Championship teams in college football are not pieced together by one recruiting class. They are built over multiple cycles. Clemson's recent national championship team was built on recruiting classes that were not necessarily considered the best in the country at the time but included key ingredients spread out over several years.
This is why recruiting is referred to as the lifeblood of a college football program. If you strikeout with one recruiting class, it will come back to really hurt you at some point in the next three or four years.
Not every program can recruit at a consistently high level like Alabama continues to do, but a handful of programs can bring in a program-changing class. We took a look back at a ranking of the top 10 recruiting classes since 2005 and made a couple of updates given what has transpired over the course of the last year. While most of the list remains in tact, there were a couple of updates that were needed given how some players have performed at the next level and how this last season played out.
Note: Team ranks referenced for that year come from 247 Sports Composite
1. Alabama, 2008
Rank: 3rd (33 signees)
Key Players: Mark Barron, Julio Jones, Terrence Cody, Marcell Dareus, Dont'a Hightower, Mark Ingram, Barrett Jones, Courtney Upshaw, Damion Square, Michael Williams, Robert Lester, Brad Smelley
Every dynasty must begin somewhere. For Alabama, it started with the 2008 crop, Nick Saban’s first class with a full recruiting cycle to work his magic. It not only set the tone, but also laid the groundwork for the success to come for the Crimson Tide. Many players in this class became key ingredients in Alabama’s 2009 BCS title run and later in 2011 and even 2012. Besides All-Americans like Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower, Barrett Jones and Courtney Upshaw, this class also included Mark Ingram, Alabama’s first Heisman Trophy winner.
2. Florida, 2006
Rank: 2nd (24 signees)
Key Players: Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes, Maurice Hurt, Riley Cooper, Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon James, Marcus Gilbert, Lawrence Marsh, Terron Sanders, Dustin Doe, AJ Jones, Carl Johnson
Florida’s 2006 haul would become the core of a national championship run under Urban Meyer, and it is easy to see why. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow and stars in the making in Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes brought a new level of athleticism and energy to the Gators program. With this class leading the charge, Florida would win two BCS national titles.
3. Alabama, 2009
Rank: 2nd (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
Alabama’s 2008 crop was just the first piece of the championship puzzle. Saban’s work needed to be followed up the following year by continuing to add quality depth to the roster. He got it in 2009 with the likes of Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Chance Warmack, Eddie Lacy, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and AJ McCarron, who would become the starting quarterback following Greg McElroy’s run in Tuscaloosa. Six players went on to become first-round draft picks in the NFL and this crop of players helped push Alabama from very good to great en route to a pair of BCS national titles.
4. Oklahoma, 2006
Rank: 8th (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
Getting quarterback Sam Bradford and running back DeMarco Murray in the same recruiting class alone is enough to make this Sooners class special, but that was just the beginning. Bradford would go on to win the Heisman Trophy and Murray would later become one of the top running backs in the NFL, but do not overlook the other parts of this class, such as defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, tight end Jermaine Gresham and offensive tackle Trent Williams. All three went in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, as did Bradford. This core helped take Oklahoma to the BCS national title game in 2008, where it was topped by Florida.
5. Ohio State, 2013
Rank: 2nd (26 signees)
Key Players: Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell, Jalin Marshall, Eli Apple, Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, J.T. Barrett, Darron Lee
The stock for Ohio State's 2013 group is rising given how running back Ezekiel Elliott took the NFL by storm in his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2016, and Joey Bosa proved why he was such a high draft pick of the Chargers as well. Urban Meyer’s masterful work in rebuilding Ohio State certainly paid off with this class that would become the main core of the Buckeyes’ College Football Playoff championship run. Bosa was among the best defensive ends in the game. Elliott became one of the top rushers in the country and J.T. Barrett stepped in and saved the 2014 season following the preseason loss of Braxton Miller and is coming off a season that netted him a share of The Silver Football Award as the Big Ten's best player in 2016. Throw in contributions from players like Vonn Bell, Eli Apple and Darron Lee and you have the makings of a championship defense.
6. Florida State, 2011
Rank: 2nd (29 signees)
Key Players: Kelvin Benjamin, Nick O'Leary, Timmy Jernigan, Terrance Smith, Tank Carradine, Rashad Greene, Karlos Williams, Bobby Hart, Devonta Freeman, Josue Matias, Tre Jackson, Nile Lawrence-Stample, Nick Waisome
The 2011 class was the first under a full recruiting cycle for head coach Jimbo Fisher, and it was a grand one. It was this group of recruits that lay the brickwork for Florida State’s three straight ACC titles, a BCS title run in 2013 and help lead the Seminoles into the Playoff the following season. Before the world knew much about Jameis Winston, Fisher added key players such as Kelvin Benjamin, a first-round draft pick in 2014, one of the nation’s top tight ends in Nick O’Leary, and offensive weapons like Karlos Williams and Devonta Freeman.
7. Alabama, 2010
Rank: 5th (25 signees)
Key Players: C.J. Mosley, Dee Milliner, Blake Sims, Brandon Ivory, Jalston Fowler, Arie Kouandjio, Chad Lindsay, Austin Shepherd, DeAndrew White, Adrian Hubbard, Brian Vogler, Nick Perry, Jarrick Williams, Deion Belue
Alabama just does not stop recruiting big talent, as was demonstrated in 2010. With the '08 and '09 classes establishing the foundation for Alabama’s dynasty, the '10 crop assured Alabama would not be dropping off very far anytime soon. This group packed the likes of C.J. Mosley and Dee Milliner, who became top defensive players for Alabama on a 2012 BCS title run. This class may not have achieved quite the same level of success in terms of championships, but it made sure Alabama was still a team few would want to play.
8. LSU, 2009
Rank: 1st (25 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
When LSU ran the table and advanced to the BCS National Championship Game in 2011, it was this class that led the way. Morris Claiborne, Michael Brockers and Barkevious Mingo would go on to be first-round NFL Draft picks. This class may not have achieved national title success (See Alabama, 2008, '09, '10) but Les Miles proved he was more than capable of landing a top-ranked class. He might do so again in 2016 too.
9. Clemson, 2013
Rank: 15th (22 Signees)
Key Players: Mackensie Alexander, Shaq Lawson, Ben Boulware, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Cordrea Tankersley, Jordan Leggett, Jayron Kearse, T.J. Green
Clemson's recent national championship run with back-to-back national title game appearances was fueled by two brilliant recruiting classes. While the 2014 group brought Clemson Deshaun Watson, the overall depth of the 2013 class puts them just over the edge when deciding between the two. Clemson landed some of the best players the program has ever had with linebacker Ben Boulware, wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Wayne Gallman. The class has already produced a quartet of NFL Draft picks with linebacker Shaq Lawson (No. 19 overall, Buffalo), five-star cornerback Mackensie Alexander (2nd round, No. 54 overall, Minnesota), fellow corner T.J. Green (2nd, No. 57 overall, Indianapolis) and safety Jayron Kearse (7th round, Minnesota) all being selected in 2016.
10. Oregon, 2008
Rank: 23rd (24 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
Oregon’s final recruiting class under Mike Bellotti set the tone for Chip Kelly in the coming years. The highlight of the class is running back LaMichael James, but this class included two starting quarterbacks, Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas. It also added to that signature Oregon offensive style with Kenjon Barner and the physical LeGarrette Blount. Defensive end Dion Jordan would go on to become the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft as well.
Class to Keep a Close Eye On in 2017: USC, 2015
Rank: 2nd (26 signees)
Key Players: Sam Darnold, Ricky Town, Ronald Jones II, Rasheem Green, Porter Gustin, Marvell Tell, Iman Marshall)
USC's 2015 group is already blossoming and helping to make the Men of Troy a legitimate contender once again. The class brought in rising quarterback Sam Darnold as well as Ricky Town. Town has since transferred to Arkansas and is now hitting the JUCO circuit before potentially returning to an FBS program for the 2018 season, so keep an eye out for him next year. But this Trojans class also has seen production already from players like defensive linemen Rasheem Green and Porter Gustin (top 11 in Pac-12 in sacks in 2016) and running back Ronald Jones II (seventh-leading rusher in Pac-12 in 2016) and Iman Marshall (three interceptions in 2016). With USC expected to be a Pac-12 favorite in 2016, the Class of 2015 is a big reason why.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.