Top 10 recruits, 10 different schools: NIL has helped spread the wealth ... of talent

Everything is fluid in football recruiting, but as of Tuesday, less than 24 hours before recruits begin signing binding letters of intent with their chosen programs, the rankings were somewhat historic.

The top 10 recruits in the country were committed to 10 different schools.

That has never happened before, at least not since Rivals began ranking recruits back in 2006.

Obviously, there are no guarantees that these pledges will hold through signing day. The 10-to-10 phenomenon came into place only because Dylan Raiola, the nation’s top-ranked quarterback and second overall recruit, flipped from Georgia to Nebraska on Monday.

In the past, top recruits tended to bunch together, usually to sign with one of the hot programs of the moment or a steady national champion contender. In 2020, for example, Clemson signed three of the top four recruits. But this year's top 10 players are committed to Ohio State, Nebraska, Missouri, Alabama, Auburn, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas and Miami.

Great players are going to continue to flock to certain programs. Nothing is going to change that. The top-heavy nature of college football also isn’t a new problem. The sport was impossibly top-heavy for decades, with only a few legitimately competitive programs each year.

That's maybe less so now because it’s not just the top 10 players who are spreading out.

Sep 3, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA;  LeBron James talks to recruits including quarterback Dylan Raiola prior to the NCAA football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports
Dylan Raiola was recruited everywhere, including Ohio State, where LeBron James was on hand during his recruiting visit, but ultimately, Raiola chose Nebraska. (Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports)

Georgia, for instance, still has 10 top-100 recruits committed. Last year, though, the Bulldogs signed 12 and Alabama 14 of the top 100. From 2017 to 2021, the final five cycles prior to NIL (name, image and likeness), the five most successful recruiting schools in a given year signed an average of 45.4 of the top 100 recruits, per the 247 Composite rankings. If you stretch back a decade, it’s 43.7.

Currently, 98 of the top 100 are committed, and the five schools with the most top-100 commitments collectively have just 34 of them: Georgia (10), Alabama (6), Ohio State (6), Florida State (6) and Texas (6).

The talent is spreading out, at least a little. The best programs will still have the most elite talent; they’ll just have a little less of it. And their opponents will have a little more of it. Then there's the transfer portal, which has altered how talent is acquired but has also proven to be a boon for nontraditional powers because experienced players are seeking playing time more than just jumping to the best team.

For example, Ohio State’s starting quarterback this season, Kyle McCord, just left for Syracuse, at least in part because he wasn’t promised the starting job in Columbus in 2024. Depth is difficult to maintain these days.

All of this comes just two full recruiting cycles after state legislatures and federal courts granted college (and sometimes high school) athletes the ability to profit off their name, image and likeness. It was a monumental decision, and many in power in college sports — notably coaches and athletic directors — decried what was coming. They ginned up opposition among fans by warning that NIL would forever alter the competitive balance of the sport by allowing a few traditional powers to buy all the players.

Who knows, maybe they actually believed it. If so, they certainly weren’t listening to the economic professors on their campuses.

Had they, they could've learned about the Invariance Principle, a concept dating to 1956 by economics professor Simon Rottenberg, who concluded that Major League Baseball’s financial efforts to limit how talent moved within the league didn’t actually create competitive balance. It was the basis of a 1960 Nobel Prize-winning paper by Ronald Coase.

“Simon Rottenberg’s Invariance Principle remains undefeated,” said Andy Schwarz, a sports economist who tried to tell the establishment that their sky-is-falling rhetoric was all wrong. “The link between wage fixing and competitive balance is not generally supported by the field of economics.”

Others would've simply pointed out, in more layman's terms, that by inviting money into the decision-making process, other variables — proximity to talent, tradition, player development, stadium size, conference affiliation — would automatically matter less. This is one way that smaller companies or employers in less desirable areas compete for workers every day.

Most economists predicted that NIL wouldn’t change the recruiting process very much, but if it did, it would be toward spreading the talent out, not consolidating it as the coaches claimed.

Indeed, that is exactly what's happening here. NIL isn’t the only reason players are choosing different schools, but it is certainly a reason. Georgia or Alabama might have the money to win some bidding wars, but no one can win all of them.

And then there are some uncomfortable truths. Despite NCAA rules prohibiting it, recruits have been getting paid to sign with certain schools for generations. However, not every school participated, at least not on the same level. Now everyone can do it in the open. Additionally, a young recruit (or his handlers) who took money from one school can’t be blackmailed into staying out of fear that the NCAA would strip their eligibility.

Whatever it is, the consensus keeps being proven wrong. Talent is dispersing. NIL isn’t benefiting the select few; it’s giving more programs a chance. Fans aren’t turning away from the sport; the 2023 season set viewership records. The game isn’t dying; television deals and coaching salaries are soaring.

College Sports Inc. has wasted enormous amounts of time, money and resources arguing to judges and politicians that it needs to be saved from something many knew not to fear. They spent so many hours tearing down the sport to their own fans over an imaginary problem.

A new crop of recruits will sign Wednesday, perhaps in some unexpected places. Good. Everything is good.