Recruiting is a funny business.
College coaches spend a lot of effort trying to decipher what goes through the minds of high school athletes — especially those with options to play for multiple high-profile programs. Millions are spent on facilities meant to wow. Thousands of text messages, emails, and Facebook posts go out in the hopes of catching the attention of elite athletes.
Often times for programs not named Alabama or USC, it’s that effort by recruiters that gets a program’s foot in the door. Relationships with coaches are built over time through phone calls and in-home visits. Players make official visits to see a school up close. They make friends with players on the team as the red carpet is rolled out.
However, when it comes down to it, more often than not, the biggest deciding factor for elite high school athletes isn’t always how much they like the recruiting coach or how flashy the locker rooms and stadium look. Often it is whether or not the program is a winner. In what may seem like an obvious statement, elite players want to win.
When it comes to luring the elite athletes to Utah — especially from out-of-state — that’s one place where the University of Utah program has hit a bit of a snag.
Utah’s transition to the Pac-12 hasn’t been as smooth as the program would have hoped. There are myriad reasons behind Utah’s struggles, and given the wide gap in talent, depth and resources between BCS and non-BCS programs, many experts aren’t surprised that Utah has struggled to compete week in and week out unlike it did in the decidedly weaker Mountain West Conference.
However, the fact that the Utes struggle in conference play remains the same. In the past two seasons, the Utes began conference play with an 0-4 record. And that mark leaves many of the top recruits in places like California and Texas wondering if the road to a winning record at Utah is worth the effort.
This season, the Utes have once again started off on the wrong foot. Although they fought admirably against good teams in Oregon State and UCLA, both losses put Utah at 0-2 in conference play and that number looms large in the minds of many recruits.
The rosters of Pac-12 programs are littered with high-profile players that Utah came close to landing on the recruiting front, yet they chose to play elsewhere.
Need proof? Just look at nationally ranked UCLA — a team Utah stood toe-to-toe with Thursday night before losing 34-27. Deon Hollins, Marcus Rios, Priest Willis, Xavier Su’a-Filo, Myles Jack, Keenan Graham, Jalen Ortiz and Kylie Fitts all either visited Utah officially or expressed serious interest in the Utes during their recruitment. All were high-profile elite football players in high school, and all are either current or future stars for a loaded UCLA team.
Once again, Utah interests many of the top athletes in the 2014 recruiting class. The Utes will host half-dozen of the best players from California on official visits over the next two weeks, many of whom already committed to other Pac-12 programs.
Utah's made major strides in making the school more attractive to these types of players. The facilities are among the best in college football. The coaching staff is talented and stable, which is ideal for recruits not wanting to experience a Lane Kiffin-type situation.
With traditional “name” programs such as USC and Cal struggling, there is an opportunity for the Utes to make some waves, especially in important recruiting battlegrounds like California.
However, if the Utes want to actually sign these players rather than just come close, it will be a lot easier sell if they can start 2-2 or even 1-3 instead of 0-4 in conference play this season.
That’s not to say that there aren’t talented players on the Utah roster. There are, and the Utes already won several key recruiting battles. But if the program wants to take the next step and join the top-tier teams in the league, they’ll need to win more of them.
The talent gap between Utah and the elite Pac-12 programs has been closing slowly. However, in the cut-throat world of football recruiting, winning begets more winning. If Utah wants to compete for the top recruits out-of-state, it needs to find a way to start winning — and soon.
Dan Sorensen is the Editor in Chief of UteZone.com, part of the Rivals.com network. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and Basketball Writers Association of America. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.