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SEC's dominance extends to Signing Day

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Mark Stoops left an assistant job with Florida State a little more than two months ago to become the head coach at the University of Kentucky – despite never once setting foot on campus.

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Mark Stoops could have Kentucky pointed toward a top-25 recruiting class. (Lexington Herald-Leader)

He didn't need to see Lexington. He didn't need to tour the facilities. He didn't care that the program had lost at least five games every season since 1990, was just 110-160 overall and 9-85 against ranked teams.

Stoops believed in his own plan, believed in the people at UK and believed in one thing that increasingly carries incredible power on the recruiting trail – membership in the SEC.

"Kids want to play in the SEC," Stoops told Yahoo! Sports Wednesday morning. "It's important, we have a great program, a great school in a great location and we play in the best conference in America."

On Wednesday's National Signing Day, Stoops unveiled what many are hailing as the greatest recruiting class in the program's history, a nine-week mop-up that landed the Wildcats at No. 28 nationally after they managed a final-hour flip of a defensive end long promised to the University of Southern California.

Let's go ahead and repeat the end of that sentence – Kentucky flipped a USC recruit. Earlier, the Wildcats flipped a Nebraska one.

[Related: Follow National Signing Day at Rivals.com]

"SEC membership isn't the ultimate trump card, but it's a pretty good one," said Rivals.com national recruiting expert Mike Farrell. "The SEC is a great selling point. A lot of kids choose the SEC not just because they have the best chance to win a national title, but to play against a better caliber of competition."

The latter would help explain not just Kentucky's success – it's unlikely even Stoops thinks the Wildcats will win a national title anytime soon – but long-time second-tier programs such as Mississippi (seventh in the Rivals rankings), Vanderbilt (19) and Mississippi State (25).

Meanwhile, Texas A&M, a league newcomer but not an elite program in its old Big 12 home, is ranked eighth nationally and has taken plenty of momentum away from archrival Texas, which is ranked 23rd.

While it is nothing new for SEC programs landing coveted recruits – predictably, Alabama, Florida and LSU were all ranked in the top five – the depth of the dominance is something new.

League schools make up six of the top 10, seven of the top 12 and 10 of the top 20 nationally according to Rivals.com's rankings late Tuesday.

Arkansas is at No. 26, but that was a program that lacked a full-time head coach for six months until Bret Bielema was hired in early December. That means Bielema's new program out-recruited his old one (Wisconsin fell to 48th) in no time flat. Kentucky is 28th nationally, which is second to last in the SEC but would rank fourth in the Big Ten.

[Related: Rivals.com's latest team rankings]

Only Missouri at No. 49 could be considered a disappointment, but coming in 14th in the SEC would rank the Tigers in the middle of the pack of most major conferences.

"If the 13th team in your league is Arkansas, which just went in and got a great running back [Alex Collins] out of Miami's backyard, that's crazy," Farrell said.

Said Stoops: "I've never seen anything like it. That's a big part of why I thought it was a great opportunity at Kentucky. Almost the whole conference could be in the top 30 nationally."

That's the power of the league brand. Fans of rival conferences can be excused for getting sick of the "SEC, SEC" chant and the fawning media coverage that follows. But just imagine how their coaches feel hearing it on the recruiting trail.

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Robert Nkemdiche is Rivals.com's top-rated recruit this year. (USA Today Sports)

It's not that SEC schools are the only ones doing well. Ohio State and Michigan are both enjoying strong years. Notre Dame has put together a massive haul that will bolster a possible return to a title game. The UCLA Bruins have usurped sanction-riddled USC's dominance out West and Washington is trying to join them. Power schools such as Florida State, Oklahoma and others still get their share.

And it's also not that recruiting rankings mean everything. Not in terms of wins and losses, or even in level of talent. Last April, Boise State had six players selected in the NFL draft, including two in the first round, the third-most of any school. None of them ranked higher than three-star prospects when Chris Petersen signed them.

All that said, coaches would rather have players who project high than not have them. Alabama is about to win the recruiting title for a fourth time in five years. It's not a coincidence they've won three actual titles in four.

One of the things the traditional second division of the SEC has been able to sell to recruits is a chance to play against the 'Bamas of the world and in highly publicized stadium environments shown nationally each week on CBS, among other networks.

Plus a few years back, commissioner Mike Slive developed the "SEC Network," which offers a syndicated TV package designed to put lower-profile teams on broadcast stations in scores of markets across the country. It isn't the moneymaker of the Big Ten Network – or of the SEC's future copycat – but it no doubt helped with exposure of the non-power teams.

Throw in the league's seven consecutive national titles, its rich budgets that attract the highest-paid coaching staffs and its natural proximity to the talent-rich Southeast, and maybe this was inevitable.

It can kind of just snowball on top of itself.

"These schools have even proven they can go out of the region and bring kids to the SEC," Farrell said. "That's new."

[Related: History of Rivals.com's No. 1 prospects]

Again, it's one thing for Alabama or Florida to recruit nationally. But everyone?

Ole Miss landed wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell) from Illinois. Auburn got defensive end (Tashawn Bower) out of New Jersey and defensive end (Elijah Daniel) from suburban Indianapolis. South Carolina went to Philadelphia for running back David Williams. And Kentucky picked up defensive back Marcus McWilson out of Youngstown, Ohio.

Rival fans can complain about SEC bias, SEC hype, even SEC over-signing. No one is arguing against that. This is what National Signing Day is, however, and this is what the system has delivered.

A world where one conference's high tide has lifted all boats, even in, of all places, the long-lowly, just-waiting-for-basketball-season Big Blue of Kentucky.

More National Signing Day coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
No. 1 recruit Robert Nkemdiche makes Ole Miss relevant
Top-ranked offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil chooses Ole Miss
Signing Day advice: 'Don't go with the money'

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