Every February, talent evaluators from across the country weigh in with their rankings of the elite college football recruiting classes. The teams that consistently land near the top of the heap on those lists are typically competing for conference crowns and national championships in the fall.
Those rankings are speculative, though. Hindsight offers us a better idea of just how good each recruiting class truly was in terms of actual production on the field.
With that in mind, here are the top 10 college football recruiting classes from 2005-17.
Note: Team ranks referenced for that year come from 247 Sports Composite
1. 2008 Alabama
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
The Crimson Tide’s epic run under Nick Saban (above, right) began in earnest with the 2008 recruiting class. Its players helped make up the backbone of teams that won national championships in 2009 and ‘11. (Defensive back Robert Lester actually got a third title ring in 2012.) The wins and accolades amassed by 2008 signees such as Mark Ingram, Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw and Mark Barron helped set the tone for everything to come in Tuscaloosa.
2. 2009 Alabama
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
Picking between the Tide’s 2008 and ‘09 classes feels like splitting hairs. The ‘09 collection of studs featured six players who were picked in the first round of the NFL draft. Beyond the household names like AJ McCarron and Trent Richardson were other notable contributors such as linebacker Nico Johnson and offensive lineman D.J. Fluker.
3. 2006 Florida
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
Three names you need to know: Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes. That trio of stars helped spark a phenomenal run for Urban Meyer’s Gators that ended with two national championships. Other signees included Jermaine Cunningham and Riley Cooper, who played big roles for UF at different points in their careers.
4. 2013 Ohio State
Rank: 2nd, 26 signees
Key Players: Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell, Jalin Marshall, Eli Apple, Ezekiel Elliott, Dontre Wilson, J.T. Barrett, Darron Lee
In their second season, players in this Ohio State class took on key roles for the Buckeyes in their march to a national championship. Ezekiel Elliott, for example, ran for nearly 2,000 yards in 2014, and he did the same in ‘15. J.T. Barrett enjoyed one of the more successful careers of any quarterback in OSU history. Meanwhile, 2013 signees like Joey Bosa, Eli Apple and Darron Lee helped mold OSU’s defense into one of the best in the country.
5. 2013 Alabama
Rank: 1st, 26 signees
Key Players: Reuben Foster, Derrick Henry, Jonathan Allen, O.J. Howard, A’Shawn Robinson, ArDarius Stewart, Tim Williams, Maurice Smith, Eddie Jackson
The third entry on this list for the Crimson Tide includes the guts of Alabama’s 2015 national championship team. Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy that season as well. On the other side of the ball, standouts such as Reuben Foster and A’Shawn Robinson started making noise pretty soon after they arrived on campus.
6. 2011 Florida State
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
Jameis Winston didn’t come on the scene in Tallahassee until a year later, but Jimbo Fisher already amassed a wealth of talent to surround his Heisman Trophy winner on a run to the national championship in 2013 and an undefeated ’14 regular season. Defenders such as Timmy Jernigan paired with skill position standouts like Devonta Freeman and Kelvin Benjamin to form the nucleus of those squads.
7. 2014 Clemson
Rank: 16th, 20 signees
Key Players: Deshaun Watson, Artavis Scott, Kendall Joseph, Greg Huegel
By itself, signing QB Deshaun Watson moved Clemson’s 2014 class into the top 10. The Tigers added some other key pieces in a small class who had a hand in their 2016 national championship. Guys like receiver Artavis Scott and linebacker Kendall Joseph have been staples of the program as CU has risen to the top of the college football food chain.
8. 2006 Oklahoma
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, Malcolm Williams
The Sooners landed some obvious can’t-miss talents in 2006 — five-star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and all-world tight end Jermaine Gresham, to name just a few. However, the class featured less-heralded prospects who went on to do big things, such as three-star players Sam Bradford, Trent Williams and Quinton Carter. Bob Stoops and his staff did some of their best work over time in identifying borderline prospects with elite potential — this class was no different.
9. 2015 Clemson
Rank: 9th, 26 commits
Key Players: Deon Cain, Mitch Hyatt, Christian Wilkins, Ray-Ray McCloud, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Kelly Bryant
After three years, the story for this class has yet to reach its conclusion. So far, however, players such as Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant have made three appearances in the College Football Playoff with one national title to claim. Five-star signees Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud III turned into potent offensive weapons for the Tigers before leaving for the NFL a year early.
10. 2009 LSU
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
The Bayou Bengals put together one of the best regular-season campaigns in college football history in 2011, even though the season didn’t end with a national championship. The players signed by LSU in the ‘09 class had a big hand in those 13 incredible games. Many ended up in the NFL.
— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.