Teams with Best 2016 College Football Rosters Based on Past Recruiting Cycles

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterFebruary 11, 2016

Teams with Best 2016 College Football Rosters Based on Past Recruiting Cycles

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    Think recruiting doesn't matter?

    Just ask Alabama, which has landed the No. 1 class in each of the past six years. The Tide have only won three of their four national championships under head coach Nick Saban in that recruiting span. 

    Of course, talent alone doesn't win championships. You need great coaching, a healthy roster and some good luck along the way, in whatever form it may come. Still, recruiting is the blueprint, the building blocks on which great teams are created. 

    Based on the last four recruiting cycles, which teams have the most talent returning in 2016? Our answers and methodology are explained in the following slides. 

Criteria

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    Defining the "best" rosters takes more than one metric. If the talent of every roster was based purely on its recruiting rankings, there'd be no reason for teams like Texas to ever play the games. Eventually, the scouted talent has to reach its potential. 

    As such, the following areas were used to create a more rounded approach: 

    • Recruiting Average: How did a team rank in recruiting from 2013-16?
    • NFL Draftees to Watch: It's too early to know for sure how many players from a team will be drafted in 2017, or where, but this is an early list of names to watch. 
    • Incoming Players to Watch: 2016 signees or junior college transfers who should make an impact right away.

    Additionally, the following categories served as bonus points: 

    • Returning Consensus All-Americans: This is a selective category since there are numerous All-American teams, but if a player is recognized by enough of them, they get consensus (or even unanimous) status.  
    • Returning Award Winners: Did any players win any postseason awards last year?

    There's no perfect formula, because there's no team averaging a top-five class and returning a handful of consensus All-Americans. These are guidelines more than actual rules with cutoffs. 

    One metric that was given minor, unofficial consideration was team wins and championships. However, records from four years ago could have involved a number of seniors who are long gone from the program. Similarly, wins from 2015 could feature a number of starters who just declared for the NFL draft.

    We're looking ahead to '16 and what's coming back rather than putting a ton of emphasis on past accomplishments, which can be circumstantial.

    Consensus All-American information via Sports-Reference.com.

Alabama

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Recruiting Average: No. 1

    Returning Consensus All-Americans: zero (four departed)

    NFL Draftees to Watch: OL Cam Robinson, TE O.J. Howard, DE Jonathan Allen, LB Reuben Foster, DB Eddie Jackson

    Incoming Players to Watch: LB Ben Davis, LB Lyndell Wilson, DT Raekwon Davis

    What Alabama has produced under head coach Nick Saban has been nothing short of incredible. The Crimson Tide have won four national championships under Saban and are among the early betting front-runners to win in 2017, according to Odds Shark

    The Tide won the recruiting competition hands down. The last time Alabama did not have the No. 1 recruiting class according to 247Sports' rankings was 2010 (Bama finished a more modest fifth in the final rankings). While Alabama loses a lot of award winners (running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman) and consensus All-Americans, it does have significant pieces returning on both sides of the ball. 

    Additionally, look for 5-star linebacker Ben Davis to get involved in the two-deep as a freshman. When one class departs at Alabama, another one takes over and plays at a high level. 

Clemson

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Recruiting Average: No. 13

    Returning Consensus All-Americans: 1 (QB Deshaun Watson; 1 departing) 

    Returning Award Winners: Watson (Davey O'Brien)

    NFL Draftees to Watch: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, TE Jordan Leggett, WR Mike Williams, CB Cordrea Tankersley 

    Incoming Players to Watch: DT Dexter Lawrence, RB Tavien Feaster, CB Trayvon Mullen, DE Xavier Kelly

    For the second year in a row, Clemson will have to make some big changes on defense. But if the 2015 season showed us anything, it's that the Tigers have the depth on that side of the ball to handle the turnover—and that defensive coordinator Brent Venables is capable of orchestrating reloading projects. 

    But, goodness, that offense. Watson, Gallman, Williams and Leggett plus younger receivers Deon Cain and Artavis Scott are all coming back. Watson was a Heisman finalist last year and should be the front-runner for the award this time around. He could also be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, as a NFL quarterbacks coach told Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports

    "If I have the opportunity to go to the NFL, I'm going to take it," Watson said, via the Associated Press

    While Clemson doesn't average the highest recruiting classes annually, it recruits well enough to compete for titles and gets the most out of its roster. Next year's class has a ton of NFL-caliber talent on it once again. 

Florida State

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Recruiting Average: No. 5

    Returning Consensus All-Americans: zero (one departed)

    NFL Draftees to Watch: RB Dalvin Cook, OL Roderick Johnson, DE DeMarcus Walker

    Incoming Players to Watch:  CB Levonta Taylor, WR Keith Gavin, PK Ricky Aguayo, QB Malik Henry

    Florida State's rebuilding year in 2015 resulted in 10 wins and a New Year's Six bowl appearance. So, yeah, not too shabby.

    The Seminoles should be even better next season, with so many starters returning. There are some key departures, like defensive back and consensus All-American Jalen Ramsey, but for the most part the core group is back. 

    Head coach Jimbo Fisher and his staff have recruited at an elite level. Only once in the past four classes (2013) did the Seminoles finish outside the top five in 247Sports' rankings.

    While the Noles don't return any major award winners or All-Americans, there are a couple of players who could change that for next season. Running back Dalvin Cook got shuffled in a deep running back group but meant as much to his offense as, say, Leonard Fournette did at LSU. 

    Florida State's big season could come in a couple of years, though. A number of supremely talented players like defensive end Josh Sweat and safety Derwin James were freshmen in 2015, meaning the '18 draft class could be another FSU-heavy one. 

LSU

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    Bob Levey/Associated Press

    Recruiting Average: No. 4

    Returning Consensus All-Americans: 1 (RB Leonard Fournette) 

    NFL Draftees to Watch: RB Leonard Fournette, LB Kendell Beckwith, CB Tre'Davious White, S Jamal Adams, DE Lewis Neal

    Incoming Players to Watch: CB Kristian Fulton, DT Rashard Lawrence, WR Stephen Sullivan 

    Based on talent alone, LSU is one of the top programs in college football. The wins, while generally plentiful, haven't quiet been where the program wants, however.

    There's no doubt head coach Les Miles can recruit—the Tigers have posted top-10 classes in each of the last four cycles—but there have been no national title appearances since the 2011 season. 

    When you have a player like Fournette, though, winning comes a little easier. Fournette should be an early front-runner for the Heisman—he was a runaway favorite for much of last year—and All-American consideration.

    The 2017 draft class for LSU should be ridiculous, too. Beckwith, White and Neal all could have gone but opted to return. Fournette will be eligible, which doesn't even touch the surface of draft-eligible players on this roster. 

    Alabama is loaded, but '16 sort of has an "If not now, when?" vibe for LSU and Miles—who, mind you, was on the verge of losing his job late last year, according to ESPN.com's Joe Schad. With a roster like this, there's no reason for the Tigers not to win big. 

Ohio State

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Recruiting Average: No. 4

    Returning Consensus All-Americans: zero (2 departing) 

    NFL Draftees to Watch: QB J.T. Barrett, OL Pat Elflein, HB Curtis Samuel, LB Raekwon McMillan

    Incoming Players to Watch: WR Austin Mack, DE Nick Bosa, ATH/CB Jordan Fuller 

    No other team on this list was hit as hard by the NFL draft as the Buckeyes. In all, Ohio State lost nine underclassmen on top of departing seniors.

    According to Bill Rabinowitz of the Columbus Dispatch, Urban Meyer's team has only six starters returning from 2015. 

    "Nine is a lot (to lose),” Meyer said, via Rabinowitz. 

    However, Meyer has recruited for years like he did in 2016. Is it possible the Buckeyes drop off some? Of course, but role players from last year—Samuel, defensive end Sam Hubbard, running back Bri'onte Dunn and the like—should be ready to step up into full-time starter spots. And remember, Barrett was surpassing Braxton Miller's quarterback numbers in 2014 before suffering an ankle injury and eventually losing the position battle to Cardale Jones. 

    The Buckeyes don't have much in the way of proven talent coming back, but by the end of '16 or going into '17, Ohio State has the capability for some more individual accolades. 

Ole Miss

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Recruiting Average: No. 12

    NFL Draftees to Watch: DE Marquis Haynes, QB Chad Kelly, DB Tony Conner

    Incoming Players to Watch: QB Shea Patterson, OL Gregory Little, DT Benito Jones, DB Deontay Anderson

    Similarly to Ohio State, Ole Miss was hit hard by the 2016 NFL draft. Key members of the '13 class—receiver Laquon Treadwell, tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche—are gone. That definitely hurts. 

    However, the Rebels have one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC in Kelly. No one starting in the conference has a better arm/mobility/size combo than Kelly does, which makes him extra-dangerous.

    But what really sets Ole Miss apart is, once again, its stock of blue-chip players. Some of them, like Jones, may compete right away. Patterson seems more destined to start in a year or so. Still, it's the foundation for the next three-to-four years—the "new" 2013 recruiting class. 

    Long-term, head coach Hugh Freeze has set this program up well to compete well against perennial SEC favorite Alabama. 

Tennessee

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Recruiting Average: No. 12

    NFL Draftees to Watch: QB Joshua Dobbs, RB Jalen Hurd, DE Derek Barnett, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin

    Incoming Players to Watch: QB Jarrett Guarantano, DB Nigel Warrior, DB Tyler Byrd

    It feels like we've been placing Tennessee in these types of offseason categories forever, but the perpetually one-year-away Vols might finally deliver on lofty expectations in 2016.

    The roster is certainly good enough. Dobbs, Hurd and receiver Josh Malone are now veterans for this offense. Barnett is arguably the top edge-rusher in the SEC. 

    The number of future All-Americans and NFL draft picks on the Vols roster makes the ceiling high. What head coach Butch Jones doesn't need right away are heavy contributions from the '16 class, though Guarantano does have a "quarterback of the future" feel to him, as B/R's Brad Shepard noted on signing day. 

    Tennessee is pound-for-pound one of the most talented teams in college football. It just hasn't clicked like it's supposed to yet. 

Texas A&M

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Recruiting Average: No. 11

    NFL Draftees to Watch: DE Myles Garrett, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, DB Armani Watts, DE Daeshon Hall

    Incoming Players to Watch: QB Trevor Knight (transfer), CB Charles Oliver, LB Tyrel Dodson

    The biggest loses for Texas A&M under head coach Kevin Sumlin have been offensive linemen; the Aggies have been churning them out to the pros like an assembly line. However, life post-Johnny Manziel has been tough on Sumlin, and '16 has a make-or-break feel to it. 

    With a proven coordinator on each side of the ball (OC Noel Mazzone, DC John Chavis), there are no more excuses. The coaching matches the talent.

    Garrett is the first name that pops up. Put simply, the guy is a freak and is entering his third year as a key contributor. Defensive tackle Daylon Mack should get more playing time as a sophomore as well. 

    There's wide receiver talent for days with Seals-Jones and sophomore Christian Kirk. What A&M needs to make its offense operational again is a quarterback, and Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight could be the answer. 

    A&M is full of gifted players. Sumlin has recruited lights-out, especially in Houston, but now the results need to show. Staples of the '14 class need to have their biggest years yet. 

USC

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    Recruiting Average: No. 8

    NFL Draftees to Watch: WR Juju Smith-Schuster, CB Adoree' Jackson

    Incoming Players to Watch: CB Jack Jones, DE Oluwole Betiku

    USC is in an interesting in-between spot with its roster.

    There's a lot of attrition, especially on defense, but also a number of young contributors who won't be eligible until the 2018 draft. Running back Ronald Jones II, edge-rusher Porter Gustin, defensive lineman Rasheem Green, linebacker Cameron Smith and cornerback Iman Marshall were all freshmen in 2015. 

    Additionally, the Trojans are breaking in a new quarterback, Max Browne. In time, Browne might be a more coveted NFL prospect than Cody Kessler, but for now he's a longtime backup trying to emerge as a starter. 

    But USC never lacks talent, that's for sure. Jackson is around for at least one more year, as is Smith-Schuster. Those are likely USC's two best pro prospects. Now it's a matter of getting back to the playoff despite more turnover along the D-line (an issue that hurt the Trojans a season ago). 

Honorable Mentions

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    These are the teams that finished right on the edge of the list but maybe ranked a little too low in recruiting or lacked some major NFL prospects.

    Georgia: Talent is almost never an issue with the Bulldogs, but winning the big games has been. New head coach Kirby Smart will try to rectify that right away with running back Nick Chubb and Co. Maybe freshman quarterback Jacob Eason will get the starting nod. However, Georgia is battling hard with Tennessee for best pure talent. 

    Michigan: The 2016 Wolverines will be a veteran group for second-year coach Jim Harbaugh, and safety Jabrill Peppers is a stud. However, with the way Harbaugh is recruiting, this will be nowhere near his best team in Ann Arbor. 

    Notre Dame: The Irish sustained heavy losses from the 2015 group, including offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley and linebacker Jaylon Smith. But this was also a banged-up team, meaning numerous contributors are coming back. 

    Oklahoma: The Sooners don't recruit at a top-10 level anymore, but head coach Bob Stoops has kept this program atop the Big 12 and made the playoff last season. A majority of last year's offense returns, too, including quarterback Baker Mayfield.

    Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com. Recruiting info courtesy of 247Sports