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Recruits, transfers and the building of the College Football Playoff teams

With the College Football Playoff semifinals a little over a week away, it’s time to look at the four teams and their different paths to college football’s ultimate goal.

Georgia and Ohio State will match up in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and Michigan and TCU will meet in the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl. Each team had varying degrees of success in recruiting and in the transfer portal over the past three seasons.

Georgia, Michigan and Ohio State all have multiple CFP appearances, and that has had a major impact on the recruiting trail recently. Meanwhile, TCU and first-year coach Sonny Dykes had to hit the portal hard this past offseason, and the benefits were immediately apparent.

No two roads to the playoff are exactly the same, and although some share similarities, they’re still different in their own unique ways. This is how Georgia, Michigan, TCU and Ohio State found their way to this season’s College Football Playoff.

Recent ESPN recruiting rankings

2022 class: 3rd
2021 class: 3rd
2020 class: 2nd

Highest-rated recruit on current roster: CB Kelee Ringo (No. 8 overall, No. 1 cornerback in 2020)

Most important transfer: DB Tykee Smith (West Virginia)

Recruiting breakdown: It’s not a coincidence that the highest-rated player in each of Georgia’s signing classes from 2020-22 has been a defensive player (Malaki Starks, Smael Mondon, Kelee Ringo). Georgia coach Kirby Smart played defensive back and spent 11 seasons as a defensive assistant under Nick Saban. And it’s a good thing Smart went so heavy on defense. That’s not only how you field last season’s record-setting defense but also how you lose five first-round picks off that defense and don’t miss a beat the next year with underclassmen such as Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Javon Bullard stepping into larger roles. Other areas of emphasis dovetail with Smart’s hard-nosed coaching philosophy: offensive line and running back. The Bulldogs signed the top-rated offensive tackle in 2020 (Broderick Jones) and the No. 3-rated tackle in 2021 (Amarius Mims). Two of Georgia’s top three running backs were ranked in the top 15 at their position (Kendall Milton, Kenny McIntosh), and Daijun Edwards has proved to be a great find as the No. 33 back in the 2020 class. When Smart got the job, he knew how fertile a state Georgia was for football talent, but he also knew how competitive it was. In 2021, he signed three of the top four players from Georgia. In 2022, he signed two of the top four. But he has done well going outside the state, too, getting leading receiver Brock Bowers from California and leading tackler Dumas-Johnson from Maryland. The depth is noticeable, with 47 ESPN 300 signees from 2020 to 2022.

Under-the-radar recruiting success story: Without Brock Bowers, where would Georgia be? The offense would be in trouble, that’s for sure. Bowers is not only the best tight end in the country but also leads the Bulldogs in receptions (52), receiving yards (726) and receiving touchdowns (6). Oh, and he has rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown. And to think that Bowers, who looks like a surefire first-round pick now, wasn’t even the highest-rated tight end in his class. He was fourth — and 210th overall. Credit Georgia for seeing something in his skill set (he played Wildcat quarterback and running back in high school) and going all the way to Napa, California, to get him. Otherwise, he might be a Washington Husky right now and Georgia might not be in the playoff.

How they landed their QB: Georgia didn’t exactly go hard after Stetson Bennett. The undersized quarterback from Blackshear, Georgia, was no one’s idea of a coveted recruit. He walked on to the team in 2017, redshirted and decided to leave, transferring to a junior college in Mississippi. And even after proving to himself that he could play, scoring 20 touchdowns, Bennett was prepared to sign at the University of Louisiana. But on the first day of the early signing period, Smart swooped in with a scholarship offer. It was more about adding depth than anything else. No. 1-ranked quarterback Justin Fields was part of the 2018 class. But Bennett outlasted Fields and, eventually, he outlasted star transfers JT Daniels and Jamie Newman to become the ultimate underdog story he is today.

Portal power: What portal power? Georgia was the only team in the Power 5 not to sign a single transfer player this past offseason. Tykee Smith — the “Most important transfer” listed above — came to the program in 2020. And even then, he has started only four games this season. Although Smart has dipped into the portal in the past, success has been mixed. All of this year’s team is homegrown talent. (That may change next year — earlier this week the Dawgs landed two dynamic wide receivers from the portal.) — Alex Scarborough

Recent ESPN recruiting rankings

2022 class: 8th
2021 class: 14th
2020 class: 11th

Highest-rated recruit on current roster: DE Derrick Moore (No. 20 overall, No. 4 DE in 2022)

Most important transfer: C Olusegun Oluwatimi (Virginia)

Recruiting breakdown: Over the past three recruiting cycles, Jim Harbaugh has reeled in 28 ESPN 300 recruits, with only one of the three classes residing in the top 10 (eighth in 2022). The Wolverines’ rise to back-to-back Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff appearances have come with player development at the forefront. Only six top-100 recruits have signed with Michigan since 2020. By comparison, Georgia has signed 31 top-100 prospects and Ohio State has signed 22 top-100 prospects during that time frame. So that puts Michigan’s two wins over Ohio State and its blowout loss to Georgia in last season’s College Football Playoff in better perspective. Michigan has truly gotten back to the national stage as a sum of its parts. Eleven players within the top 10 at their respective positions — led by J.J. McCarthy, the second-best dual-threat quarterback in 2021 — have signed with Michigan within the past three years. Four ESPN 300 safeties — Jordan Morant (No. 190 overall, No. 9 S in 2020), Makari Paige (No. 231 overall, No. 14 S in 2020), Keon Sabb (No. 100 overall, No. 6 S in 2022) and Zeke Berry (No. 290 overall, No. 21 S in 2022) — have signed with the Wolverines within the past three recruiting cycles.

Under-the-radar recruiting success story: Kris Jenkins, whose father played 10 years in the NFL, came to Ann Arbor as a three-star recruit out of Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland, as part of Michigan’s 2020 class. Jenkins, the No. 53 defensive tackle in ESPN’s rankings, contributed considerably this season to the Wolverines’ stout defense. Jenkins, who is 6-foot-3, 285 pounds, recorded 50 tackles (27 solo) with two sacks for a unit that was third in total defense (277.1 yards per game) in FBS. He has provided help to 2019 ESPN 300 recruit Mazi Smith (No. 45 overall, No. 4 DT) and 2022 three-star recruit Mason Graham on the defensive line.

How they landed their QB: J.J. McCarthy, originally from Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, Illinois, transferred to IMG Academy during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. McCarthy (No. 25 overall in 2021 ESPN 300) was the Wolverines’ highest recruit in the 2021 class. Bypassing offers from Ohio State, Michigan State, LSU, Texas and Wisconsin, he was the highest-ranked quarterback in Jim Harbaugh’s tenure and the highest-ranked quarterback to sign with the Wolverines since Ryan Mallett (No. 12 overall) in 2007. After Michigan won the Big Ten title and went to the College Football Playoff in 2021, McCarthy beat out Cade McNamara, who eventually transferred to Iowa after this season, to win the starting job. McCarthy threw for 2,376 yards with 20 touchdowns and three interceptions this season as Michigan went undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1997.

Portal power: Center Olusegun Oluwatimi was a graduate transfer from Virginia who didn’t disappoint. Oluwatimi won the Rimington Trophy (third in Michigan history) and the Outland Trophy (first in Michigan history) this season as the Wolverines averaged 243 rushing yards a game — fifth in the FBS. — Blake Baumgartner



Gene Wojciechowski sits down with Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh to discuss what’s at stake heading into the 2023 Fiesta Bowl.

Recent ESPN recruiting rankings

2022 class: 57th
2021 class: 49th
2020 class: 31st

Highest rated recruit on current roster: WR Quentin Johnston (No. 63 overall, No. 7 WR in 2020)

Most important transfer: LB Johnny Hodges (Navy)

Recruiting breakdown: Under former coach Gary Patterson, TCU had a reputation for finding diamonds in the rough, with a focus on athleticism and development. That has paid dividends on a roster with a lot of speed on the top end. There were a few big wins (Johnston flipped from Texas and was the highest-rated recruit of Patterson’s TCU era), but the Frogs signed just 15 four-star players in the past three years (including just nine ESPN 300 recruits, with Michigan’s 28 the fewest among the other three CFP teams). But TCU has molded those players into productive stars like Thorpe Award winner Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson and All-Big 12 running back Kendre Miller (1,342 yards, 17 TDs), who was a three-star and the No. 65 athlete in the 2020 class. Dee Winters, the No. 109 WR in the 2019 class, is now a 6-1, 230-pound first-team All-Big 12 linebacker who had 65 tackles, 11.5 for a loss, and 7.5 sacks. Derius Davis, a 5-9, 145-pound three-star recruit ranked as the No. 94 CB in 2018, has six career return TDs and was a first-team All-American punt returner this year, adding 418 receiving yards and five TD catches.

Under-the-radar recruiting success story: Hodges-Tomlinson was an undersized safety prospect at 5-9, 171 who was ranked as the No. 42 safety in the country and No. 77 player in Texas. He had just three offers, Baylor in his hometown of Waco, Kansas State and Texas State, until his uncle, legendary TCU alum LaDainian Tomlinson, called Patterson and told him he couldn’t bear his nephew going to Baylor, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Hodges-Tomlinson received an offer about a month before signing day, jumped on it and has since become a lockdown corner who was first-team All-Big 12 the past three seasons, including All-American honors in 2020 and 2022. He allowed just a 38.9 passer rating this year, best in the Big 12.

How they landed their QB: Max Duggan was a highly recruited player out of Council Bluffs, Iowa, and opted to go far from home, in search of a larger city to play in. He loved Fort Worth, and current Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Cumbie, then the Frogs’ offensive coordinator, thought he was a good fit for the Air Raid, and TCU had had recent success with dual-threat QBs such as Trevone Boykin and Kenny Hill. He chose the Horned Frogs over Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska, a big win for Patterson.

Portal power: That developmental recruiting became challenging when the Frogs needed a quick turnaround. The Frogs were 16-18 in the three seasons before new coach Sonny Dykes arrived, and there were holes to fill, especially at linebacker and defensive line. After Dykes arrived in December 2021, TCU took 14 transfers, and Hodges was the biggest find, a former Navy lacrosse player who joined the football team and was a part-time starter, then went into the transfer portal but got no offers until TCU came along. He led the team in tackles with 76, despite missing the Big 12 championship game with an injury, and was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year. Josh Newton, a corner from Louisiana-Monroe, was All-Big 12 opposite Hodges-Tomlinson, giving TCU a formidable pair and the ability to be more aggressive in the pass rush. Transfers from UConn (Lwal Uguak) and Stephen F. Austin (Caleb Fox) were key rotation players on the defensive line. Alan Ali, who started 39 games at SMU under Dykes, transferred for his final season and helped with the transition. Dykes will continue to mine the portal for talent, especially for local players who want to come home, like this week, when TCU landed Alabama transfers JoJo Earle, a top-75 national recruit, and tackle Tommy Brockermeyer, who was No. 2 in the 2021 ESPN 300; both are from the Fort Worth area. They won’t help this year, but it’s clear the Frogs’ season made them a legitimate transfer consideration going forward. — Dave Wilson

Recent ESPN recruiting rankings

2022 class: 4th
2021 class: 2nd
2020 class: 5th

Highest-rated recruit on current roster: WR Julian Fleming (No. 1 overall, No. 1 WR in 2020)

Most important transfer: N/A

Recruiting breakdown: Ohio State owns three top-10 classes over the past three years, highlighted by ranking second in 2021. A year after signing Fleming, the No. 1 recruit in 2020, Ohio State signed the No. 1 player at four positions (quarterback, defensive end, defensive tackle and running back) in 2021 — including defensive end Jack Sawyer, the No. 1 overall prospect. Of those four players, Texas quarterback Quinn Ewers (No. 2 overall, No. 1 QB-PP) is the only one not on the current roster. The Buckeyes have signed 48 ESPN 300 prospects over the three-year period, with wide receiver being the biggest stronghold. Nine wide receivers — three apiece in each of the three recruiting cycles — have made their way to Columbus, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka have left indelible impressions. A pair of top-five cornerbacks, Jakailin Johnson (No. 88 overall, No. 4 CB) and Jordan Hancock (No. 101st overall, No. 5 CB), were signed in 2021. Both lines of scrimmage are areas where prominent prospects have come in and excelled. Luke Wypler (No. 58 overall, No. 1 C) and Paris Johnson Jr. (No. 11 overall, No. 2 OT) highlighted the 2020 class, which ESPN ranked fifth, and Donovan Jackson (No. 70 overall, No. 2 OG) followed one year later. Six top-10 defensive linemen have been signed over the past two seasons (Sawyer, No. 1 overall, No. 1 DE in 2021; J.T. Tuimoloau, No. 4 overall, No. 1 DT in 2021; Michael Hall Jr. No. 81 overall, No. 8 DT in 2021; Omari Abor, No. 26 overall, No. 5 DE in 2022; Kenyatta Jackson, No. 68 overall, No. 8 DE in 2022; Hero Kanu, No. 109 overall, No. 10 DT in 2022).

Under-the-radar recruiting success story: A three-star recruit, Miyan Williams was the 57th-best running back in the 2020 class upon graduating from Cincinnati’s Winton Woods High School. The 5-9, 205-pound player proved his worth this season at the most opportune time with TreVeyon Henderson (No. 9 overall, No. 1 RB in 2021) battling injuries on and off this season as he was limited to eight games and 571 yards after running for 1,248 yards during his freshman year. Williams rushed for 817 yards (12th in Big Ten) and 13 touchdowns (third in Big Ten) on 125 carries this season. His 189 yards and a school-record five touchdowns in a 49-10 win over Rutgers was one of four 100-yard rushing games for the third-year Buckeye. His ability to carry the load in Henderson’s stead was one of the reasons Ohio State was still able to average 198.5 rushing yards a game, which ranked third in the Big Ten.

How they landed their QB: Junior C.J. Stroud (No. 104 overall, No. 2 QB-PP) came from Rancho Cucamonga (California) High School as one of two ESPN 300 quarterbacks (Jack Miller) in Ohio State’s top-five 2020 class. The Buckeyes won out for Stroud’s services over Michigan and Georgia. All Stroud has done in his two years as the starter is rewrite the Ohio State record book. A two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and two-time Graham-George Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Stroud has three career six-touchdown games and set a program and Rose Bowl record with 573 passing yards and six touchdown passes. This season, Stroud has thrown for 3,340 yards and 37 touchdowns with six interceptions as he helped lead the Buckeyes back to the College Football Playoff.

Portal power: Transfers haven’t played a huge part for the Buckeyes because recruiting has been so good in Columbus. Wide receivers coach Brian Hartline has had ample talent to work with at that position as the Buckeyes have maintained one of the most lethal offenses in the country. With Hartline’s help, Ryan Day’s program has signed nine ESPN 300 receivers since 2020. — Baumgartner

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