Oklahoma State or Louisville could catch the right breaks and be in the title discussion for a season or two. The difference is that those schools have great “teams.” USC, Ohio State and Michigan are great “programs.” Big difference.

Either way, looking over that list of non-SEC schools, has there been a time in the last decade where more of the programs mentioned above have been in a better position to topple the SEC than right now? I honestly don’t think so.

Besides the high recruiting rankings in 2013, look at where those programs are right now. Michigan has stability for the first time since the last few years of the Lloyd Carr era. Ohio State upgraded from a great coach in Jim Tressel, to a truly elite one in Meyer. Florida State has a vast pool of talent on their roster from four straight years of phenomenal recruiting. Early on, Bill ohio_state-urbanO’Brien has done all the right things at Penn State. And whether you like Lane Kiffin or not, the guy can coach; his 10 wins last year given the circumstances, was one of the more underrated jobs anyone has done in the past decade.

So with that out of the way, let’s look at that list of teams outside the SEC that can compete for National Championships again. Even if we’re saying that- at best- Texas and Oklahoma have plateaued, can we agree that in strictly a football sense, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Florida State and USC are all in a better position today than they were two years ago? Is it also safe to say that they all could and should be in an even better position two years from now? I’d say so. See what I was saying about the best programs being in better positions to compete for titles than they have been in years?

And really, maybe the biggest part to me isn’t just that these programs are getting better by the day, but more importantly, how they’re being built. Has anyone noticed how many schools outside the SEC are starting to build themselves like they’re in the SEC?

Sure, part of that is the influence the conference had on guys like Meyer and Kiffin who coached in the conference (as you may remember), but really, it’s beyond that. There’s an old saying that says “to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.” Well in college football there’s that, but the opposite is also true too: To beat the best, you’ve got to be the best. In other words, to beat the best you’ve got to mirror what the best programs are doing. Just now are the schools outside the SEC starting to do that.

Of course that doesn’t imply that Jim Tressel, Lloyd Carr, Ty Willingham and Joe Paterno didn’t recruit well in the past. They did. Is also doesn’t imply that they were “bad” coaches, and that they weren’t good, especially relative to what they were trying to accomplish.

At the same time, think about those teams. Remember all those bad jokes about the Big Ten being the “big, slow, un-athletic league?” Well, there was a lot of truth in that, and in large part it was because of how Tressel, Carr and Paterno ran their programs. At the same time, you can’t entirely blame them either, since they were building their programs to try and beat other big, slow un-athletic teams. Which was fine… until bowl season, where, as we all know, it usually got ugly for the Big Ten. The dichotomy between regular season and postseason was clear, but again, you can’t blame the programs in the Big Ten for it. Simply put, Jim Tressel, Lloyd Carr and others were building teams to win Big Ten championships. They weren’t building them to win National Championships.

Now contrast that with how say, Urban Meyer is building his team in 2012. Did anyone else notice what Meyer- a guy who is considered an “offensive genius,”- made as his top priority in his first year at Ohio State? It wasn’t a star quarterback to run his offense (although it helps that Braxton Miller was already in place). It wasn’t a Percy Harvin-type freak on the outside. Nope, it was defensive linemen, and lots of them. Meyer’s first big recruits in Columbus were Noah Spence, Se’Von Pittman and Tommy Schutt, three guys who will likely combine to score zero touchdowns in their entire college careers.

It was the same with Brian Kelly when he arrived at Notre Dame. Forget what’s happened on the field for a second, and just remember what he’s done on the recruiting trail, where his first big scores were Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams. None play offense. None are ball carriers. You likely won’t see any of them on Sportscenter. But they all were and are difference makers on Saturday’s. Again, to beat the best, you’ve got to be the best, and in the SEC, being the “best” usually starts along the defensive line.

Of course reflecting on all this, it doesn’t in any way mean that the SEC is in “trouble” going forward. They’re not. As I said at the beginning, the conference will always have the best talent, coaching and fan support in college football, and as long as they keep playing games on Saturdays, the Alabama’s, Florida’s, Georgia’s and LSU’s are going to continually be in the National Championship hunt.

And for the record, everyone isn’t going to catch the SEC overnight either. If you asked me today, on June 8, 2012, I’d still list LSU as the comfortable favorite to take home the SEC’s sixth straight BCS title in January (sorry, I think we’re all overrating USC just a tiny bit right now), and it wouldn’t stun me if Alabama or someone else from the conference made it eight straight in January 2014.

But the streak can’t go on forever, and it looks like, for the first time in a long time, the elite outside the SEC are ready to step up and compete with the best teams from college football’s best conference.

USC, Michigan and Ohio State might not win a title in 2012. But they’re not going anywhere either.

(Love the article? Hate it? Disagree with something Aaron said? Let him know by commenting below, or e-mailing him at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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