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December 9, 2009

Powered Up: The sudden change

On Sunday night, I got a text message from a friend: "How can you explain the sudden jump in Missouri's recruiting?" I got another that said, "How come every player in America suddenly wants to visit Missouri?" In the last two days, I've had at least four or five people ask me versions of the same thing. So I decided, how about I take a look at the answer to that question?

First, let's lay out the facts. The number one thing we have to realize is that the only quantifiable way in which Missouri's recruiting is actually improving is judging by stars and rankings. Over and over the coaches have stressed that they don't look at these things. They don't and they shouldn't. But the fans do and, right or wrong, they're going to judge recruiting classes by these factors.

First off, this appears to be the first year since we started keeping track that Missouri may not sign a two-star player. Even if every unrated kid is deemed a two-star, there will be fewer of them than in any other class under Gary Pinkel.

Next, the Tigers already have four four-star players (Nick Demien, Kony Ealy, James Franklin, Jimmie Hunt). They have a good shot with three more (Tyler Gabbert, Marcus Lucas, Curtis Carter) and there has been speculation Tristan Holt could garner four when the rankings are revised tomorrow. That would be eight four-star players. In the previous three years combined Missouri has signed nine four- or five-star prospects.

I've always liked evaluating classes by the average number of stars. Missouri currently has five unrated recruits. We're going to give those guys an average of three stars. If we do that, the average ranking of this year's current class is 3.25 stars. That does not include any of the guys mentioned above or three-stars Daniel Easterly, Bud Sasser and Marcus Murphy, for whom Missouri is at or near the top.

Here are the average star totals over the last five years:

2009: 2.8
2008: 2.875 (Brian Coulter was unrated)
2007: 2.89
2006: 2.5 (Charles Gaines was unranked and Aaron Cawlfield never signed)
2005: 2.83

So, if you believe Rivals.com rankings--and if you're on this site, we figure you put at least some stock in them--this is easily Missouri's most well-regarded class.

Now that we've established our premise that this is a breakout class, we have to ask why now? In breaking it down, there are a number of factors. I'll just lay out my thoughts one by one:

In a rebuilding year, Missouri won eight games and finished second in the North

Coming into this season, all of us knew how important the year was for the future of the program. The Tigers had lost the most successful class in school history. Gone were the best quarterback, wide receiver and tight end ever to wear the black and gold. We all expected a dropoff. Even the most optimistic, rose-colored glasses wearer expected one.

Across the country, there were predictions the Tigers would finish fifth in the North. Many pundits picked Mizzou to win no more than four or five games. These weren't predictions of a dropoff; these were predictions of jumping off the cliff headfirst without a safety net.

Going further, Gabbert was among the nation's top underclassmen in passing yards, passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio. You can make the argument that only Andrew Luck, Kellen Moore, Ryan Mallett (who may go pro) and Johnson are in the discussion with Gabbert as far as the nation's top freshman or sophomore quarterbacks.

If Missouri wins its bowl game, the Tigers will finish exactly ONE GAME below where it did a year ago. I guess it's a dropoff, but not much of one. If this is a rebuilding year, you're talking about a hole in the dam you can plug with your finger, not a complete reconstruction. That's a big statemtent.

And, by the way, this season was close to being a whole lot better. I mean, one of the four losses came to the Big 12's worst team in what can only be seen as an anomaly. The other three losses came when Missouri was playing with a quarterback who was not more than 60% healthy. I'm not into the what-if game, but Missouri can legitimately say they might have been a bum ankle away from ten wins for the third straight year.

Blaine Gabbert looks like the real deal

When Brad Smith graduated, many wondered if the Tigers could progress. Thanks to Chase Daniel (and others), they did. When Daniel left, most across the country thought there was no possible way that Missouri could survive.

Well, look across the Big 12. Which team has a better quarterback returning? Maybe Texas A&M. Jerrod Johnson was really good. Other than that? Landry Jones at Oklahoma is the only guy you can even make an argument for outside of Robert Griffin who will be coming off a torn ACL that ended his sophomore season.

For two years, people wondered why four- and five-star receivers weren't flocking to Columbia. The fact is, most of those kids weren't going to have an opportunity to play with Daniel. They were going to have to play with his successor. And for all his potential, no one truly knew how good Gabbert was going to be. Now they know. And now Missouri has three highly touted wideouts coming to town in the next two weeks with four-star Jimmie Hunt already on board. Receivers are dependent on having a guy that can get them the ball. Gabbert has proven he can.

The two-year delay

It has long been hypothesized that you have to wait two full years for success on the field to translate to a breakout recruiting cycle. Now, that doesn't hold true for teams that are good year in and year out. Traditional powers like Oklahoma will easily survive an off-year like 2009. But for a team that has not traditionally been among the nation's better teams-like Missouri before 2007-you need to sustain success for a while before it bears fruit in recruiting. We always thought that, but this year is proving it true.

Missouri has now won eight games in the regular season for four consecutive seasons. There are fewer than 15 teams in college football who can say that. And now that they've done it with two different quarterbacks, with different players every single position (not one player who will start the Texas Bowl was a starter for the 2006 Sun Bowl), Missouri has proven it can sustain success. Recruits are taking notice. It didn't happen as quickly as some fans would like, but it has happened.

Missouri can get you to the NFL

Bar none, this is the biggest factor. Following April's NFL Draft, Pete Scantlebury did an analysis of the draft's effect on recruiting. For that story, Pete identified five BCS conference teams who had a breakout year as far as the number of players selected in the NFL Draft.

Last April, Missouri had six players chosen. They had many more (including Chase Daniel, who stuck for most of the season) get invites to NFL training camps. It was the highest number of Tigers drafted in school history. Missouri also had two players go in the first round, which is a big feather in the cap. No team had more than two first-round selections last year.

Every high school player in the country who has Division One scholarship offers thinks he's going to the NFL. Every one. For years, Missouri's recruiting opponents could say that the Tigers weren't going to get you there. Brad Smith was arguably the best quarterback in school history and he was drafted as a receiver. Justin Smith was drafted in the top five and has had a good career, but he never played for Gary Pinkel. Justin Gage wasn't recruited by Pinkel either. The most successful NFL player Pinkel had coached for his entire career was Damien Nash and he was never even a star at Missouri.

But last year, that argument went by the wayside. Combining with C.J. Mosley, Will Franklin, Atiyyah Ellison and Martin Rucker, Missouri has now established a tradition of sending players to the league. It's a huge factor that simply can't be ignored.

The good news? Missouri ought to have at least two more players (Danario Alexander and Sean Weatherspoon) have their names called this April.

Program recognition

Maybe I'm not supposed to say this, but there's one last factor in play here. Missouri's staff is now getting credit for being able to recognize talent. You could argue Chase Coffman, Rucker, Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Ziggy Hood were all woefully underrated coming out of high school by Rivals.com. Only Maclin was a four-star, and even he was not rated as one of the nation's top 20 receivers in his class. They all made NFL rosters and all but Daniel were drafted in the top four rounds. Every one was an all-Big 12 player and all but Hood were all-Americans at some point.

Sean Weatherspoon and Danario Alexander were two-star recruits. Alexander was so unknown we famously misspelled his name on his recruiting profile and even at the start of fall camp his freshman year. They'll both play on Sundays.

So, if Missouri offers a kid early, he now gets the benefit of the doubt to some extent. The Tigers have established a track record. If they like a kid like Jimmie Hunt or E.J. Gaines or Darvin Ruise, chances are they might be pretty good prospects. None of those kids had many (or any) other offers when the Tigers extended one. Does it mean they're recruiting better players? Yes, probably. But it also means they've earned some credibility with people that put the rankings together.

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