Who has the best football roster in the SEC heading into 2014?
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
When it comes to recruiting, the SEC is king. The best players hail from the SEC footprint and, frankly, the SEC cares more about recruiting rankings than any other league — from the head coaches to the boosters to the message board junkies. In the consensus 2014 team recruiting rankings, the SEC bragged seven of the top nine classes in the nation and 10 of the top 22. For more perspective, Vanderbilt has landed an average class of 45.6 nationally — which ranks dead last in the SEC.
When it comes to recruiting, the SEC is the most cutthroat league in the nation and one man stands above the rest on the trail.
Here is how the SEC rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the SEC based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Pied piper of the recruiting trail
Nick Saban stands above the rest of college football when it comes to recruiting. He landed his fourth consecutive No. 1-ranked class nationally according to 247Sports a few weeks ago on National Signing Day. He brings in better players than anyone else in the SEC or the nation for that matter. His 2014 signing class had more five-star prospects (6) than any other program — and every one of these players were considered among the top 16 in the country. Additionally, Bama signed 13 top-100 players this cycle while the Big 12 as a conference signed just seven combined. Frankly, Saban’s dominance on the recruiting trail is starting to get absurd and NSD no longer stands for National Signing Day, it stands for Nick Saban Day.
Will Muschamp can’t blame his roster
The Gators had a historically bad 2013 campaign and, while injuries were a major factor, a lack of talent was not. According to the rankings over the last five classes, Florida boasts the second-most talented roster in the nation — tied with Florida State (5.6). However, that talent doesn’t appear to be translating into wins and this is the primary reason Will Muschamp enters his critical fourth season on the hot seat. Florida ranks ninth in the league with 30 overall wins over the last four years and eighth in the league with 17 conference wins. Health was a huge factor last fall, especially on offense, but Muschamp has no excuses in 2014 as he goes to battle with what the rankings indicate is the No. 2 depth chart in the nation.
Steve Spurrier is actually underrated
He is a Hall of Famer, a Heisman winner and national champion, so it’s virtually impossible to be underrated as one of the best the game has ever seen. But he might be. Only Alabama (46) and LSU (44) have won more games than South Carolina in the last four years (42) and both the Crimson Tide (No. 1) and Tigers (No. 4) are ranked in the top four nationally in terms of talent. Yet, Spurrier has done it with the eighth-best roster in the league. Carolina sits fourth in the SEC East entering ’14 in terms of overall talent behind Florida, Georgia and Tennessee but only one of those squads has a chance to post a fourth consecutive 11-win season. Expect more of the same from the Ol’ Ball Coach.
Positive trajectory in Knoxville, Oxford
In short order, both Hugh Freeze and Butch Jones have proven to be extremely effective recruiters. Jones finished seventh nationally according to 247 in his first full season and Freeze worked minor miracles in his first full class in 2013. Neither roster ranks in the top five in the SEC but both rank in the top nine and both are recruiting on the same level with teams like Texas A&M, South Carolina and Auburn. The two programs have struggled mightily on the field as the Rebels and Vols are tied at 7-25 in SEC play over the four years — ahead of only Kentucky (4-28). This is, of course, is why Houston Nutt and Derek Dooley are no longer employed. Under new leadership, both programs have improved on the field and on the trail while setting themselves up for more upward movement. Expectations are growing in both Knoxville and Oxford.
Nick Saban Jr.
Gary Pinkel was a college teammate of Saban’s at Kent State under the late great Don James. And now that he is coaching in the SEC, he’s doing his best Saban impersonation. The Mizzou head coach is arguably the most important and successful coach in school history and he is clearly doing it with coaching acumen. Pinkel doesn’t come close to competing with the big boys on the recruiting trail (unlike Saban), ranking ahead of only Vanderbilt in terms of overall talent. But his teams have won 35 games overall and 20 games in conference play over the last four seasons, including a 12-win SEC East title campaign in 2013. The Tigers may be the SEC East frontrunner this fall despite coming in as the 13th-best roster in the 14-team league.
Sleeping giant waking up?
Texas A&M donations are way up, as new renovations will make Kyle Field one of the nation’s top destinations and a certain redshirt freshman quarterback won a Heisman Trophy. A lot has happened in Kevin Sumlin’s first two years in College Station. But most importantly, he appears to have staying power due to his success on the recruiting trail. The three years prior to Sumlin’s arrival, Texas A&M averaged a national recruiting ranking of 23. Since his arrival, they’ve posted the ninth- and fifth-rated classes in the nation. So while Texas A&M likely won’t compete for an SEC title in 2014 with the seventh-best roster in the league, the Aggies appear poised for huge things in 2015 and beyond should Sumlin maintain his torrid pace on the recruiting trail.
Status quo in Baton Rouge, Athens and on The Plains
Les Miles and LSU boast the third-best roster in the SEC and the fourth-best roster in the nation entering 2014. Mark Richt and Georgia rank fourth in the SEC in terms of talent and eighth nationally. The Auburn Tigers are tied for the fourth-best roster in the conference and the eighth-best depth chart in the country. Miles has 44 wins over the last four years, second in the SEC while Auburn and Georgia are fourth and fifth in the league with 37 and 36 overall wins in the last four years. Certainly, LSU and the Dawgs have been much more consistent than War Eagle over that span but how many fans in the Bayou or Between the Hedges would trade an 0-8 SEC season for two national championship game berths? (Hint: All of them). These three will be three of the top five most talented teams in the SEC entering ’14.
Be careful what you wish for
SEC fans, in Starkville or otherwise, are quick to criticize Dan Mullen at Mississippi State. And his 13-19 record in the SEC over the last four years does leave Bulldogs faithful wanting for more. But this is the toughest job in the SEC West and Mullen has more overall wins in the last four years than Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Mullen is also the only coach in school history to take MSU to four consecutive bowl games. So while some may call for his head, others point to his impressive overall win-loss record in the toughest division in football with what will be the 11th-best roster in the league in 2014.
Uphill battle on West End
New coach Derek Mason has to know how difficult a job winning at Vanderbilt will be. James Franklin made it look easy and that has raised the level of expectations in Nashville. And while Mason, like Franklin, closed strongly on the recruiting trail in his first few weeks on the job, Vanderbilt is still clearly the least talented team in the league. Based on the recruiting rankings, the Dores are 45th in the nation overall in terms of talent but are dead last in the SEC.