Most Oregon football fans will probably be pretty giddy about what looks to be a strong recruiting class the Ducks will announce Wednesday during National Signing Day.
The class currently ranks at No. 20 on Rivals.com and No. 24 in 247sports.com's composite rankings. A couple of late commitments could push the Ducks into the high teens. Not bad, given that new coach Willie Taggart took over the reins of the program on Dec. 7 following a 4-8 season that led to the firing of Mark Helfrich.
But here's the deal: This projected recruiting class simply isn't good enough. Not even close. Not given the crazy expectations that surround a program that hasn't quite figured out how to handle relatively new success. Oregon is going to have to elevate its recruiting classes into at least the low teens if not the top-10 to have a reasonable shot at winning a national title, which is Oregon's ultimate goal.
The numbers simply do not lie.
Since 2002, the average class ranking for the five recruiting classes signed prior to a team winning or splitting a national is 7.93 (see chart below).
All 16 national title teams since 2002 (LSU and USC split the 2003 national championship) signed at least one top-five class within five years of winning the championship. All but two of those programs (2003 USC and 2005 Texas) signed at least two top-10 classes prior to being crowned champions.
To be fair to Taggart and his staff, they should not be judged in anything but a favorable light for this year's recruiting class. They did a great job of hitting the ground running and adding nicely to the nine committed players secured by the former staff, which had a class ranked No. 23 on Rivals before Helfrich's firing.
Where Taggart, who came to UO from South Florida, and his staff will truly earn their money will be by elevating UO's recruiting prowess to historic heights in the coming years. If not, Oregon will settle right into a pattern of ups and downs that most programs go through. It's unavoidable, even though that's exactly what did in Helfrich and company.
-- No excuses
The narrative surrounding the firing of Helfrich was that the bar for success had been raised and that under no circumstances was it acceptable for the program to ever have a down season even if the roster is young and beset by numerous injuries.
That's why athletic director Rob Mullens fired Helfrich. Forget the nonsense about players cutting corners or lack of accountability. Most programs go through that from time to time. All of that was all fixable. That staff had overcome worse messes. The losing season in a culture now accustomed to contending on an annual basis is what did in Helfrich and a staff responsible for Oregon's greatest ever single season in 2014, just two short years ago. Also, it was a staff, for the most part, that had its finger prints all over four conference titles, two Rose Bowl wins, a Fiesta Bowl victory, an Alamo Bowl romp, two national title appearances (UO was a knee injury away from a third), and the program's first ever Heisman Trophy, all since 2009.
It was a great run. But it clearly wasn't good enough to warrant a mulligan for the coaching staff following the program's first losing season in 12 years (2004).
But here is the problem moving forward, and the challenge facing Taggart: The former coaching staff, during the end of Mike Bellotti's tenure through Chip Kelly's four-year run and under Helfrich, were able to overcome a lack of national title contending talent with a unique offense that allowed the Ducks to play beyond their overall talent level.
The Ducks' average recruiting class ranking from 2002 through 2016 was 21.7. The 2010 Ducks reached the national championship game with an average five-year class ranking of 24.8 with a high of No. 12 in 2007. The 2014 Ducks reached the national title game with an average class ranking of 17.2 with a high of No. 9 in 2012.
Helfrich's three full recruiting classes (he took over for Kelly in in Mid-January of 2013) had an average ranking of 22.7 with a high of No. 17 in 2015.
As one can tell, Oregon having a class ranked No. 20 is hardly earth shattering or cause for a parade. The Ducks have had seven top 20 classes since 2002 and four in the top 10.
Taggart needs to land more often in the top 10 than out of it to succeed. And it won't be easy.
Most national powers can fill their recruiting classes with high-end recruits living nearby. Oregon cannot. It must fan across the country to fill its roster. To that end, Taggart has assembled a strong recruiting staff with coaches that have had success getting players from all over the country. But none had ever been forced to recruit those players to Eugene.
To land a glut of four-star and five-star recruits, the Ducks' staff must out-recruit other big-time programs after the same players and do so to a city with a 1.4 percent African-American population and one that is difficult to get to.
These things matter to many parents and most of Oregon's recruits are African-American. Oregon certainly has a lit of glitz going for it with the uniforms and amazing facilities, but nowadays, most programs have updated facilities and multiple uniform combinations.
But there is hope.
-- Being aggressive
What Taggart and his staff did this recruiting cycle was establish a strong presence nationally while being ultra aggressive. It resulted in the landing of some key recruits, but maybe more importantly for the program's future, set the tone that the Ducks' will be recruiting differently in hopes of elevating that recruiting base.
The Ducks have already used Taggart's connections to land commitments from six players from the fertile recruiting state of Florida. Without even looking, we know that's an Oregon record, although the Ducks do have two impact players from Florida, receiver Charles Nelson and running back Tony Brooks-James.
But the hype surrounding the six Florida recruits is a bit overblown. Five of them are three-star recruits, which grow on trees for the Ducks. A three-star recruit from Florida is no better or worse than a three-star recruit from Arizona, Illinois, Texas or anywhere else.
Of the six recruits from Florida, only one, four-star athlete Bruce Judson, received an offer from both Florida and Florida State, according to Rivals.com. Only two others had offers from one or the other in-state powerhouses.
Even if it's not a group of can't-miss prospects, landing all six could pay off big down the line if they report back to the other future recruits from Florida that they like it in Eugene, the weather isn't all that bad and they are having fun and winning.
That could lead to an increase of higher-end recruits electing to make the trek to Eugene to play for Taggart.
--- Could still contend
The Ducks could still show flashes of being a national threat even if they don't elevate recruiting on an annual basis if the coaching staff proves to be elite.
After all, Washington reached the 2016 national playoffs with an average five-year class ranking of 29. However, once the Huskies got on the field with Alabama and it's numerous top three classes, it was clear that they were out-manned in the overall talent department.
Certainly, winning the Pac-12 title will be within reach for UO if Taggart and his staff can coach, and when the Ducks have an elite quarterback. Winning the Pac-12 with at worst a 12-1 record will in most years get that team into the national playoffs. Unfortunately, once there that team will likely take on a program with simply far too much talent to overcome.
When the Ducks faced Ohio State in the national title game following the 2014 season, the Buckeyes had an average recruiting class ranking of 9.0. Furthermore, Ohio State had 17 players drafted over the next two drafts, nine inside the first three rounds, compared to eight and five for Oregon.
Taggart should be able to get the Ducks into the mix for conference titles from time to time. To do so on an annual basis in a deep conference will require elevating their recruiting reach above the competition. And that's going to be tough to do with the likes of USC working on its third top 10 class in four years
The greatest challenge facing Taggart might not be on the field or on the recruiting trail. It could very simply be meeting expectations that require taking Oregon places it's never been before.
Recruiting class rankings for national champions based on Rivals.com (some early years from 247sports). Classes listed are those within five years of team winning national title.
2016 Clemson: Average class rank = 10.4 (No. 14 in 2012, No. 14 in 2013, No. 13 in 2014, No. 4 in 2015, No. 6 in 2016)
2015 Alabama: Average = 1.2 (No. 1 in 2011, No. 1 in 2012, No. 1 in 2013, No. 1 in 2014, No. 2 in 2015)
2014 Ohio State: Average = 9.0 (No. 25 in 2010, No. 11 in 2011, No. 4 in 2012, No. 2 in 2013, No. 3 in 2014)
2013 Florida State: Average = 5.83 (No. 7 in 2009, No. 10 in 2010, No. 2 in 2011, No. 6 in 2012, No. 10 in 2013).
2012 Alabama: Average = 1.8 (No. 1 in 2008, No. 1 in 2009, No. 5 in 2010, No. 1 in 2011, No. 1 in 2012).
2011 Alabama: Average = 3.6 (No. 10 in 2007, No. 1 in 2008, No. 1 in 2009, No. 5 in 2010, No 1 in 2011).
2010 Auburn: Average = 12.0 (No. 10 in 2006, No. 7 in 2007, No. 20 in 2008, No. 19 in 2009, No. 4 in 2010).
2009 Alabama: Average = 8.2 (No. 18 in 2005, No. 11 in 2006, No. 10 in 2007, No. 1 in 2008, N0. 1 in 2009).
2008 Florida: Average = 6.0 (No. 10 in 2004, No. 15 in 2005, No. 2 in 2006, No. 1 in 2007, No. 3 in 2008).
2007 LSU: Average = 7.2 (No. 1 in 2003, No. 2 in 2004, No. 22 in 2005, No. 7 in 2006, No. 4 in 2007).
2006 Florida: Average = 9.8 (No. 20 in 2002, No. 2 in 2003, No. 10 in 2004, No. 15 in 2005, No. 2 in 2006).
2005 Texas: Average = 13.5 (No. 11 in 2001 [247 sports], No. 1 in 2002, No. 15 in 2003, No. 18 in 2004, No. 20 in 2005).
2004 USC: Average = 9.8 (No. 12 in 2000 [247 sports], No. 20 in 2001 [247 sports], No. 13 in 2002, No. 3 in 2003, No. 1 in 2004).
2003 Co-champ LSU: Four-year Average – 9.8 (No. 21 in 2000 [247 sports], No. 2 in 2001 [247 sports], No. 15 in 2002, No. 1 in 2003).
2003 Co-champ USC: Four-year Average – 12.0 (No. 12 in 2000 [247 sports], No. 20 in 2001 [247 sports], No. 13 in 2002, No. 3 in 2003).
2002 Ohio State: Three-year Average – 6.67 (No. 9 in 2000 [247 sports], No. 6 in 2001 [247 sports], No. 5 in 2002).
2001 Miami: Two-year Average – 7.5 (No. 7 in 2000 [247 sports], No. 8 in 2001 [247 sports]).