If you've read anything from a national college football writer about Florida's 2015 recruiting class this week, you've probably read something wrong.
I read three such pieces yesterday, in fact.
First, and perhaps most egregious, was Stewart Mandel's piece on how this class proves the "big mistake" the Gators made with Will Muschamp. To be fair to Mandel, the column was written in the early afternoon, when Florida was sitting on just 13 commitments — before Kylan Johnson, Jordan Scarlett, and Chris Williamson joined the Gators' class — but this is his thesis:
In today's vastly accelerated recruiting cycle, where schools begin pursuing most prospects no later than their sophomore years of high school, recruits form years-long relationships with coaching staffs. It's getting increasingly difficult to catch up in two months.
Florida fired Muschamp on Nov. 16, but his long-term future had been in limbo for nearly 12 months before that. Foley took a gamble in bringing back the embattled coach following a disastrous 4-8 campaign in his third season and the noise never fully dissipated. It's no surprise, then, that most of Muschamp's recruiting targets in the class of 2015 were reluctant to pledge their services.
But nor did the commitments start rolling in once Florida found its new man.
This was the gamble that Foley and Florida took while the Gators flailed in the fall of 2013: They could bring back Muschamp and wager the chances of the whole thing blowing up during a critical year of recruiting against the chances that Muschamp would right the ship and clean up in the state and nationally with a raft of five-star recruits.
And, well, had Muschamp done that, the Gators would probably be in fantastic shape right now, likely in range to challenge USC for the No. 2 class in the 2015 cycle.
Byron Cowart, Martez Ivey, and CeCe Jefferson were all virtually certain to be Gators had Muschamp been retained by Florida, and all three might have been in pocket by now, freeing up critical time in February to recruit other prospects. That threesome of five-stars might not be alone, given that Muschamp's talents as a recruiter were never better leveraged than in January, when coaches with long-standing relationships with prospects can pounce in the midst of chaos to flip commitments; Auburn brought in Tampa studs and Clemson commits Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud II on surprise official visits last weekend, and Muschamp's relationships with both almost certainly had something to do with that.
And what if Muschamp were still running a major program close to Tampa? What if Florida had landed Dalvin Cook back in 2014, and in so doing landed both Ermon Lane and 2015 recruit Da'Vante Phillips, who both followed Cook to Florida State? What if Florida had fired Muschamp after that 2013 season, and taken the massive risk of installing a new coach with one of the best years for Florida in terms of in-state talent available?
Yes, we can absolutely describe Florida's decision to keep Muschamp as a "big mistake," but it's more honest to call it a gamble that appears to have failed in terms of the 2015 class, because everything else is in the realm of the hypothetical.
And "for now" is key, because much can change in just a matter of hours when we're within 100 hours of National Signing Day: Not only did Florida grab its three commits Monday night, but D'Anfernee McGriff, the Auburn commit that Mandel says Jim McElwain "previously tried but failed to flip," is no longer an Auburn commit. Pair that with Mandel's weird spelling errors — Martez "Ivy" makes an appearance in the piece, as did "DeAndre" Francois — and the inevitable tie-in of Michigan, the other first-rate program with coaching turnover this offseason, and this all feels like the easy big-picture strafing from a national writer who doesn't really deign to deal with recruiting very often.
Surprise: That's a pattern around this time of year.
College Football Talk's Kevin McGuire — closer to the ground than Mandel, I'd wager — took his own cut and missed on Monday, too, writing a post titled "Why Michigan and Florida get a pass for the Class of 2015." McGuire's point is, basically, "It is hard to recruit with just two months to finish a class."
Which, well, duh. It is, of course, very difficult for McElwain, who was mostly recruiting in Colorado State's footprint up until December, to make the same sort of impression on a player — Cowart, say — that Muschamp did over four years as Florida's coach. Talented prospects like Cowart, Ivey, and Jefferson might all have "grown up Gators fans," but they forge relationships with coaches, support staff, doctors, girlfriends — and those relationships are often the deciding factor in picking a school.
Is McElwain a good enough recruiter to forge strong bonds quickly? Sure. Nabbing eight commitments since taking over as Florida's head coach is a pretty good sign of that, and there are assuredly more to come over the next two days. (The Gators aren't going 0-fer, trust.)
And that, plus the idea that, uh, there is going to be a football season played this fall, with players who committed to teams this cycle, means that Florida and McElwain don't, and shouldn't, get "a pass"; they may deserve a fairer assessment than the eye-in-the-sky sort delivered by Mandel, but those are really hard to produce from a macro level.
For more evidence of that, read the thoughtful Matt Hinton trying and failing to make the "Florida and Michigan, sitting in a capsized rowboat" narrative work at Grantland.
Hinton's focused a bit more on Michigan than Florida, but he mentions that big three of Ivey, Cowart, and Jefferson, and touches on Lamar Jackson — who seems likely to stick with Louisville — as the "most prominent" name on Florida's "wish list," without mentioning Francois, who is both a better prospect than Jackson and a bigger coup in recruitpolitik, as he would otherwise end up at Florida State.
Hinton also misses a detail that I'd wager nearly every Florida fan would catch. He mentions the colorful tidbit about Cowart carrying around a Chucky doll as an amusing fact about Cowart ... without noting that he's carrying on a tradition begun by Dominique Easley, continued by Dante Fowler, and now immortalized on the latest "swag chalice" belonging to defensive coordinator Geoff Collins.
But that's the problem with bird's-eye views of recruiting: They just don't capture everything, not anymore. When Hinton or McGuire or Mandel competes with a plugged-in local source — and I'm really not professing to be one, here! — they lose, based on the lack of arcane and granular ken that is the lifeblood of recruiting.
Hinton does, though, wrap with the best thing written about Florida's recruiting class in his final paragraphs, even if he kind of misses his own best point, which I'm bolding:
Sometimes, trying to get a grip on recruiting feels like trying to nail down Jell-O: All standing assumptions can shift in the time it takes for a handful of teenagers to change their minds. A pledge from Ivey, Cowart, or Jefferson would go a long way toward rebutting the sky-is-falling narrative that has gained traction over the past few weeks; signatures from all three would turn the tables on that talk overnight.
Yet the alternative is just as likely, and far more foreboding, especially if Florida gets shown up on signing day by the coach it just fired. The Gators have struggled to compete with a steady influx of blue-chip talent, so it’s tough to imagine them keeping pace if the pipeline begins to run dry, even for a year or two. In a conference full of teams that reload on an annual basis, the window for "rebuilding" is too small to allow for a mulligan.
By any standard, Florida's recruited very, very well over the last 10 years, never falling below 12th in the national rankings Hinton includes in his piece, and even managed to finish with the No. 9 class in the country after a 4-8 season last year. And yet Florida's just finished its worst five-year stretch — which includes a year overseen by the most recent coach to win a national title, and one of just two to claim three — since the 1980s, and its worst two-year stretch since 1979 and 1980 — a duo of years featuring a winless season.
If Florida hasn't been able to compete with blue-chip talent on hand, perhaps, just maybe, that's a failure of development more than recruiting? Especially on offense, where Florida's recruiting has lagged considerably, while its defenses have been whirring along and minting great players? And might it be better, and more honest, to write something like "Well, McElwain's got a lot of talent on hand, and he'll get some time to coach it up, so we can't make any summary judgments for a while"?
Were we to go back to 2011, when Muschamp took over for Urban Meyer, I'd bet the articles written about the talent on hand probably didn't have nearly as much hand-wringing about the future of the program. Being two years removed from a national title tends to confer a fair bit of the benefit of the doubt.
In four short years, though, college football can change dramatically, and often does. Under Muschamp, Florida became more punchline than powerhouse — while making a BCS bowl along the way, much like Michigan did under Brady Hoke — and the speculation about whether the Gators can make it back to the top of the college football world, and how, has proven great fuel for discussions that drive clicks. That's true for Michigan, too, another program of significant national interest. (Both programs also have the shadow of Meyer to contend with, too.)
So it is easy to lump together Florida and Michigan and discuss both because they both draw eyeballs. It may not be best to do that, because nuances and peculiarities and details get lost, but such is life on the national beat: Big pictures with broad strokes sell, and meticulous, labor-intensive work is rarely worth the investment of time and/or effort.
I'll keep opting for the finer masterpieces of local coverage, personally. And I might try to write a few, too.