TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It's in the midst of a dynasty, perhaps the greatest college football has ever seen, and Nick Saban is already staking his claim as the sport's most successful coach. But the University of Alabama football program hit another new high Wednesday on national signing day.
It wasn't Saban being able to claim his sixth straight recruiting title, per the 247Sports composite team rankings, although that unprecedented accomplishment is beyond impressive. Rather, with the addition of three more consensus 5-star prospects, plus 14 4-star players, the 2016 team appears to be unparalleled when it comes to talent, at least on paper.
Heading into spring practices Alabama's roster features 19 players who were considered consensus 5-star recruits, in addition to 49 4-star prospects. Combined, that's just under 80 percent of the entire team.
It also means that of the 34 5-star players whom Saban has landed for Alabama since 2008, a remarkable number magnified by there having been very few busts, more than half are currently on the Crimson Tide.
“Yeah, it’s probably a record,” said college football analyst Phil Steele, who writes the wildly popular season preview magazine that’s become an annual industry staple. “I can’t recall anybody prior to that having that many, and the [previous] three straight classes really helped.”
Highlighting the 2016 class are offensive tackle Jonah Williams and prize in-state linebackers Ben Davis and Lyndell Wilson. Another three players (OT Charles Baldwin, DT Kendell Jones and DE Terrell Hall) were rated 5-star talent by one of the other major recruiting sites.
|Nick Saban's 5-Star Consistency|
|Class||5-Star Signees||4-Star Signees|
|Total (Avg.)||35 (3.9)||124 (13.8)|
|Compiled from 247Sports|
Even before them, the 2016 team already had at least one 5-star talent with every position group except special teams, where no one gets that designation.
It helps explain why some recruits are drawn to Alabama, and others are not.
Williams, for example, was recruited out of California, but his father went to Georgia, his mother Auburn and there’s a lot of family in Louisiana. He grew up in Atlanta before a job took the family west and wasn’t scared off by the high level of talent that already existed on the reigning national champion’s depth chart.
“I think it probably intimidated some people, it probably discouraged some people away," Williams said. "Anyone who would sign here I already have a little bit of respect for because they’re willing to come to an environment like this, where you’re expected to be the best.
“I think that’s what we live for, it’s what we work for here.”
It all only reinforces that Saban simply does recruiting better than anyone else. Granted, some other services crowned different recruiting champions Wednesday, but no program has ever had this kind of consistency.
"I think this class sort of reflects some of the needs that we have,” said Saban, who still has an open slot and would like to add another offensive playmaker or defensive end. “You don't get everything that you want all the time.”
But he comes the closest, and has compiled what might be the most loaded college football team in terms of talent that anyone has ever seen.
Alabama had a whopping 18 5-star players in 2015, but only two of them have since departed, running back Derrick Henry and defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson. It already had developing 5-star players ready to compete for those spots, and many of its recent major award winners came in as 4-star prospects (including Mark Ingram, Amari Cooper, AJ McCarron, Barrett Jones and C.J. Mosley).
|Alabama's Consensus 5-Star Club|
|Compiled from 247Sports|
This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen, just like a program isn’t supposed to be able to win four national championships in seven years. Numerous changes, including the 85-man scholarship limit which has only been in effect since the 1994 season, were thought to guarantee parity in the sport.
Schools used to be able to offer as many scholarships as they could afford, sometimes just to keep talented players off an opposing team, and rosters with 150 players weren’t considered unusual.
So in addition to athletes being bigger, stronger and faster nowadays, and also specializing in one sport, there’s really no accurate way to measure a team’s talent against history, as the game has changed so much over the years.
The attention recruiting receives has evolved as well. Rivals has been around since 1998, Scout since 2001, while 247Sports and ESPN’s recruiting coverage are just a few years old. Before then, you’re talking about publications like Super Prep Magazine, which was created in 1985 and has since gone out of business.
Even the 5-star rating system hasn’t been around that long and was developed as a way to give fans something to which they could easily relate, like with a 5-star hotel or restaurant. Approximately 30 players garner that can’t-miss status every year, yet sometimes they still miss the mark, too.
Until very recently, any discussion about a team’s talent level had to focus on accolades after the fact, like all-conference and All-American honors, the NFL draft and even the College Football Hall of Fame. For example, the record for most inductees from a single recruiting class is four: 1921 Notre Dame, 1932 Stanford, 1938 Boston College and 1963 Michigan State.
That why one could ask 10 different experts to name the most talented team to ever play college football and get 10 different answers.
“The 1979 Southern Cal team, I maintain, is still the best team as far as pure talent goes,” Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mule said. “They had two Heisman Trophy winners, Charles White in 1979 and Marcus Allen in 1981, the Lombardi Award winner in Brad Budde, two future Hall of Famers with Ronnie Lott in the secondary and Anthony Munoz on the line, 12 All-Americans, 12 first-round draft choices and 31 athletes who spent at least one season in the NFL.
“I want to see the team that will equal that.”
Steve Richardson, the longstanding executive director of the Football Writers Association of America suggested numerous possibilities like 1966 Notre Dame and Michigan State, 1996 Nebraska and the teams that helped make up some of the sport’s greatest dynasties.
|Most Active 5-Star Players|
|Compiled from 247Sports/Team rosters|
They include Amy and Notre Dame in the 1940s, Oklahoma in the early 1950s and 1970s, and Miami in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
With top athletes who enlisted during World War II able to play football for their school or base, Army went 27-0-1 from 1944-46. The 1944 team alone boasted six consensus All-Americans, which caused head coach Earl Henry “Red” Blaik to once proclaim that the best game he saw his team play was a practice scrimmage.
Meanwhile, Miami holds all the draft records, including most players selected in the first round of a single draft (six in 2004) and the most first-round selections in a span of two (10), three (15) and four years (19), but that was long after its dynasty years.
Those are the kinds of things that Alabama is chasing, despite having numerous disadvantages like a tougher schedule and the NFL draft now lasting just seven rounds.
“As far as there being a complete team I don’t think there’s one that stands out above the rest,” Steele said. “If you gave me a list and said, ‘Make a case for this team, and for this team,’ I could probably make the case for five or six different teams.”
Of course, with recruiting rankings, the key is they only indicate potential, as none of Alabama’s current 5-star players have been named an All-American and only defensive lineman Jonathan Allen and offensive tackle Cam Robinson have been All-SEC. Some aren’t even on campus yet.
Being a top recruit also doesn’t automatically translate to the NFL draft. Last year, Mike Huguenin of NFL.com looked at each Rivals.com 5-star prospect from 2002-11 and found that of the 288 players rated that high, 123 were eventually drafted (42.7 percent), and 45 went in the first round (16 percent).
Keep that in mind when considering the following from the Bleacher Report Insights team: During the past 10 seasons, there have only been three teams with at least seven combined All-Americans and first-round picks in the subsequent draft, and they were all coached by Saban: 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Overall, since 2008, no program has had as many consensus All-Americans (25), NFL draft picks (48) or first-round selections (17) as Alabama. One has to wonder how many future inductees there will someday be in the College Football Hall of Fame.
But it all starts with recruiting, which Saban attacks as vigorously as an opponent.
“I think they've had five No. 1 recruiting classes out of the last six years, which has got to make him the greatest recruiter in the history of college football,” Steve Spurrier said. “Arguably, they've got the greatest collection of football players ever assembled for a college team. If the recruiting services are correct, and they're pretty much correct.”
The thing is, Spurrier made that comment at SEC media days in 2014. Alabama and Saban have won back-to-back league titles and a national championship since then.
“He's great at recruiting, and he's great at putting a staff together,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recently said during media day at the National Championship Game. “He hires great coaches. He's got great coordinators, he's got great assistant coaches, great support staff. He understands the importance of that, having that type of infrastructure. So do I.
“But there's no big secret why they've been so successful. You just check their recruiting.”
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.