Here’s a secret about college football that, once you understand it, explains a great deal about why people do the things they do.
Everything is recruiting.
Did your school just win a conference championship? Produce a first-round draft pick? Sign a five-star recruit? Build a new facility with fancy slides?
Each of these achievements can be packaged into a recruiting pitch for the next wave of players, who in turn will help to recruit their own replacements.
I don’t mean to sound cynical or imply there’s no room for joy in the assembly-line environment of college football. I did see Nick Saban smile, once.
I’m just saying, if there’s a big event happening in college football, someone is using it as a recruiting tool. Some coaches embrace this more than others, but those who succeed at the highest level tend to be the ones milking every opportunity to market their programs to recruits.
That’s why, according to some estimates, Oregon will have upwards of 50 recruits in attendance at Saturday’s spring game, along with a bunch of former players. Those expected to attend include five-star linebacker Justin Flowe, five-star wide receiver Johnny Wilson and five-star quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, all of whom are ranked among the top players in the 2020 class.
It’s hard to get too excited about what happens on the field during a spring game. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of a future star. Sometimes Jeff Lockie throws for 200 yards and three touchdowns. You never really know.
What happens on the sideline, though: That matters. Signing a bunch of five-star recruits remains the surest way to win a national championship, or at least ensure your team is part of the conversation.
Mario Cristobal has harnessed Oregon’s recruiting advantages better than any coach before him, which is not to anoint him as the best coach Oregon’s ever had. It just means he knows how to sell the program, and Saturday is one of the days when that matters.
“All we want to do is show what we are and who we are, and the rest takes care of itself,” Cristobal said. “We feel we have the best place in the country, the best fans, the best energy and passion. If we just be us, be who we are, it should be a great weekend.”
One of these days, college football coaches will figure out how to control the weather and every spring game will be played with sunny skies and 70-degree temperatures. For now it’s still up to chance. If Saturday is anything like Thursday, the Oregon weather will be a recruiting pitch unto itself, as long as no one asks about February.
If you want to know why your coach is talking like a meteorologist, well, see above. It’s all about recruiting. There’s nothing like a sunny day and a packed stadium to leave recruits fantasizing about spending the next four years on your campus.
Don’t be surprised if Oregon’s 2020 class kicks into high gear after Saturday. Right now the Ducks are 40th in the 247 Sports rankings, behind schools like Kansas, BYU and North Texas. That should change as Oregon’s top targets begin to make their decisions, which could happen as soon as Saturday.
The Ducks have momentum after signing a top-10 class last season. They have a quarterback who might be the No. 1 pick next April and nine other returning starters on offense.
There’s a lot to like about this Oregon team, and also a bunch of a questions that won’t be answered until the fall. The spring game might provide some hints, but we won’t know if freshmen Mycah Pittman and Kayvon Thibodeaux are ready for the Pac-12, if Andy Avalos’ defense is going to click or if Marcus Arroyo’s playbook has expanded.
Pretty soon, though, we should know more about the makeup of Oregon’s team in 2020. That’s why the spring game is a big deal, and why it takes precedence over another significant event in the Cristobal household.
“It’s my wife’s birthday,” Cristobal said. “I should mention that now for some points, because I won’t see her at all on Saturday.”
See what I mean? It’s all about recruiting.