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Florida’s ferocious close produces its best National Signing Day ever

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Doubt Jim McElwain’s closing at your own risk.

Mississippi v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

To be completely honest? I didn’t see this coming for the Florida Gators.

If I had predicted Florida’s National Signing Day close in the live thread I set to publish at 7 a.m., it would have included Tedarrell Slaton and Lacedrick Brunson — and that’s it. We — leli, at my direction — prepared commitment posts for Slaton, Brian Edwards, Chris (C.J.) Henderson, and Malik Young — and that was it, as I thought Brunson might be an afternoon commit whose commitment post I could prewrite during a snoozy day.

I didn’t think we were going to get to publish two of those posts. And I certainly didn’t think we would need two more, including one for a player that more than a few credible sources reported was not a possibility for Florida.

But we did, as Slaton, Brunson, Henderson, Edwards, James Robinson, and Adarius Lemons all committed, giving Florida three four-stars, two three-stars — one a former four-star dropped largely because of off-the-field issues — and a two-star at a position of need on a day that could have easily been very quiet.

Florida was No. 31 in the 247Sports Composite team rankings midway through last week, after Elijah Blades decommitted, Kai-Leon Herbert committed to Miami, and Henderson started drifting toward the Hurricanes, and the possibility of the worst Gators recruiting class in the recruiting-service era was real. Had Robinson’s citation for marijuana possession been public knowledge then, Florida’s odds of closing even reasonably well would have been very, er, high.

After adding 10 commits since then in a ferocious close that defied belief, Florida has finished with the No. 10 class in the country in those same rankings.

There are ways to look at this class critically and pessimistically, of course. Florida’s “score” for this class is lower than the ones it accrued for its 2016 class, and its ranking is higher more because of how an agglomeration of talent at the top of the rankings impacted teams a rung removed from the elite this year than because of any thing Florida did. The 2015 recruiting class that I called the “best worst ever” in Florida history had two more five-stars — CeCe Jefferson and Martez Ivey — than this one. And Florida only reaching No. 10 after two consecutive SEC Championship Game appearances makes the Gators finishing No. 9 and with a higher score in 2014 — off an infamously disastrous 4-8 season — seem more and more absurd in retrospect.

Maybe most importantly, Florida is still not recruiting quite on par with the teams it must beat to push for SEC and national championships. Of the nine teams ahead of Florida in the 2017 class rankings, four — Georgia, Florida State, Michigan, and LSU — are on the Gators’ 2017 schedule, and two more, Alabama and Auburn, are leading candidates to meet Florida in a 2017 SEC Championship Game.

Certainly, recruiting at a level above that of an opponent does not guarantee defeating that opponent — Alabama would never, ever lose if recruiting scores dictated on-field scores perfectly, much less lose to a Clemson team that has finished no higher than No. 9 in the 247Sports Composite rankings this decade. But stockpiling talent increases margin for error, diminishes opponents’ margin for error, allows for easier selling of a program over time as success begets success, and is just generally the best idea in a sport in which there are only loose limits on how much talent one program can have.

Florida has not stockpiled talent well enough under Jim McElwain to be considered a program that should compete for conference and national titles year after year.

But it has, I would argue, done that well enough to be considered a program that could compete for those if things break right — and Florida did compete for SEC titles over the last two years, and entered the Novembers of each of the last two seasons with plausible, if unlikely, paths to the College Football Playoff. If McElwain and Doug Nussmeier can season one of Florida’s raw quarterbacks properly, and Randy Shannon can keep Florida’s defense salty, the Gators will remain situtated within the band of teams that can get lucky enough to compete for trophies — and close enough to the true upper tier of teams in the sport to vault up to it, should fortune favor Florida.

And for Florida, the difference between being in that not-quite-elite tier and the one below it might very well have been this last week — or even just this Wednesday.

Florida’s Signing Day additions were, again, three four-star players (Henderson, Robinson, and Slaton), two three-star players (Edwards and Lemons, a former four-star), and a two-star player (Brunson). That doesn’t seem like that much talent, and it was only a quarter of Florida’s class — but three four-star players alone is more than about two thirds of the Football Bowl Subdivision could muster. If Lemons were still a four-star player — and, in truth, he isn’t one right now for reasons that have far more to do with him not playing football for most of his senior season than what he looks like on a football field — then Florida would have landed more four-stars on National Signing Day than Ole Miss did in its No. 30 recruiting class.

Expand the scope a bit and add Florida’s haul from the last four days — four-stars Elijah Conliffe and Brad Stewart, and three-stars Nick Smith and Donovan Stiner — to its day-of signees, and it gets harder to find teams with as much blue-chip talent in their entire classes as the Gators accumulated in the last week of the 2017 recruiting cycle. Tennessee’s No. 17 recruiting class has one five-star player and four four-star players. Oregon, which just hired former USF coach Willie Taggart and consequently mined Florida extensively in this cycle, has five four-star players in its No. 20 class. Texas, which is Texas, nabbed just seven four-star players after hiring wunderkind Tom Herman, and is ranked lower (No. 26) than Florida was in McElwain’s first year (No. 21).

And no team ranked below No. 27 North Carolina has more than four four-star commits — which essentially means that Florida landed more talent in its last week of this recruiting cycle than 101 of the 128 FBS teams.

This week will go down in lore as McElwain and Co. turning a potentially devastating series of misses into a string of hits, and National Signing Day as the culmination of the best close in Florida’s recruiting history. There have been higher-profile National Signing Days for Florida before — 2015’s brought Jefferson and Ivey and finished a similarly dramatic rise, 2012’s featured Dante Fowler, Jr.’s legendary flip from Florida State, and 2010’s was the finish for what was then one of the greatest classes in recruiting history — but I can and will argue that this was the most consequentially good one in the Gators’ history, and I’m not sure there will be many objections. (Before arguing for 2015, please consider both Byron Cowart and the week of drama before Jefferson was well and truly a Gator.)

That such a day is still arguably disappointing to some Florida fans should help put in perspective how fickle this fan base can be, but also just how good it is to be one of college football’s haves, and how dire being a have-not might actually be.

Of course, Florida fans can choose to have some perspective after seeing that perspective ... or lose their minds over spring football again, should Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask struggle enough to make Luke Del Rio seem like the best option. If Florida pursues another transfer quarterback to add to the mix behind those three and Kadarius Toney — and it should — and misses out, there will be a freakout to follow. And there is a whole new recruiting class to start following obsessively and second-guessing feverishly as soon as fans want to do so.

I really can’t wait until I start hearing complaints about Florida not finding Jefferson’s replacement. It won’t be that long, I’m sure.

Today, though? Today, Florida shocked the recruiting world, the horde of reporters and fans that follow it, and maybe even some of the coaches and personnel in the building who entered this week doing more fearing of the worst than hoping for the best.

Perhaps that will serve as a lesson that hoping for the best is, on occasion, pretty rewarding.