College football coaches know recruiting isn’t complete until the player signs his national letter of intent on the dotted line, and losing out on the star player they covet can come back to haunt them.
Whether it was that quarterback who decommitted, the silent commit who never went public or that game-changing running back who went elsewhere, the sting never seems to go away.
There are a ton of “what ifs” when it comes to recruiting, and that includes some misses and near commitments that would have impacted college football over the past few seasons. Here are a few of those could-have-happened scenarios.
What if Georgia doesn’t fire Mark Richt and Jake Fromm never gets an offer?
We’ll start with Fromm because his scenario is intertwined with Tua Tagovailoa‘s. Fromm was an ESPN 300 quarterback in the 2017 class from the state of Georgia.
He was a Georgia fan but didn’t receive an offer while Richt was head coach. At the time, Richt had a commitment from quarterback Bailey Hockman, so Fromm committed to Alabama in October 2015. Richt was fired a month later, and soon after, Alabama assistant coach Kirby Smart was hired to replace him at Georgia.
Smart and Fromm had built a relationship through his recruitment at Alabama, along with then-Alabama assistant Lane Kiffin.
Roughly two weeks after Richt’s firing, Hockman decommitted, meaning Georgia needed a new quarterback. Fromm then decommitted from Alabama and flipped his commitment to Georgia.
“We were still recruiting [Fromm], but it was one of those things where we weren’t excited about losing him, but we had a good feeling we were getting Tua, so it made it a lot easier,” Kiffin said. “I can’t recall dates, but when Jake decommitted, [Tua] had already made us feel, or his dad, that he was coming.”
Fromm ended up at Georgia, Tagovailoa at Alabama and Hockman at Florida State, where he would eventually transfer.
So what if Georgia didn’t offer Fromm? Kiffin maintains that Tagovailoa had given Alabama the impression he was coming well before Fromm decommitted and was still going to come whether Fromm was there or not.
Had that happened, Alabama would have had two ESPN 300 quarterbacks in the class along with Jalen Hurts on the roster. That would have meant Fromm and Tagovailoa would be competing for that future starting spot, though.
So would Fromm have eventually transfered? Would he have an opportunity to transfer to Georgia after the fact?
More importantly for Georgia, do Smart and his team make it to the College Football Playoff in the 2017 season? Fromm threw for 2,615 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions as a freshman, helping Georgia to an SEC championship and a national championship game appearance.
If Fromm sticks with the Tide, Georgia is very likely not in that situation and has a different start to Smart’s tenure at Georgia. If he stays with Alabama, does quarterback Jacob Eason still transfer to Washington or does he stick it out?
Does Justin Fields still choose Georgia and have a clearer path to starting, thus impacting his decision to transfer to Ohio State? (More on that later.)
What if Tua Tagovailoa heads to the Pac-12?
Despite Kiffin saying Tagovailoa was likely coming to Alabama whether the Tide had Fromm committed or not, there are still quite a few “what ifs” with his recruitment.
Tagovailoa has to be one of the bigger “what ifs” because there are so many possible twists and turns that could have happened — and the chain reaction would be tremendous. Being from the same high school as former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, Tagovailoa was said to have wanted to go to Oregon and follow in Mariota’s footsteps.
Oregon didn’t offer him a scholarship, though, until after Tagovailoa committed to Alabama, so that wasn’t an option. Other schools were in the mix before Alabama came in and swooped him up.
“A lot of people will tell you that Tua had been silently committed to USC when he was young, when [Steve Sarkisian] was there. So this thing is really intertwined,” said Kiffin, now Ole Miss’ head coach. “Sark was no longer at USC and we just felt really good talking to him, talking to his dad about him coming to Alabama. They had already discussed moving to Alabama.”
Being from the West Coast, USC was involved early on as Kiffin points out, and many people thought early on that if Oregon wasn’t going to offer, then USC would be the landing spot. But Kiffin, Tosh Lupoi and Alabama went after Tagovailoa, eventually landing him after Fromm decommitted.
Tagovailoa famously entered the second half of the 2017 national championship game and won the game for Alabama against Fromm. The rest is history, but how different would that game have been had Tagovailoa not chosen Alabama?
Georgia was up 13-0 at halftime in that game before Tagovailoa replaced Hurts at quarterback. Maybe Georgia wins with Fromm if Tagovailoa is at a different program.
With USC in the picture, Sarkisian had already been fired, but Clay Helton was now the head coach. The Trojans had Sam Darnold at quarterback in the 2017 season, but struggled to a 5-7 record in 2018 and could have used a second-year Tagovailoa at quarterback.
With Tagovailoa under center, maybe Helton has a better start to his tenure with the Trojans and is able to keep more in-state prospects home. Maybe that keeps USC afloat and helps propel the program back up to compete for Pac-12 championships.
Oregon went 7-6 in 2017 with a young Justin Herbert at quarterback in Willie Taggart’s only season at the helm, then went 9-4 in 2018 and 12-2 in 2019. Herbert has proved himself as an excellent quarterback and was in the 2016 class, a year ahead of Tagovailoa.
Who knows what could have happened with Tagovailoa in the mix as well — if it accelerated recruiting for the Ducks or even sparked a transfer from Herbert?
What if Justin Fields stuck with his commitment to Penn State?
Fields was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the 2018 class out of Georgia in a loaded quarterback class that also included Trevor Lawrence, Emory Jones and Jarren Williams. Despite his lofty ranking, Fields’ recruitment didn’t start off as fast as he had hoped.
He had an offer from Harvard and another Ivy League school, even taking a visit to Harvard just in case. His mom wanted him to choose Harvard for the academics, but it didn’t offer him enough on the football side.
He eventually started to garner more FBS interest and committed to Penn State.
“At the point he committed to Penn State, he might have had 20-something offers,” Fields’ mother, Gina Tobey, said at the time. “Out of the ones we had the opportunity to visit, we stressed academics. He wants to study football, but he’s super-smart and we wanted him to go someplace that had the tradition of academics as well.”
The more schools that offered him scholarships, the more he began to second-guess his decision. Shortly after Fields’ decommitment, Tobey said she believes her son felt some pressure to commit to make sure he had a spot. But as the offers and interest rose, he realized that if someone wants you bad enough, they’ll make room.
“The reason I decommitted was to make sure that Penn State was the best fit for me. So I’m reevaluating the schools and reevaluating everything,” Fields said at the time. “Calling Coach [James] Franklin and the staff was probably the hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make, but I feel like it was the best decision for me and my family.”
He was still technically looking at Penn State after decommitting, but was also listing Georgia, Florida, Florida State, Auburn and USC as schools he wanted to learn more about. He eventually chose Georgia and joined the roster with Fromm.
After only a year on the roster, Fields decided to transfer to Ohio State and helped the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff this past season, his first season in Columbus. But what if Fields had stuck with Penn State?
“[My mom] loves Penn State; she didn’t want me to decommit from Penn State,” Fields said at the time.
That would have impacted three teams: Penn State, Georgia and Ohio State. If he stuck with the Nittany Lions, his first season would have been with quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.
Imagine opposing defenses having the task of stopping that trio. Penn State lost to Ohio State by one point that season and by three points to Michigan State. Perhaps that could have changed with Fields under center.
It obviously impacts Ohio State, because if he doesn’t choose Georgia, the Buckeyes don’t get him as a transfer. Does that mean Tate Martell doesn’t transfer to Miami? If Martell was out the door anyway, it would have left Ohio State with Chris Chugunov and Gunnar Hoak as their options and a very different outcome for the 2019 season.
What if Nebraska had offered Joe Burrow before he committed to Ohio State?
Burrow was an ESPN 300 quarterback in the 2015 class who didn’t have many big offers. He had a few MAC offers, sprinkled in with West Virginia and then in-state Ohio State.
Burrow’s father, Jim, played at Nebraska in the 1970s, so the Cornhuskers were a team he wanted an offer from — an offer that never came.
“I’ve been told I wasn’t good enough since recruiting,” Burrow said in a College GameDay interview with Tom Rinaldi. “I had one offer after my junior year of high school and it was my dad’s team [Ohio University, where Jim Burrow was defensive coordinator]. I wanted to go to Nebraska, they told me I wasn’t good enough. Ohio State was really my only big-time offer.”
Bo Pelini, the Nebraska coach through most of Burrow’s recruitment, was fired and replaced by Mike Riley. Pelini never offered Burrow, and by the time Riley did, the QB had already committed to the Buckeyes.
“I remember all the recruiters’ names that told me no,” Burrow said in the interview. “I remember all the Elite 11 guys that got chosen over me. So I remember all that stuff, I keep a mental log of it.”
He signed with Ohio State, but transferred to LSU after a battle with Dwayne Haskins for the starting job.
Had Burrow received an offer from Nebraska, it wouldn’t have had a big impact on the Buckeyes because Haskins was the starter and Burrow didn’t have significant playing time while he was on the roster. But it could have had a significant impact on Nebraska and, obviously, LSU.
If Burrow doesn’t transfer to LSU, the Tigers’ quarterback in 2019 is likely Myles Brennan, the 96th-ranked prospect in 2017. And not to slight Brennan, but there’s no way LSU has the same season without Burrow at the helm.
From Burrow’s Heisman-winning campaign to LSU winning the national championship, as well as all the media attention, all of that helps LSU in recruiting for the next three to four years.
For Nebraska, there’s no telling whether it would’ve saved Riley’s job, because there were more issues than quarterback. But it would have been a big help to have a sure thing calling the shots on offense.
What if Ja’Marr Chase had committed to TCU?
Chase was one of the top prospects in the state of Louisiana in the 2018 class, ranked No. 269 overall. He signed with LSU and had 1,780 receiving yards with 20 touchdowns this past season for the Tigers.
He is one of the best receivers in college football, but he almost didn’t end up at LSU.
Chase was down to the Tigers and TCU, and he was scheduled to announce his commitment at Nike’s The Opening, an event for top high school prospects. NFL Network televised the event and originally scheduled Chase on air to make his commitment.
However, a scheduling conflict came up: A different recruit was going to announce his decision, bumping Chase from the broadcast. He has said publicly that he was planning to commit to TCU if he would have announced on air as planned.
He was comfortable with his decision to choose the Horned Frogs and didn’t start having any doubts about it until after the commitment was changed. He took a step back and started to think about his options and whether TCU was the right place for him, ultimately deciding to change his choice to LSU.
Who knows if adding Chase would have made a profound impact on TCU, but it definitely would have made a difference for LSU. Chase was the leading receiver on the national championship-winning team with a Heisman-winning QB.
The team had other reliable options at receiver and tight end, but Chase led the way in almost every category and helped that offense tremendously. It’s impossible to say whether LSU’s season would have seen a different outcome, but take a star receiver away, and it’s tough to imagine it not changing at least one game that season.
What if OL Jackson Carman had chosen Ohio State over Clemson?
This one might be a little bit of a roundabout “what if,” but Carman was the No. 1-ranked recruit in the state of Ohio in the 2018 class and could have had an impact on the most recent playoff matchup between Clemson and Ohio State.
It’s rare to see the top recruit from Ohio go anywhere but Ohio State, and it seemed as though the Buckeyes had a very good shot at landing Carman as he was going through the process. Clemson stuck around, however, and ultimately won out.
Carman has since said that he had concerns about then-Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and how long he would be with the program, which factored into his decision.
Carman started at offensive tackle for Clemson this past season as a sophomore and was tasked with stopping Ohio State’s vaunted defensive line in the College Football Playoff — more specifically, defensive end Chase Young.
“I was smiling the whole time. It was a surreal moment for me, not only as a football player but as a person,” Carman told ESPN about playing against Young. “You see the guy on TV every week, and they’re talking about a Heisman and the best since Lawrence Taylor, and he’s just right there in front of you. But I’ve gone against really good players, so it was honestly just me having fun.”
Young, who had racked up 16.5 sacks and over 50 quarterback pressures on the season, didn’t have a single sack in that game. Carman, and a few of the other Clemson offensive linemen, played a key role in keeping Young at bay and minimizing his impact.
If Carman was on the opposite side, maybe Young or the rest of that defensive line gets to Lawrence a few extra times, or gets a few more pressures to change the course of that game.
Maybe if Carman was a Buckeye instead, Ohio State would have faced LSU in the national championship game. And who knows how that would have turned out?