Mike Farrell is the National Football Recruiting Analyst for Rivals.com. Want more of what's on Mike's mind throughout the week? Follow him on Twitter @rivalsmike.
Rivals.com national analyst Mike Farrell is never shy to express his opinion on everything from commitments to rankings to how on-field performance affects recruiting. In this weekly feature -- Inside the Mind of Mike -- the most experienced analyst in the industry gives some of his thoughts on the events of the past week.
We knew the USC class would be the most interesting and exciting to follow down the stretch because so many of the commitments were taking visits, and Lane Kiffin is inadvertently helping that happen. Kiffin waited quite a long time to hire a defensive coordinator to replace his dad and then his new guy, Clancy Pendergast, decides he wants to coach defensive backs on his own, so Kiffin fires defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders two weeks before Signing Day.
That's a big problem because five-star cornerback Jalen Ramsey liked Sanders and Sanders was working with super recruiter Tee Martin on players such as Matthew Thomas and Quinton Powell. Luckily for USC, defensive backs Su'a Cravens, Chris Hawkins and Leon McQuay III are already enrolled. While it's doubtful Cravens would have ever flipped, Hawkins did flirt with other schools and who knows how it would have affected McQuay had he still been available.
With the de-commitment of Jason Hatcher this week, USC has lost six commitments from a class that was once No. 1 in the nation and is now No. 7 and potentially sliding. In addition to Hatcher, USC has parted ways with Sebastian Larue, Eddie Vanderdoes, Max Redfield, Eldridge Massington and Kylie Fitts. Massington and Larue might have been USC decisions and we all know the Fitts situation by now, but losing Hatcher, Redfield and Vanderdoes really hurt.
USC could lure Fitts back into the fold, although I think that's a long shot, and the Trojans could still end up with Vanderdoes. USC is also still involved with some players such as Thomas, Powell and Tyrell Robinson and Tyree Robinson. However, it could be more important for the class to keep Ramsey, Torrodney Prevot and Ty Isaac.
Predicting how it will play out is impossible, but I think two things are very clear: First, USC will still finish with a very quality recruiting class with an average star ranking that will make every other Pac-12 team jealous. But second, the last month has shined a light on Kiffin when it comes to his current team as well as his recruiting ability. USC fans have to be a little worried moving forward about the stability of the program under their head coach. A whole lot has gone wrong for USC since the Trojans were many pundits' pre-season No. 1 in August.
With the USC topic comes this -- a verbal commitment is now only an indicator as to who leads for a prospect more than at any point in recruiting history. There are as many prospects "committed" taking official visits this January than there are non-committed players.
Much of this would be eliminated if the NCAA got its stuff together and insisted and pushed for an early signing period in August, but instead the organization is shrugging its collective shoulders with new recruiting rules and saying it can't police the process. Unlimited text messages, phone calls, no limitations on mailings, more coaches on the road at the same time and earlier contact with prospects will only add to the confusion and lead to more worthless early commitments. Any 2014 commitment a school gets can now be considered "soft" for the most part and is an indication of who has the early lead. We've seen that twice this week already with Georgia running back Stanley Williams, a UGA commitment, at least being interested in taking a Notre Dame visit (long story there) and Michigan State wide receiver commitment Drake Harris remaining "committed" to the Spartans, but opening the process at the same time. Watch for even more early commitments in the 2014 and even the 2015 class, but also more official visits while "committed" with these new rules.
I mentioned a few Mind of Mikes ago that UCLA was going to finish strong and Wednesday was a huge key to that finish. Landing safeties Tahaan Goodman and Priest Willis, long considered a package deal, is huge.
If anyone would have said six months ago that the Bruins would be two spots away from USC in our national team rankings in late January, they would have been called crazy. The race for No. 2 in the Pac-12 is an interesting one and doesn't include Oregon or Stanford after both finished in the national top 16 a year ago. UCLA and Washington will slug this out until the end, but neither will pass USC.
One player I don't get asked about is the nation's No. 1, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, and there's a good reason. He's a done deal to Ole Miss, barring something crazy. Even the schools recruiting against the Rebels feel he's headed there, although they won't give up. Not a lot of drama here it appears unless he shocks the world.
The prospect who had the biggest fall from grace since the start of our rankings was obviously Texas quarterback commitment Tyrone Swoopes, whose junior film was amazing and started off as a five-star. We expected Swoopes to improve his passing mechanics but even if he didn't, we expected another dominant senior season against lesser competition in Texas. None of that happened. Now the next Vince Young label is gone. While we still feel Swoopes has tremendous potential, there was no way to justify a Rivals250 rating.
Another quarterback who was once a five-star, Shane Morris, fell to four stars and the bottom line was this -- Morris struggles with progressions and throwing across his body and until those things are corrected, there was no way to justify keeping him as a five-star. Strong arm or not, mononucleosis or not, the quarterback position is scrutinized the most and Morris didn't play up to his status.
The guy I think just missed five-star status who will be an absolute star in college? Ohio State commitment Jalin Marshall. In Urban Meyer's offense, this kid could have a special season.
Derrick Henry earned his designation as a running back from Rivals.com after his performance at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, but didn't get his fifth star, and Alabama fans think we're nuts. We may be proven wrong in the end, but Henry's situation reminds me a lot of James Wilder Jr. back in the 2011 class. We thought Wilder would be a better linebacker than a running back, that he was too big and upright to be a natural tailback and we had him rated as an athlete for much of the process. However, we flipped him to running back in the end and he kept his initial five-star status. So what's the difference and why hasn't Henry been a five-star since the start? Henry hasn't proven he can play another position like Wilder did (136 tackles and 19 sacks as a senior), so the versatility is not there. Wilder Jr. has been a solid situational back for Florida State with 12 career touchdowns, but he hasn't lived up to five-star running back expectations. Will Henry prove us wrong? Time will tell.
Of the 33 five-stars in our final rankings, the Big 12 has only one -- that's right, one -- committed right now. That's as many as the Big East, one less than the Big Ten and the ACC and two less than Notre Dame alone. The SEC leads the way with nine followed by the Pac-12 with seven. Eight of the 33 remain uncommitted at this time.
I might look back on this column in a few years and be way off, but I think this year's Rivals100 has as many potential busts as it has booms, more than any other year in recent memory. For every player I see as a "can't miss" on and off the field, I see another one with a ton of talent who could struggle with academics, off-field issues or attitude. Not going to name names, but I think many of them are obvious, or at least they are to me.
2014 four-star running back Shai McKenzie of Washington, Pa., continues to pile up the offers, and on Tuesday added two more from Penn State and Wisconsin. However, at this point McKenzie is leaning toward playing in the SEC and warmer weather. Tennessee is his only SEC offer, but look for more to arrive in the coming months. If he does stay more local, Pittsburgh has the best chance at this time, and the Panthers have done a solid job keeping Western Pennsylvania kids home lately, aside from Robert Foster -- who could still flip. Counting out the Panthers would be premature.
One of the more unpredictable recruiting sagas has involved four-star cornerback Mackensie Alexander from Immokalee, Fla. Depending what day of the week you talk to Alexander, or his brother Mackenro Alexander, it is likely their situation will change. I mention Mackenro because most feel that both will sign with the same school and at times he has been more outspoken. Rumors surfaced last weekend that Mackensie had committed to Mississippi State during his official visit, but that was proven false. Now it has been confirmed that the brothers plan to visit Rutgers this weekend, which was a rather random addition to the conversation about a month ago. Clemson is still seen as the leader, but considering how this has gone so far, it would be folly to pick a leader. Alexander is one player I could see delaying his decision past Signing Day, and I'm not convinced the brothers will end up at the same school.
Four-star wide receiver Devon Allen has long hinted that if Oregon were to offer him they would immediately move to the top of his list. Well, new head coach Mark Helfrich finally gave Allen the news he had been waiting for on Tuesday, but the question remains, was Allen only interested in Chip Kelly's Ducks? Some assumed that a commitment might quickly follow, but that has yet to happen. Allen has one more visit set at this time to Arkansas during the weekend of Feb. 1, and while the Ducks are now seen as the leader, the Razorbacks, UCLA and Stanford continue to be in the chase. Watch out for Stanford, especially if he is admitted, and this could end up being an Oregon-Stanford battle.
The battle for Tanner McEvoy between Oregon and West Virginia continues. Most people assume West Virginia leads, as it's his obvious destination for a chance of early playing time with Eugene Smith moving onto the NFL. But now with Brian Bennett transferring out of Oregon, could this make the Ducks more of a threat again? Marcus Mariotta is obviously still the main man in Eugene, but now, without anyone behind him with any experience, it should be interesting to see if the Oregon makes a bigger push on McEvoy. You still have to think Mountaineers here.
After the departure of Chip Kelly to the NFL, the commitment of twins Tyree Robinson and Tyrell Robinson seemed the most strained. The duo took an official visit to USC last weekend and the outcome has been more positive for the Ducks than assumed. At this time, they still have another visit lined up to Washington, but Oregon is in a much better position with the twins than they were when Kelly departed. Washington, however, remains a threat.
Four-star wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who is committed to Pittsburgh, is still scheduled to take an official visit to Tennessee. However, the good news for Pitt fans is that Penn State's late push to get the in-state receiver to Happy Valley for an official visit came up short. Boyd is still considered a pretty solid Pitt commitment despite his upcoming visit to Knoxville, but once again you never know what can happen during an official visit weekend. The Vols will push hard.
WR Marquez North will announce on Signing Day at his school and choose between Tennessee and North Carolina. Gut feeling is North Carolina here, since the Heels got the last official and are favorites of his parents. But Tennessee has made this very close.
You'd think Texas A&M has enough potential wide receivers even with the de-commitment of Tony Stevens to Auburn, but the Aggies are joining Florida in going after FSU commitment Levonte Whitfield. You can't blame Kevin Sumlin for striking while the iron, or in this case Johnny Football, is hot. Whitfield is tiny but he's electric. The Aggies are also now the leader for former USC commitment Sebastian Larue now that Notre Dame dropped out. But the question begs to be asked -- how does A&M have room if all these guys want to jump on board? It wouldn't shock me if Larue ended up at a school that either just offered him or will offer late.
Penn State is ranked ahead of Michigan State, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa in our Big Ten team rankings. Bill O'Brien has done an amazing job since that day in July when the sanctions came down and the others have certainly underachieved for different reasons this recruiting year.
Urban Meyer wants at least two wide receivers, it appears down the stretch here and that doesn't bode well for some schools. Meyer is targeting two Oregon commitments in Darren Carrington and Dontre Wilson (wanted as a slot receiver) and a Mississippi State commit in Corey Smith. Betcha a dollar he lands one of them. Any takers?