Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
The argument is college football's version of the chicken or the egg:
Does the Southeastern Conference win national championships - now seven in a row following Alabama's 42-14 win over Notre Dame on Jan. 7 - because the league reels in the nation's best recruiting classes, or does the SEC dominate on the recruiting trail because it has proven itself to be the nation's premier conference?
Heading into Wednesday's national signing day, the SEC has 10 of the nation's top 25 recruiting classes, according to rankings compiled by Rivals.com. This includes the top-ranked class, Florida's, and five of the top 10 - Florida, No. 3 Alabama, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 10 Georgia. South Carolina is ranked No. 17 currently.
Six of the seven teams in the SEC West rank among Rivals' top 25, including Auburn, which failed to win a game in conference play in 2012 - going 0-8 in the SEC for the first time in school history - yet is tied with divisional rival Mississippi with the nation's 11th-best class.
The only two of the SEC's 14 schools to rank outside the current top 33 in Rivals' rankings are Missouri (No. 41) and Arkansas (No. 45). In comparison, the Big 12 has only seven schools inside Rivals' current top 45 classes; the Big Ten has six, and the Pac-12 has nine.
Come national signing day, as in every national championship race since 2006, the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision will find itself in a familiar spot: Looking up at the SEC.
It's the league's success, both on the field and in putting players in the NFL, that makes the SEC a difficult draw for many prospects to turn down, especially those from the Southeast region of the country.
"Because of the SEC dominance on the field, you have guys wanting to go and play for SEC schools," said Woody Wommack, a Southeast Recruiting Analyst for Rivals. "It doesn't necessarily mean just guys from the South. This is the marquee place you want to play - you want to play for the SEC. That's why they come here. Success begets success. Teams keep winning, guys keep wanting to keep coming and it's almost like an unstoppable machine."
Winning helps, as does location: The heart of the SEC - teams such as Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida - lies in the center of the nation's most fertile recruiting grounds. Fourteen of the top 25 prospects on Rivals' list of the nation's top 100 recruits attend high school in a state with at least one SEC team.
"I think location certainly is a huge factor," said Jeremy Crabtree, the senior coordinator of recruiting for ESPN. "If you go back and look at where the recruits are from nowadays, there's a huge skew towards the South, the Southeast states."
Add in a third asset, the league's history of putting players into the NFL, and you can understand why the SEC's recruiting dominance has it standing well above its peers in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The most recent mock draft compiled by Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com has six SEC players among the top 10 picks and 14 altogether in the first round.
"Winning and playing in the NFL right now are huge, huge factors in recruiting," Crabtree said. "When you combine opportunities to play for championships, get rings and play on national television and stay close to home, that's a tough formula to beat."
Said Wommack: "Guys want to get to the NFL. Every kid who's a four-star recruit, or even a three-star recruit, thinks they're going to play in the NFL. The SEC can point to their track record of producing NFL guys ... when it comes down to it, they have the evidence to say, 'We put guys in the NFL. We develop players, and you can be next.'"
The conference's annual recruiting success widens the gap between the SEC and other automatic-qualifying leagues - conferences such as the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12, which enter every fall hoping to unseat the SEC from its perch atop the FBS.
"College football's still a game, and the coaching does matter," Crabtree said. "You can game plan and scheme around deficiencies that your team might have. But there's tangible evidence that if you want to win national championships, you're not only going to have to coach the players up but you'll also have to have the players to do it."