The venues, helmets and results stay the same.All that changes, it seems, are the stitches on the back of their opponents’ jerseys.By falling to Alabama 38-14, Arkansas lost its bid to join college football’s VIP club for the fifth time in three years. Forget Arkansas-LSU: that annual late-season showdown is always close, and the Hogs will win their fair share.
But the SEC money games which could catapult the Razorbacks into national title contention occur in the season’s first few weeks, and the Hogs have whiffed on Alabama the last three seasons, Florida in 2009 and Auburn in 2010.Each time, there’s a recurring theme: Arkansas’ opponents unleash game changers with talent the Razorbacks simply can’t match.Alabama’s Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, Florida’s Tim Tebow and Auburn’s Cam Newton racked up a total of 1450 yards in five games since 2009 against the Razorbacks.Not surprisingly, all four players also racked up accolades coming out of high school. Rivals.com, a sports network focusing on prep sports, gave all but Ingram five stars – the highest possible recruiting ranking for a high school athlete. Ingram received four stars, which designates the player as still highly regarded by multiple elite programs.In Alabama’s most recent win, Richardson gained 235 all-purpose yards and a touchdown while four-star cornerback DeQuan Menzie broke the game open with a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown. On offense and defense, the Crimson Tide simply looked bigger, stronger, faster, and – to top it all off – better coached. Afterward, ArkansasSports360.com’s Jim Harris wrote, “With the exception of the receiver positions, it doesn’t appear that Bobby Petrino has recruited well enough over four years for Arkansas to go man-to-man with Alabama.”Recruiting is an inexact science, and good coaches can take recruits others have tagged as two and three-star and turn them into “five-star” contributors in college. Look no farther than Nick Fairley, the anchor of Auburn’s defensive line last season, or Arkansas’ Jake Bequette for proof. Yet this “coaching up” happens at all top programs, and those teams with more four and five-star talents to begin with simply have the talent advantage from the get-go.Arkansas has a smaller football-playing population than other states in the Southeast, so it will always have to recruit more out-of-state talent than the top SEC teams. To do that, it must continue to promote and strengthen its national brand as an elite offensive program (at least in non-Alabama games). So far in the Petrino era, Arkansas hasn’t proven it can sign top recruits with anywhere near the frequency of the nation’s best teams. [see graph below]Speaking of, check out the programs who have pulled the best recruiting classes the last five years. You’ll see the likes of LSU, Miami, Tennessee, USC and Auburn near the top. “Potential recruiting violations” doesn’t even begin to describe the controversy swirling around some of these programs and the elite players they have tried to bring to campus.Sure, with much more aggressive recruiting, Arkansas could speed its entrance to the VIP club so many of its fans feel excluded from.But at what cost?As evidenced by a 38-14 loss to Alabama, Arkansas still can’t claim a spot in the SEC’s upper echelon when it comes to big wins on the field. The same applies in off-field recruiting battles for the nation’s best players. The chart below show this:
Year SEC Champion (Wins) Top Recruits Average* Arkansas Wins Top Recruits Committed** 2003 LSU (13) 14.5*** 9 3 2004 Auburn (13) 7.67 5 3 2005 Georgia (10) 13 4 4 2006 Florida (13) 13.75 10 5 2007 LSU (12) 14.5 8 4 2008 Florida (13) 16.25 5 6 2009 Alabama (14) 15.5 8 9 2010 Auburn (14) 11 10 3
*Top Recruits Average – This is the average number of four and five-star recruits that committed to the program in preceding years. The rankings are drawn from Rivals.com, an online network focusing on prep sports, and go back to 2002. When possible, an average is calculated from a span of four consecutive years. The process works like this: LSU won 12 games in 2007, using players who had committed in the previous four years. So, the total number of LSU’s four and five-star recruits in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 was divided by four to get the team’s 2007 “Top Recruits” average.
**Top Recruits Committed – This isn’t an average. It’s the total number of four and five-star recruits (according to Rivals.com) who committed to Arkansas for that year’s signing class.
**** Since Rivals.com team rankings aren’t readily available before 2002, this is a two-year average using commits from 2002 and 2003.
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If you dig this kind of stuff, find more stats fleshing out correlation of recruiting classes and winning seasons among all SEC West teams (including Texas A&M) here.