Since Lincoln Riley stepped on campus, Oklahoma’s recruiting has steadily improved nationwide. Yet, a gap between the Sooners and the top dogs of college football persists.
Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and somewhat perplexingly Georgia consistently reel in top talent at a higher rate than OU. While Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State all have the advantage of claiming college football’s top prize more recently than Oklahoma’s last triumph now more than 20 years ago, the Bulldogs also hold a striking advantage — they don’t play in the Big 12.
Joining the Pac-12, the Big 12 has taken the mantle of Power 5 punching bag. As Texas faded into obscurity post-2009, the Sooners have been unable to get over the hump and perform on the sports biggest stage.
The offshoot? There has long been a stigma surrounding the conference which has led to highly rated recruits attending lesser programs just to play in the SEC or Big 10.
“It’s really about recruiting Texans for (the Big 12), and other conferences are doing it better than the Big 12 at the moment,” Sports Illustrated All-American recruiting director John Garcia Jr. said.
One of the country's most fertile recruiting grounds should be the base for Big 12 schools. But since Texas A&M jumped ship to the SEC, the top talent in the Lone Star State is moving increasingly elsewhere to play their collegiate ball.
Teams have had to look around the country to make up for the lost talent, and California has been a popular Plan B, Garcia said. Along with Texas, Florida and California are states stocked full of top prospects, especially in SIAA’s top 99 rankings, the SI99.
“You look at the fourth state, in terms of volume in the SI99, in California — that's been a place where the Big 12 has been able to pick and prod here and there,” Garcia said. “But as USC, at least in recruiting, starts to figure it out, Oregon maintains their status and the southern schools in the SEC and ACC, particularly Alabama, Georgia, Clemson and along with Ohio State, as they continue to pick and prod in California, it takes the Big 12 schools down that much further.”
The Sooners have actually preformed well nationally, with non-Texans Caleb Williams and Mario Williams accounting for half of OU’s SI99 members.
Garcia said he is optimistic Texas can begin to make headway nationally under Steve Sarkisian and the new staff he has assembled in Austin, but the change will be gradual.
“It’s not an overnight deal,” Garcia said, adding the level of play in the conference isn’t necessarily what’s holding the Sooners and the Longhorns back. “It’s not the Big 12, it's how they're recruiting.”
If Texas can get back up and running, it will go a long way with erasing the perception the Big 12 holds around the country with recruits, Garcia said.
“It is what is is with the Big 12,” he said. “It’s OU and it’s Texas, so Texas has to pull its weight.
“You need that great rivalry. You need that game to be the game everyone has to watch when they play. And for the last few years, that has not been the game everyone has to watch.”
Even Oklahoma making its fifth College Football Playoff might not help turn the tide, Garcia said.
“OU being the only team from the Big 12 to make the College Football Playoff and doing so multiple times doesn’t help,” he said. “You need a little brother, and right now it’s Texas.
“Little brother needs to step up for the conference’s sake and then I think that would naturally actually boost OU.”
If Texas can begin to pull their weight, and the Sooners can continue to pump out NFL talent on both sides of the football (as they’ve done so far under Alex Grinch), then the Big 12 might establish itself as a destination for top recruits across the country. But for now, the conference will continue to have questions from off the field, Garcia said.
“There's still some question marks with the Big 12," Garcia said, "and then how they're executing and finishing on the recruiting trail.”