The Pac-12 could be on the verge of a real problem when it comes to recruiting its own region. The barbarians are at the gates, as several national powers are making inroads into West Coast recruiting and have had success luring away elite talent in recent years.
It wasn't always this way. The Pac-12 is unique in that it does not have any real competition in California, or in surrounding states. There are ACC and SEC programs vying for recruits in Florida, and Texas now houses an SEC program alongside its traditional Big 12 mainstays.
However, the numbers are indicating the Pac-12 is losing its grip on elite recruits within the region. In the 2014 class, 10 of the 43 ESPN 300 prospects in the West signed with programs outside of the Pac-12 (23 percent); in 2015, that number was 14 of 48 (29 percent); and in 2016, it was 13 of 42 (31 percent). In 2017, 10 of the 28 committed ESPN 300 West region prospects have committed outside the Pac-12. If those numbers hold, it would mean a jump to 36 percent, with no real sign of slowing down.
Alabama, Ohio State and Nebraska already have secured commitments from multiple West prospects. Michigan and Wisconsin also hold commitments, and all five of those programs also signed ESPN 300 recruits from the region in the 2016 class.
"They're all good teams and you can never take that away from them," Tagovailoa said of Pac-12 programs. "But I guess what separates [the SEC] is tradition, from years past all the way to now."
The Pac-12 has programs that can match true tradition with the best of them, but in recruiting, tradition also can refer to anything from between the past two months to 10 years. The Pac-12 hasn't won a national championship since USC did it in 2004, and the SEC has had the most players selected in the NFL draft for 10 consecutive years. To recruits who were 5 or 6 years old when the Trojans last won a title, the conference's history of success might as well be ancient history.
Programs outside the Pac-12 have found that winning, coaching and fan support have given them a significant in with prospects in the West who can't remember ever seeing a Pac-12 coach hoist a national championship trophy.
"If I had the opportunity to compete for national championships, why not take that?" asked ESPN 300 offensive guard Wyatt Davis (California), who committed to Ohio State over offers from 10 Pac-12 programs. "The Pac-12 is getting there, but I feel like in recent years they've had teams that definitely should have been in the finals and they never made it."
If the Buckeyes had Davis hooked with their recent championship, their iconic coach, Urban Meyer, and performance in this year's NFL draft helped reel him in.
ESPN 300 defensive tackle Haskell Garrett (Nevada) is one of three West region prospects committed to Ohio State, joining Davis and quarterback Tate Martell (Nevada). Garrett says he likes the "old-school coaching" that he sees from coaches such as Meyer, Michigan's Jim Harbaugh and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly. Both he and Davis mentioned the Pac-12 undergoing a number of coaching transitions, an obvious reference to its most visible program, USC, cycling through four head or interim coaches in three seasons.
"It's really not that hard to recruit guys to go to the Big Ten schools because of basically their resumes as coaches and what they do for players," Haskell said. "It shows on the field and shows in the facts and the status that they bring to the table: winning and their player development."
The Pac-12 does have a commitment from the top prospect in the West, No. 3 national recruit Jaelan Phillips. UCLA beat out Stanford and several national programs for Phillips, but he also heard pitches from across the country.
"Especially for the big programs -- Alabama and Ohio State -- I think the football tradition is super big for kids in SoCal," Phillips said. "Guys want to win, so if they're going to go away, they want to go to the best schools. That's why they talk about the Ohio States, Alabamas and Michigans."
Come signing day, a number of Pac-12 programs will be thrilled with their recruiting classes, and programs such as Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and USC aren't likely to fade on the recruiting trail anytime soon. But it looks as though every year removed from a national championship makes it easier and easier for programs to pull elite West prospects away from the Pac-12. Perhaps it's fitting that "Just win, baby," resonates strongly with recruits in the region.
"To keep the guys, I don't know if there's something they can do," Phillips said of Pac-12 programs. "Continued success ... if they keep establishing themselves as the power conference or a power conference behind the SEC, I think we'll get a couple teams going to the playoffs and try to get that history going. I think that will make a lot of guys want to stay on the West Coast."