Best Recruiting Class in Every Power 5 Football Conference's History
This month, a number of top recruits from the Class of 2014 arrived on college campuses across America, ready to get a head start on their college football careers. They joined the talented early enrollees who already went through spring practice, and in August, the remainder of the class will join their new brethren to pursue gridiron glory.
When 2014’s recruits signed in February, they were met with significant hype and adulation, as most talented signees are. They were immediately judged, as is the way of our microwave, gotta-have-it-now society.
The truth is, we won’t know these recruits’ true value until three, four and perhaps even five years down the road. Then we’ll have a better idea of which players emerged from obscurity, which guys lived up to their hype and which players crashed and burned despite their lofty reputations.
Today, we’ll take a look at which classes met expectations (and then some) among the nation’s top historic groups. Here is a look at the top recruiting classes in each of the Power 5 conferences’ histories.
ACC: Florida State 2011
Much like his mentor Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher had his share of early bumps at Florida State. Last season, however, was a major breakthrough for both the Seminoles and the ACC at large, with FSU going unbeaten and defeating Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game. It was the league’s first national title since 2000, and it couldn’t have happened without the 2011 recruiting class.
Players like tailbacks Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr., linebacker Terrance Smith and wideout Rashad Greene were the core of the Seminoles’ national championship team along with players from a talented 2012 class like Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.
This group also won the ACC Championship in 2012, and while some (like Benjamin, a first-round pick of the Carolina Panthers) have moved on, plenty of firepower remains for another run at the national title this fall in the first College Football Playoff.
With a little luck, Florida State’s 2011 class will be looked at like Alabama’s Class of 2008, the kind of group that starts a dynasty.
Big Ten: Ohio State 2002
When Jim Tressel arrived at Ohio State in 2001, Buckeye fans were scarred by the John Cooper era, an era of "almost but not quite," for the most part.
Tressel quickly changed that, and the 2002 recruiting class played a huge role in the Buckeyes’ turnaround. The 24-member class was rated No. 5 nationally by Rivals.com, and it featured two 5-star talents (most notably tailback Maurice Clarett) and 14 4-star talents. How good was this group? NFL first-rounders A.J. Hawk and Santonio Holmes were both 3-star talents, per Rivals.
Behind Clarett and a vicious defense, Ohio State upset Miami in overtime to win the 2002 National Championship. And while Clarett’s OSU career ended in a cloud of controversy following that game, plenty of talent remained.
The Buckeyes won three bowl games with this class and finished as the national runner-up to Florida in 2006 behind quarterback Troy Smith, who won the Heisman Trophy.
Hawk and Holmes were joined in the 2006 NFL draft’s first round by linebacker Bobby Carpenter and center Nick Mangold, the leaders of a very talented group.
Tressel never won another national title at Ohio State, but this class laid the foundation for an exceptionally successful run in Columbus.
Big 12: Texas 2002
While not all recruiting classes live up to the hype, this one most certainly did. It featured a staggering six 5-star players, led by quarterback Vince Young.
Young led the way for a special finish for the class. The Longhorns went 24-1 in the 2004 and 2005 seasons, capped off by a thrilling win over Southern California in the 2005 BCS National Championship Game.
Offensive guard Justin Blalock and defensive back Aaron Ross both wound up as NFL first-round selections, and players like tailback Selvin Young and defensive tackle Rodrique Wright also played large roles in Texas' success.
Young didn’t live up to his lofty NFL draft status, retiring last week after what became a journeyman-like career, but he was special at Texas, finishing as the Heisman runner-up in 2005 to Southern California tailback Reggie Bush before exacting a measure of revenge in the national title game.
He accounted for 467 yards of total offense and scored the game-winning touchdown in what was the highlight of Young's distinguished UT career.
Pac-12: Southern California 2003
Southern California was far from off the radar in 2002. Pete Carroll’s Trojans won the Orange Bowl, blowing out Iowa, and quarterback Matt Leinart won the Heisman Trophy.
But the best was yet to come.
Carroll signed 2003’s top recruiting class, per Rivals.com, led by 5-star tailback Reggie Bush. Bush lived up to the hype and then some, leading the charge to the 2004 BCS national title and winning the 2005 Heisman Trophy (later taken back by the Heisman Trust following USC’s NCAA probation).
He was the most electric player in college football, a rushing and receiving threat who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. He has enjoyed a productive pro career with the New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions.
USC signed 10 4-star players and a pair of 5-stars in the class, and they were ridiculously productive. From 2003-05, the Trojans went 37-2 and narrowly missed back-to-back BCS National Championships, losing to Texas and Vince Young in the 2005 BCS title game, considered one of the best national title games ever.
Defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, defensive end Lawrence Jackson and offensive tackle Sam Baker were all NFL first-round selections, and tackle Ryan Kalil, defensive tackle Fili Moala, defensive back Will Poole, wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive back Terrell Thomas and tailbacks Chauncey Washington and LenDale White all added star power.
It was a special group, one that paved the way for Carroll's stellar run in SoCal.
SEC: Alabama 2008
When Nick Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide were historically mediocre. NCAA probation and the short, controversial tenures of Dennis Franchione and Mike Price left one of the nation’s most powerful programs stuck in a major rut, and Mike Shula did little to pull it out.
Saban muddled through a 7-6 debut season that featured an ugly home loss to Louisiana-Monroe, but help was on its way.
Was it ever.
Alabama signed the nation’s No. 1 class in 2008, per Rivals.com, and it paid immediate dividends. The Crimson Tide reached the SEC title game before falling to eventual national champion Florida in 2008, but then vanquished the Gators in 2009 on their way to beating Texas for the program’s first national title since 1992.
The Tide followed that up with national titles in 2010 and 2012. A fifth-year senior from this group would have been around for three national championships, and any four-year senior (staying from 2008 to 2011) would have been a part of a pretty darn impressive two.
The star power in this group is hard to underrate. Tailback Mark Ingram won a Heisman Trophy in 2009, and center Barrett Jones won the Outland Trophy (given to college football’s top lineman) and the Rimington Trophy (given to its top center).
Wideout Julio Jones was one of college football’s most explosive players and has backed it up as a top-10 overall pick of the Atlanta Falcons. In addition, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and safety Mark Barron were also top-10 NFL draft picks. Massive defensive tackle Terrance Cody and linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw were extremely productive players and high draft picks.
Along with the Tide’s 2009 class, this group relaunched Alabama into college football’s stratosphere. Despite last season’s disappointing finish, it shows no sign of descending anytime soon.