COLUMBIA, Mo. • As the national recruiting rankings solidified Wednesday, they offered a frightening look at not only what Mizzou faces in coming years but the challenge the entire country will endure to knock the Southeastern Conference off the national championship podium.
The consensus top 10 recruiting classes became a who’s who of the SEC with Alabama, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and, yes, Mississippi, locking up monster groups. Auburn and Georgia hovered just outside the top 10.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, meanwhile, gave his annual “Rankings? What rankings?” speech as he announced a class that some services rate as the worst in the conference.
“We believe in our evaluation system,” Pinkel said. “I say it every year and I’ll say it again — we never look at any stars on any players. It’s never happened. We don’t ever look at any rankings. It’s never happened. We do what we do, and I think over the years it’s proved it’s worked in a very positive way for us in bringing players that can help us win a championship.”
That last part has been elusive and has become a more daunting pursuit in a new league.
In the nearly final analysis, Mizzou’s 20-player class was ranked 37th in the country and 13th in the SEC by Scout.com and ESPN and 14th in the conference by Rivals.com and 247sports.com.
The Tigers landed 11 players from Missouri, including four-star running back Chase Abbington from Fort Zumwalt South. However, they were unable to secure the services of Ezekiel Elliott (John Burroughs), who announced that he would attend Ohio State after wavering at the last minute.
Illinois signed 25 players and finished with rankings generally in the middle of the Big Ten, which didn’t have nearly the overall success of the SEC.
Although Mizzou turned its emphasis to SEC states, Pinkel acknowledged that will be a slow process. In the end, the Tigers landed 13 players in fairly close proximity to Columbia.
“For in-state recruiting it was one of the best years since we’ve been here,” Pinkel said. “That’s why it presented itself that way. We feel very good about that.”
Players from the St. Louis area to sign with Mizzou include Abbington, offensive lineman Alec Abeln (St. Louis University High), linebacker Eric Beisel (Summit), offensive lineman Harneet Gill (Howell), defensive back Aarion Penton (CBC) and defensive lineman Antar Thompson (Maplewood).
Although he signed only one player each from Florida and Georgia, Pinkel was not disappointed in the geographic diversity in terms of recruiting SEC territory.
He said getting a foothold in Texas when he first arrived at Mizzou took time. He started with four coaches assigned to Texas and ended up with seven. During this recruiting process, he had one in Georgia, two in Florida and three in Texas. Those numbers could be adjusted, he added.
“It’s a transition period, like when we got into Texas,” he said. “We ended up with 30 players on our team from Texas. It wasn’t like that 10 years ago. We went in and nobody even knew us. It’s about building relationships.”
It came as no surprise that the SEC did well, but some non-traditional powers made moves that were significant.
Ole Miss ended up with three five-star and nine four-star players and shook the recruiting landscape by landing defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, considered by some the No. 1 high school player in the country. The Rebels also signed the nation’s top receiver in Laquon Treadwell.
Vanderbilt capitalized on its best season in history by compiling a top-20 class, adding further strength to the SEC’s East Division. Meanwhile, Auburn mounted a comeback and Kentucky and Arkansas made late surges.
Illinois signed a larger class with 25 players, although 10 signed and enrolled early for the spring semester. The most notable incoming freshmen will be quarterback Aaron Bailey and running back Caleb Day.
But Illinois coach Tim Beckman attempted to fill some holes with immediate contenders for starting jobs by turning to the junior college ranks.
“It was needs, no question about it,” he said. “We’re a very young team. We really don’t have a junior class and felt for depth purposes with injury plague we had last year and losing some players, we had to immediately fill in need-wise.”
Mizzou filled needs as well, hitting the minimum number of players wanted at each position. The Tigers added 12 defensive players, including six linemen with Josh Augusta (Peoria, Ill.) considered the best of the bunch. They also signed four defensive backs.
Adding to the youthful competition at quarterback behind returning starter James Franklin will be incoming freshmen Trent Hosick (Kansas City) and Eddie Printz (Marietta, Ga.), both of whom enrolled early.
With the work complete, Pinkel now must hope that the rankings that he ignores don’t pan out.
“Not having great players is not what gets coaches fired in programs that don’t excel,” he said. “It’s having recruiting mistakes that hurt programs. So the most important thing is that people get committed that are good enough to play and help you win a championship.”