Subtitle: How Much Of A Difference Can One Good Recruiting Class Make?
In the most recent piece in this series, we took a look at how the 1998 and 1999 seasons would have played out if Mizzou were in the SEC. Using my numbers to project the 1998 season, Mizzou fares very, very well. They go 10-1, missing out on an SEC East title thanks Tennessee, but heading to the Orange Bowl and taking out Syracuse. They finish 11-1, ranked somewhere around fourth or fifth in the country.
Because of the way we tend to treat the thought of breakthrough seasons, then, it wasn't a surprise that, when Mizzou still collapsed in 1999, the comments skewed toward the following sentiment: if 1998 were that much better, wouldn't that prevent as much of a collapse in 1999?
Some thoughts on that:
- In this experiment, I am projecting the results of 20 seasons. It is pretty time-consuming overall, and the thought of altering recruiting classes in addition to that is very intimidating. So I am sticking with out the actual Missouri teams would have fared.
- We often overestimate the impact of breakthrough seasons on recruiting. When Mizzou finished in the Top Five in 2007, they didn't suddenly end up with a Top 10 recruiting class. Nor did Kansas State after their 2003 Big 12 title season. Nor will Oklahoma State this season. Nor, actually, did Arizona when they finished in the Top Five in 1998. Good seasons give your recruiting a bump, just as bad seasons tend to result in a bit of a recruiting slump. But it only has so much impact.
- If Missouri goes 11-1 instead of 8-4, they perhaps land a couple more big-time players, maybe as many as 4-6. But for the most part, recruits have already narrowed their lists down by the time a good season happens in the first place, and not that many are going to necessarily change their minds and think "I'm going to pass up a chance at [Random National Power], which is definitely going to be good when I'm there, because [Random Up-And-Comer] might still be good when I'm there."
Really, I'm not altering the quality of Missouri teams in this exercise based on time and/or laziness. But using the 1999 recruiting class as a guide, let's see what the impact one class could have if Mizzou experienced a sudden, one-year recruiting boom.
Let's start with who Mizzou did sign in 1999, following the solid 1998 season. This was very much heralded as Larry Smith's best class in Columbia.
The Real Class
Zack Abron (RB, 5'10, 200, Wentzville, MO). Briefly Mizzou's all-time career rusher, Abron was an underrated and wonderfully effective bowling ball of a running back, especially after he fixed some early fumble issues.
Gary Anthony (DB, 6'0, 180, St. Louis, MO). A frequent contributor in Mizzou's secondary, Anthony was good enough to play a lot for bad teams but probably wouldn't have been much of a difference-maker on today's Missouri team.
Brandon Barnes (ATH, 6'4, 205, Sikeston, MO). More of an athlete than a football player, Barnes overcame some injury issues and eventually settled at linebacker, where he was damn strong for Gary Pinkel's 2003 Independence Bowl squad.
Howard Brown (OL, 6'3, 275, Berkeley, MO). Minor contributor.
Donald Clarke (TE, 6'4, 230, Boca Raton, FL). Non-contributor.
Terrence Curry (DB, 5'11, 175, Dellwood, MO). One of the class's gems, Curry was a big-time get. His career was derailed by a serious knee injury, but he still managed to make a solid contribution in 2003.
Dan Davis (RB, 6'2, 230, Topeka, KS). A record-setting running back in the state of Kansas, Davis was, like Barnes, more of an athlete without a position. He settled in at defensive end, started for Gary Pinkel's early (awful) defenses, then quit before his eligibility ran out.
Sean Doyle (LB, 6'0, 220, Overland Park, KS). A three-year starter and a rock at linebacker, Doyle was another one of the class's gems, both in terms of how he was perceived when he signed and how well he contributed. A Brock Christopher type, Doyle would have probably done well with more talent around him.
Rob Droege (OL, 6'6, 260, St. Louis, MO). The most high-profile recruit in the class, Droege eventually thrived. It took him a little while to get going, but he was a very, very good lineman in 2002-03.
Tauras Ferguson (RB, 5'11, 180, St. Charles, MO). Didn't qualify but ended up at Mizzou two years later, where he switched to defense and started as the Rover in Gary Pinkel's old 4-4.
Kionne Franklin (LB, 6'0, 215, Cedar Hill, TX). Non-contributor.
Justin Gage (QB, 6'4, 200, Jefferson City, MO). Not as highly-touted as others in the class, Gage's production dwarfed that of anybody else. As we know, his redshirt was torn off in the ninth game of the year so that he could (ineffectively) run the option and alternate with Jim Dougherty. This questionable decision meant his eligibility ran out in 2002, instead of 2003; Gage never played in a bowl, which is really, really unfortunate.
Rusty Groth (OL, 6'4, 275, Glendale, MO). Minor contributor.
Dan Kania (OL, 6'7, 280, Barnhart, MO). Non-contributor.
Jake Kling (TE, 6'5, 230, St. Charles, MO). Non-contributor.
Darius Outlaw (QB, 6'4, 190, Powder Springs, GA). Another perceived big-time get, Outlaw was seen as The Next Corby. He struggled to qualify academically and redshirted in 1999 because of it. But after contributing as a shaky quarterback in 2000-01, he moved to receiver and was a decent possession guy in 2002-03.
A.J. Ricker (OL, 6'5, 272, Spring, TX). A four-year starter who replaced Rob Riti in 2000, Ricker was a one-time Arkansas commit who flipped, in part, because of the perceived trajectory of the Mizzou program.
Taurean Rollins (RB, 5'11, 190, Raytown, MO). Non-contributor due to health issues.
Brandon Severino (ATH, 6'3, 190, Overland Park, MO). Non-contributor.
Cliff Young (OL, 6'3, 280, St. Louis, MO). Minor contributor.
Honestly, this is a rock solid class. Eleven of 20 signees started at some point (perhaps 12 -- I don't remember if Young ever earned a start), though some of those players probably wouldn't have started on better teams. Still, it produced an all-time great receiver (Gage), two excellent offensive linemen (Ricker, Droege), a very good running back (Abron), and a few players who showed hints of high upside before getting decked by injuries (Barnes, Curry and to an extent, Rollins).
The What Ifs
To get an idea for what this class might have been, let's consult, really, the only recruiting service I know of with info from the 1999 recruiting class: CSTV. Pre-Rivals, there wasn't a very good, searchable database, but you make do with what you've got. If you search for key words like "Mizzou," "Missouri," "MO," etc. (along with searching for players from Missouri), you can piece together a list of recruits who appeared to be considering Missouri at some point. Again, in no way would more than three or four (or maybe five or six) have ended up with an 11-1 Mizzou squad, but let's just see what we're dealing with here.
Here are some of the more impressive names on the list. And yes, these are players Mizzou was recruiting while they were a Big 12 team. Things would have probably been at least a bit different if in the SEC, but that's a What If of a What If of a What If.
QB Ell Roberson (Top 150 Recruit; 6'1, 190, Baytown, TX -- Kansas State)
RB Jamar Mozee (Top 150 Recruit; 5'11, 206, Blue Springs, MO -- Decommitted from KSU, chose Oklahoma)
RB Oschlor Flemming ("SUPER" Prospect; 5'10, 195, Denton, TX -- Texas A&M)
RB Bernard Rambert ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'0, 185, Summerville, SC -- Clemson)
RB Bobby Wade ("SUPER" Prospect; 5'11, 180, Phoenix, AZ -- Arizona)
RB Brian Lewis (5'10, 190, St. Louis, MO -- Indiana)
WR Brandon Lloyd ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'1, 185, Blue Springs, MO -- Illinois)
WR Michael Johnson ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'4, 205, Tulsa, OK -- Georgia)
OL Mark Bokermann ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'6, 310, St. Louis, MO -- Arkansas)
DL John Garrison ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'6, 250, Blue Springs, MO -- Nebraska)
DL Andrew Shull ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'4, 225, Webb City, MO -- Kansas State)
DL Spencer Owen ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'5, 230, Carrollton, MO -- Nebraska)
DL Kevin Young (6'3, 240, Duncanville, TX; Decommitted from Texas, chose Tennessee)
LB Josh Buhl ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'1, 195, N. Mesquite, TX -- Kansas State)
LB Terry Pierce (6'3, 250, Ft. Worth, TX -- Decommitted from Missouri, chose Kansas State)
LB Bryan Hickman (6'2, 220, N. Mesquite, TX -- Kansas State)
LB Torrance Marshall (6'3, 240, Kemper Military Academy in Boonville -- Oklahoma)
ATH Christian Morton (6'3, 175, St. Louis, MO -- Illinois)
DB Yaacov Yisreal ("SUPER" Prospect; 6'1, 185, Palatine, IL -- Penn State)
DB Carl Ivey (5'10, 170, Killeen, TX -- Kansas)
(Boy, Blue Springs was not a Missouri fan in the late-1990s.)
So ... that's a pretty good list, especially if you are a Kansas State fan. It's worth noting that some of the best, most successful players on this list signed with what seemed to be up-and-coming programs themselves -- Arizona (Wade) and Kansas State (Roberson, Shull, Buhl, Pierce, Hickman) were each excellent in 1998. But let's enter fantasy land for a moment and imagine the absolute, best-case scenario version of this class; we'll do exactly what we're not supposed to do: use hindsight to determine the best class. At the time, Outlaw was almost as big a get as Roberson would have been, and Curry was seen as on par with Morton (who ended up being a bit more successful because he stayed healthy). Davis was supposed to be a stud RB, but we know now that he really wasn't. Anyway, your best-case class:
QB Ell Roberson
RB Zack Abron
WR Brandon Lloyd
WR Justin Gage
WR Bobby Wade
WR Michael Johnson
WR Darius Outlaw
OL A.J. Ricker
OL Rob Droege
OL John Garrison
DL Andrew Shull
LB Josh Buhl
LB Terry Pierce
LB Sean Doyle
LB Bryan Hickman
LB Torrance Marshall
DB Yaacov Yisreal
DB Terrence Curry
ATH Christian Morton
ATH Brandon Barnes
First of all, this class is (amazingly unrealistic, even in a best-case scenario, and) absolutely ferocious. Roberson eventually would have been The Next Corby, Lloyd, Gage and Wade would have been a ridiculous wideout trio (and Johnson was pretty good, too), You've still got Ricker and Droege, and in Garrison, you've got another likely multi-year starter. Shull would have been the second-best D-line recruit of the Larry Smith era (behind Justin Smith, obviously). That bunch of linebackers would have been the best of any in the 1999 class. And in Yisreal and Morton, you'd have had at least two decent extra defensive backs.
One other thing: almost nobody in this class would have prevented Missouri from being awful in 1999. Marshall and one of the KSU linebackers would have been solid, but Missouri's linebackers really weren't an issue. (Well, they were -- no way would Pat Duffy have earned much playing time on a really good squad -- but they weren't the issue.) Lloyd would have helped at receiver, but Roberson would have been no more ready to help immediately than Gage. (Remember: Roberson was not very good at first.)
In 1999, Mizzou was an abject disaster at quarterback, and their skill position players weren't good enough to help. Adding Lloyd (511 yards, 17.0 per catch at Illinois in 1999) and Wade (454 yards, 15.1 per catch) would have helped in the instances where Travis Garvin was suspended (which, if I remember correctly, was quite often). The defense had the tendency to hold out as long as possible, then cave, especially later in the season. They held Texas Tech to 169 yards of offense and did very well against Oklahoma and Texas A&M for a half each. This recruiting class would have quite possibly swung a single game, but the late-season collapse was going to happen no matter what.
The best-case scenario version of this class would have been phenomenal. In 2001-03. Nothing was going to stop a serious backslide in 1999, and the extra talent would have, at best, allowed for a rebound to the 5-6 to 7-4 range in 2000. But the reason Mizzou fell apart was because, basically, the 1996-98 recruiting classes weren't very good. The 1999 class was, in real life, solid, and it wasn't the reason why Mizzou fell apart after Corby Jones and Devin West left town. If Gary Pinkel still ended up in Columbia in 2001 in this best-case, alternate reality, he would have inherited one hell of a base of talent. But nothing was saving Larry Smith's tenure. The foundation was already crumbling in 1998; we just didn't know it until the next year.
(God, I had way too much fun writing this. It gave me an excuse to play pretend, play with the old CSTV database, and break out my old Phil Steele mags to get Wade's and Lloyd's stats. The trifecta of What If Nerddom.)