How Dan Lanning and Lincoln Riley Can Balance College Football

Joshua Whitted Editorials

“How do we fix college football?” 

That’s the prevailing question just a couple of days removed from yet another all-SEC title game. The 2021 season provided more parity than usual; Michigan and Cincinnati both made their College Football Playoff debuts. But if three particular teams continue to outpace the rest of the country in recruiting, this season will be an outlier.

The sport has always been dominated by a select few, but the rich are getting a little too rich these days. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State are the three most talented teams in the country, according to the 247Sports Team Talent Composite. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The shocker is just how far ahead of the pack these three schools are. Ohio State, which sits at third in the rankings, has nine less blue-chip players (four- or five-star recruits) on its roster than Alabama, the No. 1 school in the rankings. The next closest program to Ohio State, Clemson, has 15 less blue-chip players than the Buckeyes.

Even within the top five, these three recruiting juggernauts are stockpiling so much talent that it’s nearly impossible for even the best coaches to stop them on a consistent basis on the field. So, what does all of this have to do with Dan Lanning and Lincoln Riley, two West Coast coaches whose focus should be on the other side of the country? The answer lies in the Golden State.

The Battle for California

The select few teams consistently at the top of the college football landscape are there because they continue to recruit better than the rest of the country. Of course there are other factors, but this is the most important common denominator.

Five-stars like Kayvon Thibodeaux can be the difference between winning and losing.

There’s a reason 2021 was only the first time since 2011 that Michigan beat Ohio State. The Buckeyes have lapped the Wolverines on the recruiting trail in recent years. Without the talent edge, besting Ohio State is always going to be an uphill battle for Michigan, and for all of the other Big 10 contenders. The same is true for Alabama and Georgia’s SEC foes.

These three blue-bloods have always recruited among the best, but they’ve distanced themselves even further from the pack by recruiting nationally at increasing rates. It’s bad enough that each school dominates its own region of the country in recruiting. But lately, they’ve each made a concerted effort to sign highly rated prospects from other recruiting hotbeds, namely Texas and California.

These three teams (and a handful of other non-regional schools) infiltrating Texas and California has been among the most impactful developments in all of college football in recent years. Texas and California are the two most talent-laden states — outside of Florida — in the country. For years, Big 12 schools have essentially built their entire rosters by recruiting Texas, and the same can be said for Pac-12 schools and California. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State already get the best of the best from the Southeast and Midwest, respectively. By doing the same in Texas and California, there just isn’t much elite talent available for everyone else.

Projected first-round NFL Draft pick Matt Corral is from California.

While Texas is out of Lanning and Riley’s hands, California is entirely within their jurisdiction, and there’s much work to be done. Despite improved recruiting by Oregon under Mario Cristobal, and solid-enough recruiting by USC under Clay Helton, California has slowly slipped from the Pac-12’s grasp. From the 2019 to the 2021 recruiting class, 15 of the 35 top-100 prospects from California signed with schools outside of the Pac-12. Many current-day superstars, such as Matt Corral, Brock Bowers, Bryce Young, CJ Stroud and Xavier Worthy were right in USC’s backyard and well within Oregon’s neighborhood. Yet none of them were enticed enough to play close to home.

Oregon and USC are the only two programs in the Pac-12 with coaching staffs capable of winning recruiting battles against the big boys from the East. If Lanning at Oregon and Riley at USC can lead the charge in making sure elite prospects from California play for their schools, there will be a number of benefits. For starters, both programs will see their own talent bases improve, as California’s elite prospects are among the country’s best. On top of that, keeping top-end prospects from California close to home will put a lid on just how many premium players non-regional schools can sign.

Lanning has a reputation as an elite recruiter.

And while Lanning and Riley are at rival schools, it serves both programs well in the long run if the conference as a whole improves due to increased talent. A stronger Pac-12 will improve each team’s playoff chances in a given year. And beyond the on-field ramifications, adding more talented players to the conference will eventually result in increased viewership and media coverage.

Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State will always get great players from their regions of the country. But if they continue to get the best players from other recruiting hotbeds as well, then they’ll only further distance themselves from the rest of the competition on the field.

I’m sure neither Lanning nor Riley cares much about balancing the college football landscape for the sake of fans. But simply by doing what’s best for their respective programs, they may end up doing just that. College football will be “fixed” when Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State stay on their side of the map and get their noses out of the West Coast. It’s up to Lanning and Riley to make that happen.

Joshua Whitted 
Morgantown, West Virginia
Top Photo by John McGillen of USC Athletics

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