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Athlon ranks the best overall recruiting classes of the last decade.
The "modern" recruiting era is tied directly to the online recruiting websites. Rivals and Scout began the explosion around 2001 and ESPN and 247Sports have powerfully entered the market since. The rankings databases only go back 10 or 11 years, so it is difficult to evaluate historic recruiting classes. But since the turn of the millennium, fans and analysts alike have a tremendous amount of data to evaluate recruiting rankings, talent development and scouting evaluations.
Studying recruiting rankings can highlight coaching deficiencies as well as the overachievers. That said, the best recruiting classes of the modern era are more about salesmanship, brand equity, the NFL and big-time athletic department budgets.
Here are the top 15 recruiting classes of the modern era:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2008
Rank: 1st (Athlon Sports), 32 signees
Key Players: Mark Barron, Julio Jones, Terrence Cody, Marcel Dareus, Dont'a Hightower, Mark Ingram, Barrett Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Damion Square, Michael Williams, Robert Lester, Brad Smelley
Nowhere is the impact of recruiting rankings more apparent that in Tuscaloosa, Ala. On the verge of signing yet another No. 1 class, Nick Saban began his domination of the recruiting trail back in 2008 when he signed Athlon Sports’ No. 1 class. This group was a huge part of the 2009 national championship and obviously was featured in both the '11 and '12 title runs. This group includes five first-round picks and two second-rounders among those who went on to play at the next level. It is hard to argue that a group that won three BCS titles and features double-digit NFL draft picks isn’t the best modern collection of talent ever assembled.
2. USC Trojans, 2003
Rank: 3rd (Rivals), 28 signees
Key Players: Reggie Bush, Sam Baker, Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson, Ryan Kalil, Terrell Thomas, Steve Smith, LenDale White, Fili Moala, John David Booty, Eric Wright, Brandon Ting, Ryan Ting, Drean Rucker, Chauncey Washington
Much like the ’08 Alabama group, this team experienced three national championship runs. Only two ended in victory — it lost to Texas in 2005, but more on that in a second — but this class was the foundation of USC's Pac-10 dynasty. Reggie Bush won the Heisman Trophy and is one of four first-round picks from this class. Steve Smith, Terrell Thomas, Ryan Kalil and LenDale White were second-round picks while still others went later in the draft. USC dominated recruiting for nearly a decade and it led to seven conference championships from 2002-08.
3. Florida Gators, 2006
Rank: 2nd (Rivals), 27 signees
Key Players: Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes, Maurice Hurt, Riley Cooper, Jermaine Cunningham, Lawrence Marsh, Brandon James, Marcus Gilbert, Terron Sanders, Dustin Doe, AJ Jones, Carl Johnson
At one point or another, 16 of the 27 recruits in this class went on to start a game for the Gators. But this class was led at the top by elite superstars Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes. Jermaine Cunningham and Spikes were second-rounders while Maurice Hurt and Riley Cooper went later in the draft. Tebow alone makes this class a gem for Florida and it led directly to two BCS national championships. The depth in the middle and at the bottom are nearly as impressive as the elite-level talent of the top names.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide, 2009
Rank: 3rd (Athlon), 28 signees
Key Players: AJ McCarron, Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, James Carpenter, Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker, Eddie Lacy, Quinton Dial, Nico Johnson, Ed Stinson, Anthony Steen, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood, Tana Patrick
This group was a big part of three national championships at the Capstone and played a much bigger role in the 2012 title than the '08 haul. This class has already featured six first-round picks and a few more (such as AJ McCarron) should hear their name called in May. An interesting thing to note about this class is the offensive line. It was the best OL in the nation in 2012 and three-fifths of the starters signed in this class.
5. Texas Longhorns, 2002
Rank: 1st (Rivals), 28 signees
Key Players: Vince Young, Kasey Studdard, Rod Wright, Brian Robison, Aaron Ross, Chase Pittman, Justin Blalock, Aaron Harris, David Thomas, Selvin Young
This group was the core of the 2005 national championship run led by superstar quarterback and five-star recruit Vince Young. He was the gem of the nation’s No. 1 class that eventually featured numerous NFL Draft picks. Ross, Studdard, Wright, Robison, Pittman, Thomas and Blalock were all huge pieces to Mack Brown’s championship puzzle and most of them have gone on to excel in the NFL.
6. Ohio State Buckeyes, 2002
Rank: 5th (Rivals), 24 signees
Key Players: AJ Hawk, Santonio Holmes, Nick Mangold, Troy Smith, Maurice Clarett, Bobby Carpenter, Mike D’Andrea, Doug Datish, Quinn Pitcock, Nate Salley, Roy Hall
This class was a big part of the 2002 national championship run as just freshmen, with Maurice Clarett playing the biggest role. This group features elite offensive firepower and Troy Smith, a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who led his team to the national title game in 2006. This group provided four first-round picks in the 2006 NFL Draft and included six other picks from the 2005-07 drafts as well. Three BCS title appearances and four Big Ten titles over a five-year span indicate that Jim Tressell’s ’02 haul was one of the best in recent memory.
7. Oklahoma Sooners, 2006
Rank: 9th (Rivals), 28 signees
Key Players: Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy, Jermaine Gresham, Trent Williams, Demarco Murray, Jeremy Beal, Quinton Carter, Chris Brown, Dominique Franks, Mossis Madu, Tim Johnson, Brandon Caleb, Malcolm Williams, Chase Beeler
All four Sooners who went in first round of the 2010 NFL Draft signed with Bob Stoops in this class and all four NFL draft picks from Oklahoma in the '11 draft came from this class too. Sam Bradford set all types of records, won the Heisman Trophy and led this team to the 2008 BCS National Championship Game. Even a guy who ended up transferring (Beeler) went on to star at his second school (Stanford).
Rank: 1st (Athlon), 29 signees
Key Players: Kelvin Benjamin, Nick O'Leary, Timmy Jernigan, Terrance Smith, Tank Carradine, Rashad Greene, James Wilder, Bobby Hart, Devonta Freeman, Josue Matias, Tre Jackson, Nile Lawrence-Stample, Nick Waisome, Jacob Coker, Jacob Fahrenkrug
This group already has proven itself, as one of the deepest hauls in history led directly to a BCS National Championship. The following class in 2012 — Jameis Winston, Mario Edwards, Eddie Goldman, Chris Casher — might eventually be better, but for now the '11 group is the best of the Jimbo Fisher era. This group, ranked No. 1 in the nation by Athlon Sports in 2011, featured over a dozen starters on the '13 title team and has already delivered two ACC titles as well.
Rank: 1st (Athlon Sports), 24 signees
Key Players: Michael Brockers, Morris Claiborne, Kevin Minter, Rueben Randle, Chris Faulk, Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Chris Davenport, Bennie Logan, Michael Ford, Craig Loston, Josh Downs, Stavion Lowe, Lamin Barrow, Russell Shepard
This group was the foundation of the 13-0 regular season run to the title game in 2011. And had it finished the job against Alabama, it might be considered the better group. The potential of this class is astounding. It features three first-round picks in Morris Claiborne (6th overall in 2012), Michael Brockers (14th, 2012), and Barkevious Mingo (6th, 2013), and three others were selected in last year's NFL Draft as well. Three-fourths of the starting 2012 defensive line signed in this group as well as star linebacker Kevin Minter. The star power is obvious but the supporting cast is impressive as well.
10. Oregon Ducks, 2008
Rank: 16th (Athlon Sports), 22 signees
Key Players: LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner, Darron Thomas, Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso, John Boyett, Nick Cody, Hamani Stevens, LeGarrette Blount, Josh Kaddu, DeWitt Stuckey, Jeremiah Masoli
Four members of this class (Dion Jordan, Kiko Alonso, Kenjon Barner, John Boyett) were taken in the 2013 NFL Draft alone. Darron Thomas was the most productive quarterback in school history over two years and led his team to the BCS National Championship Game. Two starting offensive linemen helped pave the way for a trio of running backs any school would covet in one class (Barner, LaMichael James, LeGarrette Blount). The defense is also well represented with steady leaders (Boyett) as well as athletic freaks of nature (Jordan, Alonso). This class went 40-5 in Pac-12 play over a five-year period of time from 2008-12.
10. Michigan State Spartans, 2010
Rank: 25th (Athlon), 22 signees
Key Players: Max Bullough, William Gholston, Kurtis Drummond, Darqueze Dennard, Le'Veon Bell, Jeremy Langford, Marcus Rush, Isaiah Lewis, Nick Hill, Keith Mumphrey, Tony Lippett
It may not have the elite NFL talent of some of the Saban or Carroll classes but fewer units have meant more to their program than the 22 guys Mark Dantonio inked in 2010. This class made up the majority of the nation's top defense, including the Thorpe Award winner, that led the Spartans to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl championship for the first time in 25 years. Two All-Big Ten running backs, William Gholston and a host of contributors in the passing game complete a class loaded with long-time starters and veteran senior leaders. This has to considered Dantonio's finest work on the recruiting trail.
11. Auburn Tigers, 2010
Rank: 7th (Athlon), 32 signees
Key Players: Cam Newton, Jake Holland, Jonathon Mincy, Chad Slade, Michael Dyer, Chris Davis, Corey Lemonier, Ryan Smith, LaDarius Owens, Jeffrey Whitaker, Trovon Reed, Shon Coleman
Not many classes have produced two BCS National Championship berths, a Heisman Trophy winner, No. 1 overall pick and one crystal football but that is just what the 2010 group did for Auburn. Newton was obviously a huge get and an immediate impact player but a host of veteran starters on the 2013 SEC championship squad came to The Plains in the '10 signing class. Holland and Owens were leaders at linebacker while Mincy, Smith and Davis all started in the secondary for the SEC champs. This was a deep and talented haul that Gus Malzahn had a big part in bringing to campus. The worst season in program history in 2012 keeps this group from the top 10.
12. Stanford Cardinal, 2009
Rank: 18th (Athlon), 22 signees
Key Players: Shayne Skov, Stepfan Taylor, Trent Murphy, Ben Gardner, Tyler Gaffney, Zach Ertz, Khalil Wilkes, Levine Toilolo, Josh Mauro, Taysom Hill
Stanford had a three-year run on the recruiting trail that featured elite classes in both 2010 and '11, but the group that got it started stands out above the rest. On defense, Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy and Ben Gardner are three players any coach would wish for once in a lifetime much less all in the same signing class. On offense, both Tyler Gaffney and Stepfan Taylor carried their team to Pac-12 championships and Taylor might be the best Stanford running back of all-time. Khalil Wilkes started on both of those title teams at center while a pair of NFL tight ends (Zach Ertz, Levine Toilolo) are featured as well. Even BYU got its starting quarterback (Taysom Hill) from this class.
13. LSU Tigers, 2004
Rank: 2nd (Rivals), 26 signees
Key Players: Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson, Jacob Hester, Early Doucet, Chevis Jackson, Herman Johnson, Quinn Johnson, Craig Steltz, Claude Wroten, Tremaine Johnson, Curtis Taylor, Brett Helms, Lavelle Hawkins
The 2004 class set the foundation for the run at the '07 BCS National Championship. Glenn Dorsey and Jacob Hester were the primary leaders on both sides of the ball and eventually hoisted the crystal football. Five players were selected in the 2008 NFL Draft and four more were taken in the '09 draft. Three star defensive linemen, including two first-round picks in Dorsey and Tyson Jackson led this defense when it dominated Ohio State in the title game. Lavelle Hawkins was a big-time player but did it for Cal after transferring.
14. Georgia Bulldogs, 2009
Rank: 6th (Athlon), 19 signees
Key Players: Aaron Murray, Arthur Lynch, Branden Smith, Shawn Williams, Chris Burnette, Marlon Brown, Austin Long, Dallas Lee, Kwame Geathers, Orson Charles, Rantavious Wooten, Zach Mettenberger, Abry Jones, Washaun Ealey
This class really begins and ends with the most productive quarterback in the history of the SEC. And one that beat Florida like few in school history ever had. Aaron Murray headlines an excellent offensive class that features multiple starting offensive linemen, a trio of extremely athletic pass-catchers and arguably the nation's best tight end in 2013 in Arthur Lynch. Zach Mettenberger didn't last long at Georgia, but eventually ended up at LSU and was the Tigers' starting quarterback the past two seasons. The defense got plenty of production from Shawn Williams, Branden Smith and Kwame Geathers during two runs to the SEC Championship Game. Had this group, in particular, Murray, ever finished with a title, it would be ranked higher.
15. Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 2009
Rank: 14th (Athlon), 18 signees
Key Players: Manti Te'o, Zack Martin, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Zeke Motta, Chris Watt, Alex Bullard, Jake Golic, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Tyler Stockton
This class is headlined by Manti Te'o, one of the most decorated defensive players in college football history. Tyler Eifert was a first-round pick last year and Zack Martin, one of the best players in the nation at his position, leads a strong collection of offensive line talent. Both Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick were solid contributors on offense while this haul also featured a host of defensive starters for a team that went undefeated in the 2012 regular season and put the Irish in the BCS title game.
The Best of the Rest:
Wisconsin Badgers, 2009
Rank: 39th (Athlon), 21 signees
Key Players: Montee Ball, Chris Borland, Jacob Pedersen, Ryan Groy, Travis Frederick, Dezmen Southward, Jordan Kohout, David Gilbert, Tyler Dippell, Conor O'Neill, Pat Muldoon
Florida Gators, 2007
Rank: 1st (Rivals), 27 signees
Key Players: Ahmad Black, Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden, Chas Henry, Aaron Hernandez, Cam Newton, Chris Rainey, Maurkice Pouncey, Michael Pouncey, Major Wright, John Brantley
Georgia Bulldogs, 2006
Rank: 4th (Rivals), 28 signees
Key Players: Asher Allen, Geno Atkins, Shaun Chapas, Akeem Dent, Kris Durham, Akeem Hebron, Reshad Jones, Knowshon Moreno, Matthew Stafford, Kiante Tripp, Clifton Geathers, Prince Miller
Ohio State Buckeyes, 2008
Rank: 2nd (Athlon), 20 signees
Key Players: Mike Adams, Terrelle Pryor, Travis Howard, DeVier Posey, Michael Brewster, Nathan Williams, Garrett Goebel, Etienne Sabino, JB Shurgarts, Andrew Sweat
LSU Tigers, 2003
Rank: 1st (Rivals), 28 signees
Key Players: LaRon Landry, Will Arnold, Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis, Matt Flynn, Alley Broussard, Anthony Hill, JaMarcus Russell, Jonathon Zenon, Justin Vincent
Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 2008
Rank: 4th (Athlon Sports), 23 signees
Key Players: Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, Braxton Cave, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Jamoris Slaughter, Mike Golic, Robert Blanton, Darius Fleming, John Goodman, Jonas Gray, Trevor Robinson, Steven Filer, Sean Cwynar, Dayne Crist, Ethan Johnson
Texas Longhorns, 2005
Rank: 20th (Rivals), 15 signees
Key Players: Colt McCoy, Roddrick Muckelroy, Henry Melton, Jermichael Finley, Quan Cosby, Jamaal Charles, Chris Brown, Aaron Lewis, Roy Miller
USC Trojans, 2005
Rank: 1st (Rivals), 19 signees
Key Players: Brian Cushing, Rey Maualuga, Mark Sanchez, Kevin Ellison, Charles Brown, Patrick Turner, Kyle Moore, Kaluka Maiava, Will Harris, Cary Harris