Not to be a buzzkill, but no matter how the University of Alabama fares on national signing day, Nick Saban will downplay his latest success.
He has done so every year at Alabama, including 2015, when the Crimson Tide again finished atop the recruiting rankings.
“I know there's going to be a lot of talk and speculation and everybody relates to recruiting based on how'd you get ranked,” Saban said at this time last year. “Every coach is going to stand here at this podium...and say they're pleased with the guys that they recruited. No one has a bad recruiting class.
“And we're certainly pleased with our guys, but predicting how a young person is going to do academically and athletically in college by giving them some rating when he's in high school is not very scientific.”
That’s what Saban says publicly. Behind the scenes, it’s a little different, as just about every move the Crimson Tide make—from facility upgrades to the coaching hires—is with an eye on attracting future prospects.
It’s the backbone of any program and the key to the Crimson Tide’s success.
However, Saban is correct that there are no guarantees, even with his stellar Class of 2008 that set the benchmark and helped lead to three national championships. That class included the Crimson Tide’s first Heisman Trophy winner and 12 players who would be selected in the NFL draft, including five in the first round.
Yet at the time, running back Mark Ingram Jr., defensive lineman Marcell Dareus (the No. 3 overall selection in the 2011 draft) and junior college transfer Terrence Cody (a two-time All-American nose guard) were all thought to be closer to the bottom of the recruiting class than the top.
Most recruiting services use a 5-star rating system, with five stars being the equivalent to a player who could contribute immediately, four suggesting that he’s a year away and so on.
Alabama had three 5-star players in 2008, led by wide receiver Julio Jones, who had a legendary career with the Crimson Tide.
The other two were offensive tackle Tyler Love, who never started a game, and wide receiver B.J. Scott—who had been instrumental in drawing other standout players to join him at Alabama but eventually ended up transferring to South Alabama to get more playing time as a cornerback.
That’s the disclaimer. Now consider the broader picture:
- 2008: Notre Dame had the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. It played for the 2012 title.
- 2009: LSU and Alabama finished Nos. 1 and 2, and they played for the national championship in 2011.
- 2011: Alabama and Florida State finished Nos. 1 and 2. The Seminoles won the 2013 championship.
- 2013: Alabama and Ohio State were Nos. 1 and 2. The Buckeyes won the 2014 title.
Of course, Alabama won the 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015 national titles, and no one doubted the Crimson Tide’s level of talent this past season. Every year since 2011, Saban's team has been ranked no. 1 on 247Sports’ composite recruiting class rankings. But as of Feb. 1, Alabama's incomplete recruiting class is ranked fifth in the nation.
Consider that in college football, winning three national titles over a six-year span is certainly a dynasty. What Saban’s done in recruiting is unparalleled in college football history.
This is the backdrop to this year’s signing day, which figures to be different from 2015, when Saban said, “We didn't have a lot of drama,” because nearly every player had been committed to Alabama for a while. This time, that’s not the case.
Through Monday afternoon, it had seven early enrollees plus Christian Bell (Hoover High School, Alabama), who grayshirted last season—which means to delay enrolling for a semester—and came in as a linebacker after being a defensive lineman in high school.
Saban never discloses scholarship information or numbers, but Bell’s believed to count as part of the 2015 class.
Among the early enrollees is junior college offensive lineman Charles Baldwin (Windsor, Connecticut/ASA College), who at 6’5” and 315 pounds, could immediately challenge for the open right tackle job vacated by Dominick Jackson.
One of his biggest competitors could be Jonah Williams (Folsom, California), a 5-star player who stands 6'5", 296 pounds.
The others who were able to practice with the team in Tuscaloosa prior to the College Football Playoff National Championship were tight end Miller Forristall (Cartersville, Georgia), quarterback Jalen Hurts (Channelview, Texas), defensive back Shawn Jennings (Dadeville, Alabama), offensive lineman Chris Owens (Arlington, Texas) and wide receiver T.J. Simmons (Pinson, Alabama/Clay-Chalkville).
Hurts and Owens are rated as 4-star prospects.
The part that has Alabama fans a little nervous is that the program only has 10 other hard commits after outside linebacker Riley Cole decommitted over the weekend and claimed he had been asked to consider a grayshirt.
Deuteronomy 31:6. pic.twitter.com/l3C7aVKMNm— Riley cole (@Rileyc44) January 31, 2016
That leaves eight openings, which is a lot more than Alabama usually has at this point, but the tea leaves are a lot harder to read this year because so many top prospects are waiting to make an announcement on signing day—and just about all of them are considering the Crimson Tide.
Among them are the state’s top two prospects, 5-star linebackers Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson, the nation’s top recruit in defensive tackle Rashan Gary and prized wide receiver Demetris Robertson, who will likely continue his recruiting process beyond signing day.
Where will Alabama finish in the 2016 recruiting rankings?
Cole, ranked as the 33rd-best prospect in the state of Alabama, may simply be fallout from the coaching carousel with Kirby Smart leaving to become the head coach at Georgia and Jeremy Pruitt replacing him as the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator.
But it also signals something important that should put fans at ease: Alabama’s coaches are confident in a full class and their ability to add an interior linebacker in particular.
The Oneonta High School product was almost certainly on the redshirt path anyway, but he had been the only committed interior linebacker. That’s the position Davis plays.
Overall, 247Sports has 25 players listed as 5-star recruits, 11 of whom have yet to announce where they’ll be playing college ball. Alabama will be watching all 11, although it isn’t considered the favorite with most of them.
All of the teams ahead of it have landed 21 or more commitments and are looking to make final touches. The only schools to have more than one 5-star commit so far are Ole Miss (three) and Georgia (two). So the door is open for Alabama to keep moving up.
Should it land Davis and Wilson in addition to players like cornerback Shyheim Carter and defensive end Terrell Hall, who are thought to be strong Crimson Tide leans, Alabama will be in the running for No. 1 again.
As for whether it can finish there, the odds seem to be a bit stacked against the Crimson Tide—sort of like they were this past season.
Saban probably needs one more big-time addition to the class to claim his sixth straight recruiting title.
But no one should bet against him.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings are from 247Sports.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.