Based on the three 4-5 star signee impact articles that I did last week, it is obvious that the SEC is loaded with 4-5 star talent. When you compare the SEC to the other four major college football conferences (Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten and the ACC) it's the best of the best in regard to signing 4-5 star year after year.
If Mississippi State was in any of those conferences and had still signed 20 4-5 star players over the course of the 2008-2012 season (that's the actual number they did sign), they would be rated the 7th best among the Pac-12 recruiting classes during those five years, 5th best in the Big 12, 5th best in the Big Ten and the 5th best in the ACC. But in the SEC they are rated 11th best among the 14 SEC teams. And they play 8 of their 12 regular season games against SEC competition. There's not much margin for error when it comes to having a winning or losing season.
Despite being the 11th best, MSU has had successful years the past three years, with winning seasons and going to bowl games all three. That's a great accomplishment, something MSU has only done one other time in its entire football history.
And they have accomplished that while signing anywhere from 19 to 22 4-5 signees during the previous 5 year periods leading up to each season, which averages about 4 4-5 signees per recruiting season. The only SEC teams below MSU, average-wise, are Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
But MSU fans want greater success, as does Dan Mullen, his coaches and his players. How does Mullen go about achieving that type success?
Based on my research the past four weeks, the huge success normally comes with signing a lot of 4-5 star talent, in the range of 10 to 12 4-5 signees per recruiting season, something that has only been done one recruiting season in MSU football history.
In the SEC, the four programs that have averaged those kind of numbers the past five years are Alabama (84 total 4-5 star signees), Florida (63), LSU (61) and Georgia (60).
Those four teams have a combined won-loss record of 208-57 during the years 2008-2012, which is a winning percentage of .785. That's about 10 wins per season. They have also won the Eastern and Western Division titles in 4 of the past 5 seasons. South Carolina and Auburn crashed the party in 2010. Other than that one year, it's been the elite four.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, with about a third to a quarter of the talent of those four teams (20 4-5 star signees during the same period) has a won-loss record of 29-21 during Dan Mullen's four seasons at MSU, which is about 7 wins per season.
But if you look at those years a little closer by just looking at the last three seasons, MSU has won 24 and lost 14, which is an average of 8 wins per season. That means MSU is two wins away from the number of wins that the elite four has won on a consistent basis. And MSU did it while signing 20 4-5 star signees for each 5-year signing period, which is 4 per signing period.
Since we now know Dan Mullen can win more with less, it seems pretty obvious that he's a good coach.
The key words here are good coach. SEC programs have proven the past 4 seasons that even with a lot of talent or even poor talent, coaches who aren't very good coaches won't have much success. Coaches such as Auburn's Gene Chizik, Tennessee's Derek Dooley, and Kentucky's Joker Phillips prove that.
Dooley had three very poor seasons despite averaging about 46 4-5 star signees. Chizik did have the one great season when his team won the national championship, but most of the credit probably should go to another person, quarterback Cam Newton, who won the Heisman Trophy that year before jumping to the NFL the next season. Take away that one season and his other three resulted in an overall won-loss record of 19-19 and 7-17 in SEC play. And he did that while averaging 53 4-5 star signees during each five-year period leading up to those seasons. Phillips never had much talent and his teams' records reflected that. You can't really blame him for not having a winning season but good coaches find a way to show some improvement from year to year. He never did that.
Mullen, for the most part, has not only improved the program, but, after a first-year 5-win season, has seen his program win 9, 7 and now 8 games and go to three straight bowl games, two of which are New Years Day bowls.
If we can agree, based on those numbers, that Mullen is a good coach and good coaches win games, how does he take his football program to the next level?
Since we know the elite programs that win big also have good coaches, the main difference between Mullen's program and their program is that they have a lot more 4-5 star talent.
Realistically, history leads you to believe that it's unlikely that Dan Mullen will start signing 12 or more 4-5 star players every recruiting season. Because of that, the logical conclusion is that his next step will be to take it to the level directly above him, the 25 to 30 4-5 star signee level, which means he'll need to sign between 5 and 6 4-5 star players each season.
He has already starting doing that, signing 5 4-5 star players last season and likely about to sign between 5 and 7 this recruiting season.
That means, going into the 2013 season, MSU will have signed 24 4-5 star players during a 5-year period (8, 3, 2, 5, 6 = 24). If they can continue that trend and even go to the 7 4-5 star signing level, then Mullen will eventually have MSU in the 35 range, which is between 6th and 7th in the SEC. That's much higher than the 11th he has MSU at right now.
And if you agree Mullen is a good coach and his talent level average increases from around 20 4-5 star signees per every 5 years to 30 to 35, then you also have to believe that his wins per season will increase, possibly to 9 on a more consistent basis.
If he can achieve a 9-win season on a consistent basis with 30 to 35 4-5 star signees over a five-year period, what will it take to reach the 10-win season?
Is it possible that he could get MSU to that type season with a 40 4-5 star signee level? It's possible, considering that he has had two 8-win regular seasons in two of the past three seasons with much less talent.
But what is the possibility that he can even sign 8 or more 4-5 signees for five straight seasons, which is what he'll need to do to get to the magical 40 now? Has that even been done at MSU other than the 2009 recruiting season? The answer, based on historic data, is yes.
Former MSU head coach Jackie Sherrill proved it could be done when he signed 12 4-5 star signees in 1999 and 9 in 2002. In 2003 he signed 7. He started a trend that saw him sign 33, 37, then 39 4-5 star signees during three straight five year recruiting seasons, which is an average of between 6.5 and 8 4-5 star signees per recruiting season.
During that period, Coach Sherrill was proving that MSU could win on a consistent basis, winning 7, 8, 10 and 8 games from 1997 to 2000.
MSU steadily improved their football program and their recruiting of 4-5 star talent also steadily improved. From 1997 to 2003 MSU signed 5, 5, 12, 6, 5, 9 and 7 four-five star recruits. (Scout.com's player rankings started in year 2002. For all years prior to 2002, I used player rankings that I found in old recruiting magazines that I have.-Gene)
Basically, Sherrill did it by proving that MSU could win on a consistent basis, something that Mullen is also doing.
Of course, Coach Sherrill was derailed with an NCAA investigation and eventually retired. And the program started losing again and the recruiting showed the effects with just 0, 2, and 1 four-five star signees the first three years Sylvester Croom took over as MSU's head coach.
Croom had one successful year, and then saw his recruiting improve, at least for one season, in 2007 when he signed 6. His recruiting tailed off the next season, with him signing 2 the year before he was let go. His last class, combined with new head coach Dan Mullen's help, saw MSU sign 8 4-5 star signees, the most since the 9 signed in 2002.
But with the change in coaches came the inevitable downward trend in signing 4-5 star signees, with MSU signing 3 and 2 in 2010-2011.
It's a vicious cycle that has hindered MSU from winning consistently in the SEC.
But as happened with Sherrill, Dan Mullen, who is turning MSU into a consistent winner, is proving once again that consistent winning leads to an upward trend in signing 4-5 star talent.
And if he can continue that trend, then it's possible that MSU will one day, in the next so distant future, be playing in the SEC Championship Game if things fall into place like they did in 1998.
Will having that kind of success be difficult to achieve at Mississippi State? It sure will, no matter who the coach is. It is difficult for almost every coach, good or great, at an institution similar to Mississippi State. Other coaches have tried and left for greener and much easier pastures when the opportunity presented itself, even coaches who are considered some of the greatest coaches in the history of college football, such as Darrell Royal who was a combined 17-13 at Mississippi State and Washington before moving on to Texas, Steve Spurrier who enjoyed tremendous success at Florida before heading off to the NFL and then back to college ball where he was 35-28 his first 5 seasons at South Carolina, Nick Saban who was 34-24-1 at Michigan State before quickly moving on to LSU, then later Alabama.