Arkansas Football: Power Ranking Razorbacks' 5 Best Classes of the BCS Era

Bryan Heater@@BHeaterRivalsCorrespondent IFebruary 2, 2014

Arkansas Football: Power Ranking Razorbacks' 5 Best Classes of the BCS Era

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    Beth Hall/Associated Press

    The Arkansas Razorbacks have had some great years in the BCS era. The 2010 and 2011 seasons come to mind, when the Hogs went a combined 21-5 and made their only BCS Bowl appearance in the Sugar Bowl.

    Behind great seasons are great recruiting classes, and the Razorbacks have had their share since 1998.

    Since team recruiting rankings really came into play, the Razorbacks have had some very strong classes that have finished in the top 25 nationally. Even though the Hogs aren't located on prime recruiting grounds, they have managed to haul in some highly touted recruits.

    There are several memorable classes that come to mind for Arkansas, but which ones have been the best? Here, we break down the Hogs' top five recruiting classes in the BCS era, leading up to the best one Arkansas has had.

    The main factors in determining the best classes are collegiate success, draft position and success in the NFL.

     

    All stats courtesy of sports-reference.com, totalfootballstats.com and espn.com unless otherwise noted.

5. 1999 Class

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    LB Caleb Miller
    LB Caleb MillerRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The class of 1999 was rugged, physical and mean. It is also the only class on this list to play in a bowl game all four years, so hats off for that accomplishment. 

    This group under Houston Nutt had a four-year span with a record of 30-20 with highs of winning the SEC West in 2002 and hammering Texas, 27-6, in the 2000 Cotton Bowl. 

    The highlight of the 1999 haul was safety Ken Hamlin, who had an illustrious career at Arkansas. He was the first freshman in the program's history to lead the team in tackles with 104 total. He was named an All-American as a sophomore and junior by several publications and broke the program's record for tackles in a career with 381.

    Hamlin went on to be drafted in 2003 by the Seahawks with the 42nd pick in the second round. He played four seasons there before signing with the Dallas Cowboys, where he earned a Pro Bowl bid in 2007. Hamlin had a solid NFL career that lasted eight seasons (2003-10).

    Hamlin's career-tackle record only lasted one season, as fellow '99 classmate Tony Bua surpassed the mark as a fifth-year senior in 2003. A smaller linebacker who played much bigger than he was, Bua still holds the school record for tackles in a career with 408. He was a staple at the linebacker position during his career for the Razorbacks and was taken by the Miami Dolphins in the fifth round of the 2004 draft. 

    His NFL career was short-lived, but people still remember to this day his crushing hit on St. Louis Rams' Bryce Fisher on a kickoff return.

    Running back Cedric Cobbs spent five years with Bua at Arkansas and was one of the better backs the Hogs have had in the BCS era. Cobbs made an instant impact as a freshman, rushing for 668 yards, a freshman record at the time, and three scores before receiving a medical redshirt the next year. He had his best year as a senior in 2003, rushing for 1,320 yards and eight touchdowns and earning first-team All-SEC honors.

    Cobbs ended his stint at Arkansas with 3,018 yards, placing him fourth on the school's all-time rushing list. He was drafted in the fourth round of the draft in 2004 by the New England Patriots, where he was a part of the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXIX championship team.

    Caleb Miller was another great linebacker for the Razorbacks from the class and also played five years. He was a key part of the Hogs defense, recording over 100 tackles his sophomore, junior and senior years, and was named the Defensive MVP of the 2003 Independence Bowl after racking up 16 tackles in Arkansas' win over Missouri. The Cincinnati Bengals took him in the third round of the '04 draft, where he played for four seasons and 39 total games.

    The '99 class also included guys like O-lineman Bo Lacy and running back Fred Talley. Lacy was an anchor on the line and was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the sixth round of the '04 draft. Talley had a very good career, rushing for 2,661 yards and 1,119 his senior year in '02. He was signed as an undrafted free agent in '03 by Atlanta but never made it past training camp.

4. 2001 Class

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    QB Matt Jones
    QB Matt JonesDANNY JOHNSTON/Associated Press

    The 2001 class comes in at the fourth spot on our countdown, and its on-the-field success helps to push it into the top five.

    This class had several notable achievements during its time on The Hill. Over a four-year span, they went 30-20, played in three bowl games and won the SEC West, a difficult feat, in 2002. 

    The first player that comes to mind for this class is the tall, lanky and ultra-laidback Matt Jones. As a quarterback, Jones was a freakishly athletic playmaker who made plays that left your jaw on the floor. Jones was an above-average passer, but what people remember him for was his scrambling ability.

    When his career was over after the 2004 season, Jones was the SEC's all-time leading rusher for a quarterback—that record is now held by Tim Tebow—amassing 2,535 yards and 24 touchdowns. He ranks fourth in school history in passing yards with 5,857, which was second at the time. His 6'6" frame and 4.37 40-yard dash time made him a wide receiver prospect for the NFL, and he was eventually taken in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Though his NFL career never panned out, Jones is considered one of the best quarterbacks in Arkansas history.

    Offensive guard Shawn Andrews is perhaps one of the best linemen the Razorbacks have ever had. His list of accolades include being a two-time consensus All-American (2002-03), a two-time All-Pro (2006-07) in the NFL and playing in three Pro Bowls (2005-07). Andrews dominated D-linemen and was selected by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 16th pick in the 2004 draft. His career was cut short by persistent back problems, which forced him to retire in 2011.

    Ahmad "Batman" Carroll was a lock-down corner for the Hogs and was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2001 and 2003. In three seasons, Carroll recorded 140 tackles, 25 defended passes and four interceptions. He was selected in 25th overall in the 2004 NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers, but he never developed into an NFL-caliber corner.

    Defensive end Jeb Huckeba hunted down opposing quarterbacks and earned first-team All-SEC honors his senior year in 2004 after tallying 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Huckeba finished his career with 210 tackles, 33 TFL, 6.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 17 quarterback hurries. He was a fifth-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2005 draft but lasted just two seasons.

    Running back DeCori Birmingham didn't have a great career at Arkansas, but he was a key contributor in his last two years. He will forever be remembered for his 31-yard catch with nine seconds left in the back of the end zone to give the Hogs a 21-20 win over LSU and send them to the SEC Championship in what is now known as the Miracle on Markham.

    Birmingham ended his career with 1,151 rushing yards and 592 receiving yards with a combined 13 touchdowns. The New England Patriots signed him in 2005 as an undrafted free agent, though he never made it on a game-day roster, spending time on the practice squads with four different franchises.

    One last player that is often forgotten in this class because he ended up transferring is quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Yes, this is the same Jackson who was a failed experiment with the Minnesota Vikings after they selected him with the last pick in the second round of the 2006 NFL draft.

    He played in 11 games for the Hogs, completing 17 of 48 attempts for 196 yards, a touchdown and three picks, before transferring to Alabama State, where he flourished and impressed NFL teams.

    Though he wasn't able to be the quarterback the Vikings had hoped for, he's had a respectable career and has been Russell Wilson's backup for the Seahawks all year. Though he won't play unless Wilson goes down, Jackson can still tell his grandkids he was on a team that went to the Super Bowl. 

3. 2005 Class

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    RB Darren McFadden
    RB Darren McFaddenChris Graythen/Getty Images

    The 2005 class was not deep in talent, but it changed the program because of two players. From 2005 to 2007, Arkansas ran hog wild with running backs Felix Jones and Darren McFadden. 

    McFadden's career turned him into the best back the program has ever had and one of the best to every carry the ball in the SEC. His list of accolades is long and includes being a two-time Consensus All-American ('06-'07), a two-time Doak Walker Award winner ('06-'07), the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award ('07), SEC Offensive Player of the Year ('07) and a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy twice, the only player to ever come in second two times. 

    His achievements don't stop there. McFadden also was the first freshman in Arkansas history to run for over 1,000 yards (1,113) and had two seasons with over 1,600 yards. During his three seasons, he ran for 4,590 yards, second in SEC history, and 41 touchdowns, both school records. 

    His legend only grew against South Carolina in 2007 when he ran for 321 yards, tying Frank Mordica's record for Vanderbilt from 1978. 

    McFadden went on to be drafted with the fourth pick of the '08 draft by the Oakland Raiders, where he has played all six seasons of his career. He has run for 3,707 yards and 23 touchdowns and has another 1,542 yards and five touchdowns receiving. 

    He's not just the greatest Arkansas back of all time, but perhaps the greatest player regardless of position to put on a Hog uniform. 

    What made the Razorbacks' run game so potent was that when McFadden came out, All-American Jones would come in. There were also plenty of times where Nutt used both Jones and McFadden in the same backfield, which was scary to say the least. 

    Jones was the lightning to McFadden's thunder, possessing an uncanny ability to cut on a dime and blazing speed and acceleration. 

    He rushed for 626 yards his freshman year and followed that up with two seasons over 1,000 yards on the ground despite having over 100 less carries than McFadden. As a sophomore, he averaged 7.6 YPC, which is a great number. However, his senior season Jones averaged an astronomic 8.7 YPC, leading the nation.

    In addition to being a great back, Jones was also an elite kick returner and was named an All-American for it all three of his seasons. He led the nation in yards per return with 31.9 as a freshman. By the time his three seasons were over, he had amassed 1,749 kick-return yards and returned four all the way.

    For his career, Jones ran for 2,956 yards (35th in SEC history) and 20 touchdowns. The Dallas Cowboys made him their first-round pick at No. 22, giving the Hogs two first-round picks for the '08 draft. He's had a successful six years, rushing for 2,912 yards and 11 touchdowns, and just finished his first year with the Steelers. 

    There were a few other players in the '05 class who had good careers, including O-lineman Jose Valdez and running back Michael Smith, who had 1,072 yards and eight touchdowns in '08 after Jones and McFadden were gone.

    This class also included quarterback Casey Dick, who is mainly remembered for being adequate and good enough to pass when he had to. However, Dick had two coaches and a different offensive coordinator every year of his four-year career. Even great quarterbacks would have trouble going through constant change, and despite that, Dick finished fifth on the school's all-time passing list with 5,856 yards. 

    Though the '05 class didn't have a ton of depth in talent, Jones and McFadden make it one of the Hogs' best in the BCS era. They helped the Razorbacks go 10-4 in 2006 and win the SEC West for the first time since 2002.

2. 2009 Class

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    RB Knile Davis
    RB Knile DavisStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The top two classes were difficult to separate because they both had so much talent, but the No. 2 spot goes to the class of 2009.

    Based off team recruiting rankings, this class is the best Arkansas ever signed in the BCS era, ranking 16th in the country according to Rivals.com. Over a four-year span, the '09 class had a 33-18 record, three bowl appearances with two wins and the program's first appearance in a BCS bowl in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. 

    One of the best prospects in it was running back Knile Davis, who wasted no time locating the holes in the defense and exploiting them. He only ran for 1,862 yards in his four-year career, but it could have been much better if he hadn't been injured and missed the whole 2011 season. He came back in 2012 for his senior year but never seemed 100 percent and ran for just 377 yards and two touchdowns.

    It had a negative impact on his draft status as teams were wary of taking him after a substantial injury, resulting in Davis sliding to the Kansas City Chiefs in the late third round.

    In his rookie year this season, Davis ran for 309 yards and five touchdowns, including the playoffs. He worked hard during the season, and as starter Jamaal Charles began to feel the wear and tear of the season, Davis saw his playing time increase. Running backs coach Eric Bieniemy is especially tough on him because of the potential he has.

    Davis had 234 of his 309 yards and 67 of his 88 carries in the last six games (including playoff loss) and looks as if he will have a much bigger role in 2014.

    Cobi Hamilton was the epitome of reliable as a wide receiver, rarely dropping passes when he was targeted. In his first three years, the most yards he had was 630 as a sophomore because of a very deep receiving corps. Once many of them graduated after the 2011 season, Hamilton was the guy for the first time in his career. As a senior in 2012, he set program records for receiving yards in a season (1,335) and receptions (90).

    Hamilton finished his career as the third all-time leading receiver with 2,854 yards and first in receptions with 175. He was drafted in the sixth round last year by the Bengals but was ultimately waived. Hamilton has a lot of potential, so expect him to be given a chance with another team.

    Center Travis Swanson redshirted in 2009 and then started all 50 games for the rest of his career. He blocked for three 3,000 yard passers and two 1,000 yard runners. He was a finalist for the 2013 Rimington Trophy and a second-team All-SEC selection behind Auburn's Reese Dismukes, who was also a finalist for the award given to the nation's best center. Bielema recently went on record saying he believes Swanson is no less than a second-round pick in the upcoming draft.

    Defensive tackle Robert Thomas had his career cut short with a broken leg in Oct., but he recently received an invitation to the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. Thomas originally committed to the Hogs in 2009 but had to go the JUCO route to get his grades up. He stayed true to his original commitment, signing with the Razorbacks in 2011. During his three years, he had 13.5 TFL and seven sacks, good numbers for an interior lineman. As long as rehab goes well, Thomas should be selected in May.

    Alvin Bailey was a stud O-lineman for Arkansas in the three years he played and an All-SEC performer. He started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman and had over 30 for his career. Though he didn't hear his name on draft day last year, he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Seahawks and made a big enough impression to earn a spot on the active game-day roster. 

    Ronnie Wingo Jr. was a highly-touted running back recruit coming out of high school. He never quite lived up to expectations at Arkansas, rushing for 1,089 yards and logging 610 yards receiving. However, he always possessed a lot of potential and is currently on the Buffalo Bills active roster.

    Rudell Crim has never made it to the prime time, but the JUCO transfer was one of the Hogs' best cover corners in his two seasons. He had 96 tackles in two years, including 53 as a senior in 2010 and three interceptions. Anthony Leon also proved to be a big JUCO transfer, flourishing his senior year after being moved from safety to linebacker. As a senior, he made 65 tackles, 12.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks, and was a big part of the defense. 

    Anthony Oden, a 4-star O-lineman and the younger brother of Greg Oden, had all  the tools to be a dominant blocker, but his potential was never realized as he was kicked off the team. The Hogs also signed DeQuinta Jones, Austin Moss and Colby Berna, all 4-stars, but none of them ever had the careers expected of them.

    Cornerback Darius Winston was the highest rated recruit in the class as a 5-star, but he never lived up to his ranking. 

    The '09 class undoubtedly had a huge impact on one of the best stretches in Arkansas' history.

1. 2008 Class

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    QB Ryan Mallett
    QB Ryan MallettMatthew Stockman/Getty Images

    At long last, the best recruiting class the Hogs have ever had. The 2008 haul was former head coach Bobby Petrino's first class with the Razorbacks, and it was the foundation for a four-year stretch in which Arkansas was 34-17 and earned its first BCS bowl bid.

    The prized prospect in this class was quarterback Ryan Mallett, who was a transfer from Michigan but is considered as part of the class. Mallett redefined the position for the Hogs in Petrino's offensive scheme, breaking just about every passing record for the program. 

    In two seasons as the Hogs starter, Mallett passed for 7,493 yards, 21 more yards than Clint Stoerner had in four years, and 62 touchdowns, five more than Stoerner. He broke a lot of his own records from his sophomore year as a junior in 2010. That season, he passed for 3,869 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 12 picks, leading Arkansas to the 2010 Sugar Bowl, where he made a critical mistake late that cost them the game against Ohio State.

    Off-the-field concerns made him fall to the Patriots in the third round, but he has had no problems in his three-year NFL career. He is learning from one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game in Tom Brady and has all the intangibles you look for in an NFL quarterback. Some believe he will eventually be Brady's successor, but he's too talented to continue to stand on the sideline, so a team could look to trade for him.

    Tyler Wilson was also in this class, and he ended up breaking many of Mallett's records, including career passing yards with 7,765. He is also the program's all-time leader in completions (593), completion percentage (62.6) and games with over 350 yards passing (seven). Once Mallett departed, Wilson stepped in and led the Hogs to one of their best seasons in school history, finishing 11-2 and beating Kansas State in the 2011 Cotton Bowl. That year, he passed for 3,638 yards, 24 touchdowns and only six interceptions. 

    Wilson didn't enjoy nearly as much success his senior year after the program was left crippled from Petrino's motorcycle exploits, but he had a brilliant career nonetheless and was drafted by the Raiders in the fourth round of last year's draft. He was eventually waived but is now with the Tennessee Titans.

    Jarius Wright was a reliable receiver his whole career and is the Razorbacks' all-time leading receiver with 2,934 yards. Though he wasn't the biggest guy, Wright had great speed and was a superb route runner. He also is second on the all-time list for touchdown catches with 24 behind Marcus Monk.

    Wright increased his yards every year, going from 348, 681, 788 and finally 1,117 his senior year in 2011. He has become a key receiver for the Vikings since they took him in the fourth round of the '11 draft and had 434 yards and three scores on 26 receptions this season. 

    Alongside Wright outside were Joe Adams and Greg Childs, both of whom were dangerous receivers.

    Adams, however, is best remembered for his punt returns. His senior year, he averaged 16.9 yards per return (19 returns, 321 yards) and had four touchdowns. His return against Tennessee still resonates in the minds of fans as one of the single greatest plays in Arkansas history.

    Adams was a Consensus All-American that year as a return specialist. He finished his career fifth on the all-time receiving list with 2,410 yards and tied for fifth with 17 touchdowns. Adams was drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the fourth round of the '12 draft but was released after one season.

    Greg Childs was at one time the best out of the talented trio, but a patellar tendon injury in 2010 that made him miss the rest of the year derailed his success. After posting 894 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore, Childs was on pace to put up even better numbers his junior year (659 yards, six touchdowns) before the injury.

    He wasn't the same his senior year with just 240 yards on 21 catches. He was drafted by the Vikings in the fourth round but has been kept from making any contributions because of injuries.

    Tight end Chris Gragg took some time to develop, but he was dangerous once he did. He emerged his junior year as one of the SEC's best tight ends, catching 41 balls for 518 yards and two touchdowns. His senior year was down due to injury, but he showed enough in his career to be drafted in the seventh round by the Bills, where he made five catches for 53 yards and a touchdown as a rookie.

    The best defensive player from this class was safety-linebacker Jerico Nelson, who had 269 tackles, 27 TFL, 10.5 sacks and four interceptions in his four-year career. He was a key contributor on the defense all four years and eventually was signed by the Saints as an undrafted free agent before being released. 

    From top to bottom, the '08 class is the best Arkansas has had in the BCS era. This group helped the program reach heights it hadn't seen in a long time, and a large number of them made it to the NFL. Do you agree or do you believe another class deserved to be at the top? Let us know in the comment section.

     

    Bryan Heater is the featured columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.