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February 13, 2012

Success not in the stars for all ranked teams

A few years ago, Justin Blackmon was just a lightly regarded three-star prospect in an Oklahoma State recruiting class that was ranked sixth in the Big 12.

Who knew Blackmon, from Ardmore (Okla.) Plainview, would emerge as the most feared receiver in college football - a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner, two-time All-American and setter of numerous school records?

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy certainly didn't.

"I think everybody was surprised," Gundy said. "In somebody's opinion, he was a two-star guy. He was a pudgy kid from a small school. He made a ton of plays on his highlight tape, but the concern you have as a coach when you're watching a player is the level of competition.

"When you're watching players competing against Texas schools and in Atlanta, where you know they have a lot of speed, you can make decisions faster. But with a player from a small school - in the back of your mind - you wonder if that accomplishment is because the level of competition isn't the same."

By developing players like Blackmon from three stars to stardom while perfecting the ability to recruit players that fit their systems, teams such as Oklahoma State, Oregon, Wisconsin and Cincinnati have become college football's overachievers. They might not show up in the top 10 on national signing day, but they show up in the national polls at the season's end.

For example, none of Oregon's five recruiting classes from 2006-2010 were ranked among the nation's top ten. In fact, twice in that span the Ducks' classes weren't even among the top 30 (48th in '06 and 31st in '09).

Yet, Oregon and Virginia Tech are the only teams in the nation to finish in the Associated Press Top 25 in each of the past five seasons. The Ducks have won three straight conference championships, played for the 2010 national championship and last season won the Rose Bowl.

The Ducks, in fact, have won so frequently that the "overachiever" tag may even be insulting, now.

"We don't care about that. Call us whatever want to call us," Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. "We always talk about blocking out outside influences. We look at praise and blame the same way. If someone doubts you, it can be used as motivation and that's a good thing. But you can get caught up in that and then you're living your life based on what others say about you.

"We don't have an 'us against the world' mentality. We don't have an 'over-achievers' mentality. We have the Oregon mentality, which is that you get whatever you put into it."

Kelly tries to identify players that have self-discipline, will diligently prepare and have skill sets that fit Oregon's style of play.

"The tough part for everybody is to project what a high school kid will be like when he's 21 or 22," Kelly said. "Everybody misses. We miss. Scouting services miss. Everybody can tell a story about the two-star recruit that went on the NFL. We're looking for intangible qualities."

Those intangibles often enable overachieving programs to get the most out of the talent they have.

Wisconsin's recruiting classes from 2006-10 were ranked no higher than 34th nationally. Yet, the Badgers have posted 48 victories over the past five seasons and have appeared in the Rose Bowl twice.

Cincinnati has not had a recruiting class ranked among the nation's top 50, but the overachieving Bearcats have finished in the AP Top 25 four of the past five years.

Neither Boise State nor TCU had top 45 recruiting classes in that same five-year span, but both have finished among the country's top 15 in each of the past four years. TCU was undefeated and ranked second in 2010.

Oklahoma State's highest-ranked recruiting class was 22nd in 2006; the Cowboys were 30th or higher in three of the past four years. But the Cowboys have posted at least nine victories in four consecutive years, winning the Big 12 championship and the Fiesta Bowl last season.

"We've been fortunate to hit on some kids and have been able to build on it," Gundy said. "We've won 41 games in four years and 23 in the last two. I don't know how many other schools playing in the highest-level conferences have won that many. Probably, LSU and Alabama have. I guess there's not more than four or five."

In fact, over the past four years the only teams from BCS automatic qualifier conferences with more victories than Oklahoma State are Alabama, Oregon, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech.

"I think we do overachieve," Gundy said. "I think our coaches overachieve. Our players play at a higher level than they should based on talent, but we're bringing in more players that are faster and more athletic. So, we do overachieve, but not as much as we used to. From a recruiting standpoint we're always ranked 23rd or 25th based on somebody's opinion. We've not been in the top five or top 10 in recruiting ranks, but we've finished in the top five (of the polls.)"

Like Oregon, Oklahoma State coaches seek players they think will fit well in the Cowboys' system and are disciplined enough to work hard to improve. Gundy believes strength and conditioning coach Rob Glass is the best in the country, and if a prospect is dedicated and accountable he will flourish.

"We believe in our system," Gundy said. "It goes back to the stars in recruiting. If we get a two-star player, we want to make him a three-star. If we get a three-star, we want to make him a four-star. If you get a five-star, we want to make him a first-round pick.

"We believe the system, which is about accountability, takes players and makes them better. The players we have on our roster have never lost more than four games, and they all have won at least nine. So there is an understanding of what it takes to win."

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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