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The rise of college football’s middle class

As Blaine Gabbert lit up the prep football fields of suburban St. Louis he did the expected, verbally committing to historic power Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had been raiding Missouri for talent for decades. Gabbert, a five-star rated quarterback, would be the latest.

The rise of college football’s middle class

Blaine Gabbert had his pick of the nation's power programs, but chose to stay close to home.
(Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

Then Nebraska dumped coach Bill Callahan and his pro-style off

ense. Gabbert reopened his recruitment and that’s when things got interesting. He could’ve gone anywhere. He decided to stay home and attend the University of Missouri, becoming the first five-star recruit in the program’s history.

Saturday he threw for 308 yards and a touchdown to lead the Tigers in an upset of then top-ranked Oklahoma. Missouri is 7-0 and ranked sixth in the BCS standings, part of the surprising rise of the perceived middle class of college football. It’s the dominating storyline of the

Take a look at the BCS top 10 and you won’t see a lot of true blue-blood programs (Alabama and Oklahoma) but rather a string of either traditionally solid, but rarely great major conference programs or flying-high upstarts from outside the game’s power circles.

Auburn, Oregon, Boise State, Texas Christian, Michigan State, Missouri, Utah and Wisconsin are all part of a new money rush toward the top.

It goes back to Blaine Gabbert and players just like him. What once would’ve been a shocking decision – a coveted, elite quarterback turning down the big powers – is now commonplace. These teams aren’t at the top by accident.

They’re there because the recruiting game has changed thanks to a wave of improved facilities, the proliferation of televised games and the creation of the Internet which made the entire nation smaller.

As recently as 10 years ago – and certainly 20, 30 and 40 – talented players were willing to be stockpiled at big-name programs and wait their turn in the hopes of one day starting (maybe as a junior or senior). This is how the Longhorns, Buckeyes, Wolverines, Fighting Irish and Trojans churned on. Those programs still get more than their fair share of top talent. They still field elite teams. They don’t get them all any more though and, as such, they can’t be great every year.

Today’s recruits want to play immediately and a number of them have shown a willingness to seek out that playing time rather than simply follow the well worn path to an old school power.

Cam Newton, the Heisman favorite, originally attended Florida. When, for a variety of reasons, a starting role seemed unlikely, he didn’t stick around to regain the favor of the coaching staff. He left for a Texas junior college and then eventually Auburn. His heart, as he says, is still with the Gators. College football is straight business though.

Tradition is still a great card to hold on the recruiting trail. In the past it meant more though. Schools that won big, spent big; they had more fans, better facilities, bigger stadiums – one begat the other.

That’s no longer the case. Now everyone has all the bells and whistles. Michigan State, which has been to one Rose Bowl in 44 years, boasts locker rooms, offices, an indoor practice facility and an academic center that can compare with anyone. They have a 75,005-seat stadium that’s undergone recent renovations. There is nothing for a player to want for in East Lansing.

It’s no different at Mizzou or Wisconsin or Auburn or even Utah. TCU breaks ground on an impressive $105 million stadium renovation next month. Oregon, of course, may have the most opulent facilities of all.

The trend of dispersing recruits hasn’t just driven up the middle; it’s weakened – at least in depth – the old top. Texas, Michigan, Penn State, Notre Dame, Florida and other powerhouses aren’t in the current BCS rankings. There’s no longer an endless well of talent to dip into. Some of those guys are on other campuses, some lining up against them.

Like Gabbert signified progress for Mizzou, Michigan State signed its first five-star recruit last year in defensive lineman William Gholston of Detroit (he’s already racked up eight tackles and half a sack). Now the Spartans have a verbal commitment from another Detroit prep star, linebacker Lawrence Thomas, the top-rated recruit in the Midwest.

With the explosion of televised games, nearly every program is getting exposure to recruits near and far. For years the only Pac-10 schools that received regular national television time were USC and UCLA.

Now Oregon is as familiar as anyone.

It’s why the Ducks offense is powered by far-flung talent such as quarterback Darron Thomas (Houston), tailback LaMichael James (Texarkana, Texas) and wide receivers D.J. Davis (Denver) and Jeff Maehl (Paradise, Calif.). Or why they have a verbal from Miami, Fla., speedster Tacoi Sumler, believed to be the nation’s fastest recruit.

Even Boise State is on national television about eight times a year – coach Chris Petersen and the team’s iconic blue turf as familiar to recruits as anyone or anything. The Broncos’ roster features nearly four dozen Californians for a reason. Missouri, meanwhile, has nearly three dozen Texans. Most of Utah’s skill players hail from out of state.

Compounding things is the Internet. Team websites have video tours of the weight room – meaning you don’t need your father or high school coach to drive you over for a look. Newspaper coverage half a country away is as accessible as the local outlet. Facebook, Twitter and text messaging make communication easier. And the creation of regional and national recruiting camps has brought everyone together.

Now a running back from Texas and a lineman from New Jersey can be in constant contact about playing together in Madison.

It’s an entirely new era of college football. You could once assume the powers would be the powers, the cream would rise.

Now it’s Missouri with the gun-slinging star. Now it’s Auburn with the to-die-for quarterback. Now it’s Oregon with perhaps the best collection of skill players. Now it’s Boise and TCU churning out NFL draft picks.

The recruiting world has gone flat. The college football polls have gone mad.