The class of 2020 is loaded, and it could help the Pac-12’s leverage at the table in a few years … if the prospects stick around. “If there’s a year the Pac-12 could really get hurt," said 247sports recruiting analyst Brandon Huffman, “it’s in the 2020 class.”
With the rat-a-tat-splat of losses in major intersectional duels and sporadic playoff appearances, Pac-12 football has entered a wobbly state.
Long-term challenges in areas of talent identification and acquisition within the conference footprint are significant enough that the Hotline is entering the recruiting space, albeit in targeted fashion.
We’re not about to take on Rivals and 247sports for the latest news on prospect visits and commitments.
Instead, the Hotline will address the issues and trends from the perspective of the schools that will help define Pac-12 on-field success (or failure) over the next decade.
Two topics have been addressed previously in 2019 that help frame the narrative: The increasing number of marauders from the midwest and southeast that are snatching top talents out from under the Pac-12 schools; and declining high-school participation within California.
But there are other storylines in the most fundamental area of the sport: Compiling rosters that can compete for playoff berths and national championships.
Our look at the process of roster building begins in the active construction zone: With the West Coast class of 2020.
It’s loaded, and for reasons explained below, it’s essential to Pac-12 success through the decade and beyond.
“2020 is a great year out here,” Oregon coach Mario Cristobal told the Hotline. “The best way to build is from the inside out. Every conference has its own home base.”
The Pac-12’s home base, gilded as it might be, looks unstable.
A whopping 14 of the top-50 players in the current junior class (based on 247sports composite rankings) are from the Pac-12 footprint, plus Nevada and Hawaii.
That’s the largest number of top-50 prospects the west coast has produced in years:
And yet many are candidates to sign with powers from other regions.
“If there’s a year the Pac-12 could really get hurt,’’ said 247sports recruiting analyst Brandon Huffman, who lives in the Seattle area, “it’s in the 2020 class.”
Here’s the list of top prospects, by national ranking, with the current favorite for each (per 247 rankings):
No. 3: linebacker Justin Flowe, Upland – USC
No. 6: quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, Bellflower – Clemson
No. 7: linebacker Sa’vell Smalls, Seattle – Florida State/Alabama
No. 9: cornerback Elias Ricks, Santa Ana – LSU (committed)
No. 12: cornerback Kelee Ringo, Scottsdale – UW/Texas
No. 15: tailback Kendall Milton, Clovis – USC/Alabama
No. 18: athlete Darnell Washington, Las Vegas – no favorite listed
No. 25: receiver Johnny Wilson, Calabasas – USC/UCLA
No. 26: tailback Bijan Robinson, Tucson – UCLA/Ohio State
No. 27: quarterback Bryce Young, Santa Ana – USC (committed)
No. 35: receiver Jermaine Burton, Calabasas – Miami/Alabama
No. 37: cornerback Clark Phillips III, La Habra – no favorite listed
No. 39: offensive tackle Tosh Baker, Phoenix – Notre Dame
No. 45: receiver Jalen McMillan, Fresno – Notre Dame/Oregon
Of the 14, just three could be considered solid for the Pac-12 at this point. That could change over the next nine months, but “the Pac-12 has got to get its act in gear,” Huffman said.
Notre Dame has recruited the West Coast for eons; maintaining a foothold is one reason the Irish play their finale in California every season.
Alabama entered the competition a few years ago and landed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (Hawaii) and tailback Najee Harris (Antioch), among others.
It’s hardly a surprise when Texas and Oklahoma successfully raid the state of Arizona.
But there’s a relatively new name on that list: Clemson, which snagged 4-star receiver Joe Ngata (Folsom) during the 2019 recruiting cycle and is currently considered the leader for Uiagalelei, the No. 1 quarterback nationally in the junior class.
Why shouldn’t the Tigers devote recruiting resources to select players three time zones away? It’s working for others.
“Ten years ago, Najee Harris goes to USC, no question,’’ Rivals analyst Adam Gorney said of the former No. 2 recruit in the country.
“Then you see Ngata going to Clemson, and now (Uiagalelei) — Clemson is more aggressive than they’ve ever been out here. It’s a struggle (for the Pac-12) because kids see all the winning at Alabama and Georgia and LSU and want to go there.”
The connection between success on the field and on the recruiting trail is time-tested. But it’s not always simultaneous. Often, there’s a 12-month lag.
“You really see the bump, for whatever that particular season is, in the next recruiting class,’’ he said. “So the class of 2019, most of those kids had their minds made up before the disastrous 2018 season for the Pac-12.
“But the 2020 class, the juniors, they’re seeing it, and they’re seeing Alabama and Clemson trying to get all these west coast kids. It’s not too early to tell that the 2020 kids, more than ever, are looking to leave the region.”
If a worst-case scenario unfolds for the conference during the December ’19 and February ’20 signing windows, the consequences could be significant.
In theory, many of those prospects would blossom by the fall of 2022 — their third season. That overlaps with the onset of the Pac-12’s negotiating window for the next round of media rights.
While the current contracts with ESPN and Fox expire in the spring of 2024, deals of that magnitude typically are completed a year in advance.
The Pac-12 will likely begin negotiating in earnest in the late stages of, or immediately following, the 2022 season. The state of the football brand will undoubtedly impact the measurable demand for content, which, in turn, will help establish the cost of that content for potential distributors.
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Generally speaking, football is responsible for 80 cents of every dollar spent on college sports media rights; men’s basketball accounts for 20 cents; Olympic sports for zero.
Consider what happened a decade ago.
The process that led to the $3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox unfolded in the winter and spring of 2011, when the conference was fresh off one of its greatest seasons of the past quarter century:
- USC was in the afterglow of the Carroll-era success.
- Stanford had charged onto the national scene (a berth in the Orange Bowl) with Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck.
- Oregon and Chip Kelly ripped through the regular season undefeated and played Auburn for the national championship.
Two major bowl participants, two top-five teams, two Heisman finalists (Luck and LaMichael James), the Associated Press Coach of the Year (Chip Kelly) — all of it creating deep national relevance.
Four months later, commissioner Larry Scott announced the groundbreaking $3 billion agreement.
The class of 2020 could help the Pac-12’s leverage at the table in a few years … if the prospects stick around.
“I look at it like this for the Pac-12,’’ Huffman said. “Tua needs to be the exception, not the rule.”