by Jeff Barlis
Note: This breakdown was originally published in The Gainesville Sun special season preview section on Aug. 21.
Recruiting in the South is a fierce, year-round battle.
One of the chief reasons Will Muschamp was brought in to coach the Florida Gators is his experience in those border wars.
He’s paying quick dividends.
A talent infusion will come just in time, as Florida is filling some serious needs along the offensive and defensive lines and at running back.
Muschamp’s second recruiting class is shaping up to be one of the top groups in the nation.
Too bad for the Gators, the competition just keeps getting tougher. All of Florida’s primary rivals are also compiling top-notch classes.
Here is a look at Florida, Florida State, Miami, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Yes, Vanderbilt.
Rankings (as of Aug. 17): ESPN No. 3, Rivals No. 4, Scout No. 3.
The Skinny: Muschamp and his band of NFL coaches have the Florida brand name soaring again after a one-year hiatus. Switching to a pro-style offense with Charlie Weis at the controls was a masterstroke.
Biggest win: Considering the need for an elite offensive tackle prospect, UF’s biggest prize is five-star D.J. Humphries from Charlotte, N.C., who spurned Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Head-to-head: Florida has won a number of key battles for commitments. The Gators took OLB Lorenzo Phillips out of Louisiana, flipped south Florida DB Willie Bailey from Miami’s class and took Atlanta-area RB Mike Davis and two four-star defensive tackle prospects out from under Georgia’s nose.
Rankings: ESPN No. 2, Rivals No. 3, Scout No. 6.
The Skinny: The Seminoles are on a roll, looking to follow up last year’s top class with another contender for the No. 1 ranking. Coach Jimbo Fisher has scored big all over the southeast, with key recruiting victories against Florida and Alabama.
Biggest win: It’s always a recruiting coup to win a Texas prospect who has an offer from the Longhorns, and even more special when it’s the No. 1 player in the country. DE Mario Edwards is the crown jewel of this class.
Head-to-head: The ‘Noles surprised many when they got five-star QB Jameis Winston and four-star DE Chris Casher out of Alabama. FSU also pulled five-star DE/LB Dante Fowler (St. Petersburg) and four-star S P.J. Williams (Ocala) right out from under Florida.
Rankings: ESPN No. 6, Rivals No. 5, Scout No. 5.
The Skinny: With a massive scandal smeared across Miami, Al Golden and the Hurricanes have to wonder just what will survive in the wreckage. Several top prospects have already downgraded the status of their commitments to soft.
Biggest win: In the heart of Miami Gardens, basically UM’s backyard, the ‘Canes scored with five-star running back/cornerback Randy “Duke” Johnson, who swears he will stay loyal to Miami. The U also got two of Johnson’s teammates, including four-star LB Keith Brown.
Head-to-head: It’s almost a shame to think this class could fall apart after Golden did so much quality work in the state of Florida. The ‘Canes nabbed an amazing 19 of 23 verbals from the state of Florida, beating out every rival at least once or twice in the process.
Rankings: ESPN No. 4, Rivals No. 8, Scout No. 7.
The Skinny: There may not be a more consistent recruiting winner than the Crimson Tide. Nick Saban has built a juggernaut. You’d have to go back to 2007 to find a year in which Bama wasn’t in contention for the No. 1 class.
Biggest win: Panama City’s Eddie Williams, a five-star safety who stands 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, will probably end up at linebacker someday but regardless of where he plays he will make an impact. He chose Bama over Florida and FSU.
Head-to-head: Saban gets the pick of the litter and has pulled several key prospects from Georgia (like four-star LB Dillon Lee from Buford) and Florida (like four-star WR Chris Black of Jacksonville).
Rankings: ESPN No. 8, Rivals No. 10, Scout No. 9.
The Skinny: Gene Chizik is certainly capitalizing on the Tigers’ unblemished national championship run. Of Auburn’s 13 pledges, a whopping 11 are rated four-star prospects by Scout.com.
Biggest win: Auburn’s most high profile verbal is quarterback Zeke Pike, who is rated among the top five at his position by Rivals and Scout. He picked Auburn from among 30-plus offers.
Head-to-head: The battles between Auburn and Alabama are legendary. This year the Tigers have snagged three elite prospects — TE Ricky Parks, RB T.J. Yeldon and DT Tyler Nero — away from the Tide.
Rankings: ESPN No. 12, Rivals No. 7, Scout No. 8.
The Skinny: The Tigers are a recruiting machine for one reason — they own the state of Louisiana. Fifteen of 18 verbals are Bayou Boys. Les Miles and Co. rarely lose a battle in-state and typically finish in the top 10 nationally. This year will be no different.
Biggest win: Patrick Peterson’s brother, Avery Johnson, is a coveted four-star wide receiver from Florida. It’s unclear, however, if this is a win (yet) because he has flirted with Florida, Georgia, FSU and others. Johnson remains tenuously committed to LSU.
Head-to-head: LSU doesn’t have to go outside its home state very often, but when it does it’s usually to raid neighboring Texas. This year’s haul includes four-star DE Danielle Hunter and three-star DB Jalen Mills.
Rankings: ESPN No. 11, Rivals No. 9, Scout No. 11.
The Skinny: Steve Spurrier has gradually built his program into a force to be reckoned with. The recruiting gods are definitely smiling on the Gamecocks these days. Landing the No. 1 prospect in the nation last year (DE Jadeveon Clowney) was a huge shot in the arm, and SoCar continues to hum along.
Biggest win: Four-star WR Kwinton Smith is another massive target at 6-4, 200 pounds. He chose the Gamecocks over offers from Florida, Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, and many others.
Head-to-head: Right on the heels of Smith’s verbal, SC got another big-time WR in Shaq Roland, who spurned Alabama and Georgia. Spurrier has absolutely plundered the state of Georgia with seven of his 18 commitments.
Rankings: ESPN No. 17, Rivals No. 24, Scout No. 31.
The Skinny: Mark Richt is taking care of business on his home turf, as 10 of Georgia’s 12 verbals are in-state prospects. UGA will benefit from a deep and talented crop in the state this year.
Biggest win: The Jacksonville Bolles connection struck again, as Florida lost another high-profile offensive lineman when five-star John Theus followed his brother to the Dawgs.
Head-to-head: The Bulldogs got a package deal in defensive teammates Jonathan Taylor and James Deloach, who picked Georgia over FSU. The two also had offers from Florida, Alabama, Auburn, LSU and South Carolina.
Rankings: ESPN No. 21, Rivals No. 25, Scout No. 23.
The Skinny: Derek Dooley had Big Orange fans worried with just two verbals deep into the summer. But the Vols have bounced back in July with 13 more, including seven prospects with four-star ratings from ESPN.
Biggest win: The Volunteers needed a running back in the worst way and were able to pluck four-star LaDarrell McNeil out of Texas. He picked UT over Texas A&M and Oklahoma State.
Head-to-head: Four-star WR Drae Bowles picked the Vols over Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The Vols also grabbed another key commit away from Texas A&M in MLB Dalton Santos and pulled four verbals out of Georgia.
Rankings: ESPN No. 25, Rivals No. 37, Scout No. 36.
The Skinny: Shocked to see Vandy even mentioned in this context? You’re not alone. New coach James Franklin has come on like gangbusters, selling his stalwart academic institution as another Stanford-type of program. It’s working.
Biggest win: Four-star RB Brian Kimbrow picked VU over Auburn, Tennessee and Notre Dame.
Head-to-head: The ‘Dores have pulled four significant prospects — all on defense — out of talent-rich Georgia.