Aubserver Mailbag 120: What would it take for Auburn to become a recruiting power?
This week: Payton Thorne, Casey Thompson, Auburn-Cal, UDFAs, hockey, emo festivals, breakfast cereals and food courts
I opened last week’s mailbag talking about how big of a deal the transfer portal has become for Auburn football and why it’s here to stay in the offseason.
But it’s important to remember that Hugh Freeze and the Tigers would like to get to a point as a program where they don’t have to rely on it as much. Kirby Smart famously bragged about zero incoming transfers when Georgia won the national title. Nick Saban and his staff use their portal to pick their spots instead of reloading their roster.
While Auburn has a long way to go to get to that point, that’s the ultimate goal of this staff. Auburn needs to build up the depth on its roster over the next couple of cycles first and foremost, but raising the overall talent level through high-school recruiting is what’s going to determine the longterm trajectory of this new era.
The lead question in this week’s mailbag imagines a scenario where the Tigers are able to recruit at the level of their two biggest rivals and what it would take to get there. And, of course, there’s a lot in here about Auburn’s big transfer portal pursuit of a quarterback who could potentially start this fall.
We’ve got all of that, plus some fun topics towards the end that go in a billion different directions. Gotta love the offseason.
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What would it take for Auburn to reach absolute supernova recruiting levels? I'm talking current UGA or Bama levels of top 3 classes every single year.
Assuming Auburn can't shell out UGA/Bama/TAMU level NIL money, I'm assuming it would take a mix of coach personality plus a few years of hitting big in the draft —where guys see Auburn as an NFL factory.
My first reaction is that if Auburn wants consistent elite recruiting classes each season, it’s going to need one of either Alabama, Georgia or Ohio State to slip. Over the last five cycles, Alabama and Georgia have had a top-five class all five times, and Ohio State has gone four out of five. That’s a stranglehold.
There are four other teams who have had multiple top-five classes during that stretch: LSU (3), Texas (3), Clemson (2) and Texas A&M (2). LSU, Texas and Texas A&M all have the benefit of geography. LSU is the only power school in the most talent-rich state per capita in the country. Texas and Texas A&M are, obviously, in Texas.
I don’t always want to be the guy who points at Clemson and says “just do that, Auburn,” because playing in the ACC is definitely a lot easier than the SEC. But Clemson is a good guide for what it takes to get to that elite level somewhat consistently. Even in the years in which Clemson wasn’t a top-10 class, its average recruit rating was sky-high — Dabo Swinney’s Tigers go for quality over quantity.
From 2015 to 2019, Clemson played in four national title games and went 69-5 overall. During that stretch, though, Clemson only had two top-10 classes and zero top-five classes. The Tigers got to the mountaintop of college football with that quality over quantity approach, and they had two unreal quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.
Clemson has landed two top-five classes after that run, going back to Ashton’s point about coach personality and hitting big in the draft. Swinney knows how to click with Clemson’s recruits, and the Tigers have had multiple first-round picks in four of the last five NFL Drafts. That success feeds into itself. Even though Clemson has fallen out of the top five and the playoff picture in each of the last two seasons, elite recruits are still wanting to go to the orange Death Valley.
Again, building that level of success was easier in the ACC than it would be for Auburn in the SEC. But Clemson also showed that you can compete with the best of the best without having a top-five class every year. It takes elite talent identification, development and — more often than not — a quarterback who can go above and beyond.
NIL has obviously rewritten the rules of the recruiting landscape, and you’ve got to swing big in that department to get great classes. Yet I still believe that the key to consistency is what you do on the field and how you get guys to the next level. You can have a flash-in-the-pan class or two with your NIL war chest. But if you don’t capitalize on that, it won’t last. Texas A&M is going to be a good test of this over the next few seasons.
The new development that stands out even more to me than NIL is the expansion of the College Football Playoff. Theoretically, getting a spot should be more attainable for a team like Auburn — which would have played in several of them by now, if it wasn’t just a four-team field. The definition of “competing for a title” is going to be altered. Do that somewhat regularly with a coach that you hired, in part, because of his success at being the underdog, and Auburn could land elite classes.
I don’t think Auburn is ever going to be Alabama or Georgia in terms of recruiting power. They’re not going away any time soon, and neither is Ohio State. But getting up to consistent top-10 classes and pushing every now and then for a top-five class is a great longterm goal for Auburn football, and the Blue-Chip Ratio tells us that it’s enough to compete for a title. It’s just going to take time to build that up, and that’s the challenge that Hugh Freeze and his staff face right now.
Freeze's system of using RPOs seems to be taking some time to implement, can we trust that everyone (sans QB, of course) will have the offense in hand by the time kickoff rolls around? We won't be able to be truly "good" until players don't have to think about assignments anymore.