All four of the SEC'S new head coaches—Tennessee's Butch Jones, Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Arkansas' Bret Bielema and Kentucky's Mark Stoops—have hit the ground running, giving all four programs new life and a fresh outlook for the future.
Jones and Stoops have their programs in the top 10 of the 2014 247Sports.com composite index, Auburn drew a school-record 83,401 fans to the spring game, and Arkansas' stellar staff is bound to have success in Fayetteville.
But just how fast should fans expect a turnaround? On the recruiting trail, very quickly.
A staff's first recruiting class is always a scramble. The recruiting dead period ends at the beginning of January, which leaves a new head coach about a month to hold together and complete a recruiting class—often with new assistants who aren't totally familiar with the recruiting landscape for that particular school.
"We pretty much had to recruiting for that class for those four weeks," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "We had four weeks to put together a recruiting class that everybody else had been working two years or longer on. Most of those schools had their classes solidified and were starting to recruit ahead for 2014 and '15. We were pretty much having to stay with a single mind and focus to make sure that [the 2013] class was a great class."
Over the last three seasons, several programs have risen in the recruiting rankings in Year 2 of a new staff. During that period, the only coach to make it to Year 2 and have a drop-off in recruiting is former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, which is a big reason he's no longer in Knoxville.
Jones already has his Tennessee program headed in the right direction, and he credits his staff's familiarity with handling the transition as one of the biggest reasons for his early success on the recruiting trail.
"Nothing beats experience,'' said Jones, whose staff, for the most part, is on its third transition to a new program. "I didn't have to coach out coaches to our standard and expectation, which is why we could go out and put together a pretty good recruiting class in 31 days. Always in the first year, there is no catching your breath. Your mind is racing a million miles per hour and you're always jotting things down."
Now that the transition period is over and coaches have settled in, the future looks bright for three of the four programs. The Vols and Wildcats are the surprises of the recruiting season so far, and Auburn is right where it wants to be, residing in the Top 25 and in the running for a small village of top-tier prospects.
The one exception is Arkansas, which has the 70th-ranked class. Should that be a cause for concern? Not yet.
There's plenty of time between now and national signing day to fill the 2014 class. But make no mistake, the second recruiting class for a staff is the one that establishes the true direction of a program.
Several Year 2 recruits have made a major impact on their teams in their first seasons.
Offensive lineman D.J. Humphries and defensive linemen Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard were all part of Florida head coach Will Muschamp's second recruiting class in Gainesville; and all three were named to the SEC All-Freshman Team as the Gators went 11-2 and danced around the periphery of the national title race.
Running back Matt Jones and linebacker Antonio Morrison are both expected to be stars for the Gators this season (provided Morrison's legal issues don't get in the way).
Running back Brian Kimbrow, the centerpiece of James Franklin's second class at Vanderbilt, jump-started the Commodores' recent upward swing.
Tennessee's second class under Dooley was solid on paper, but 4-star players DeAnthony Arnett; Cameron Clear and Izauea Lanier are gone, and running back Marlin Lane hasn't lived up to expectations.
With the money being generated by big-time college football, the leash for coaches is getting shorter by the day. The first recruiting class for head coaches is the sizzle, but the steak comes in Year 2. The ability of that class to stay intact and live up to expectations is what determines the direction of a program.
Does that mean Kentucky and Tennessee absolutely have to stay in the Top 10 in the class of 2014? That may be asking too much. The rankings for the Wildcats and Vols are due in part to quantity (18 and 16 commits, respectively), and those programs will have to fend off the advances of plenty of schools when the rubber hits the road before national signing day.
Still, fans of Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky should expect a significant improvement in Year 2 under their respective staffs.
If that doesn't happen, look out.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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