There are many factors that go into building a great college football program. However, there is little doubt that recruiting sits right at the top of the list. It is the lifeblood of the college game. The correlation between success on the recruiting trail, and success on the field, is undeniable. The team that boasts the most talented roster usually wins on Saturday, giving that team a big leg up in the hotly-contested race for conference and national championships. And there’s only one way to build a talented roster.
Nowhere is recruiting more important than in the SEC, where the yearly grind to secure the signatures of elite high school talent across the land is almost as compelling as the game itself. So, now that National Signing Day is officially in the books, and the new-look rosters start to unfold, I can think of no better time to take a closer look at which SEC teams will be in the best shape heading into the 2018 season.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for SEC schools over the last five classes (2014-2018) according to 247Sports Team Composite Rankings, as well as each team’s record over the last five seasons (2013-2017). Obviously, this doesn’t take into account attrition but, over time, this should be considered relatively even across the conference.
Ranking the SEC's College Football's Rosters in 2018
Still the kings (for now)
Alabama is a prime example of how great recruiting translates to winning on the football field. For seven consecutive years, the Crimson Tide found themselves perched atop the national recruiting rankings. And despite what seems to be yearly turnover in the coaching staff, their success on the gridiron has been unmatched as well. Alabama is the only team in the FBS that has competed in all four College Football Playoffs, winning two national championships in the process. That is a testament to Nick Saban’s prowess as a coach on the field, as well as on the recruiting trail.
However, Alabama was knocked out of the top spot in the national recruiting rankings for the first time since 2010, falling to No. 7. The good news is that the Crimson Tide still boasts the best roster in the SEC, which is why they sit at No. 1 in Athlon Sports’ Way-Too-Early Top 25 rankings for 2018. But there is one team in particular from the SEC East that is closing in fast.
Georgia’s bite is finally matching the bark under Smart
Georgia has always recruited well. In fact, the Bulldogs have secured five top-10 classes in a row. However, the Bulldogs' success on the recruiting trail hasn’t always been matched on the field. That is, until last season, when second-year head coach Kirby Smart led his alma mater to an SEC title and a trip to the national championship game.
And recruiting has only gotten better for the Bulldogs under Smart. After hauling in the nation’s No. 3-ranked signing class in 2017, Smart signed the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation for 2018. A class that features seven of the top 25 prospects in the country, scoring 323.31 total points collectively, making this the second best signing class in the history of 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings. Perhaps more importantly, Georgia put an end to Alabama’s seven-year reign atop the composite recruiting standings.
So, despite losing several starters from last year’s team, there is clearly no shortage of talent in Athens for 2018. The Bulldogs haven’t caught up to the Crimson Tide yet, at least on paper, but they are nipping at their heels. Georgia’s 2019 recruiting class is already shaping up to be a monster as well.
LSU has question marks, but there is no shortage of talent in Baton Rouge
Ed Orgeron led LSU to a 6-2 conference record in his first full season as head coach, the Tigers’ best effort since 2012. Yet, that was still only good enough for third place in the SEC West. It marks the fifth consecutive season in which LSU has finished in third place or worse in the division. Similar efforts weren’t good enough to keep Les Miles around, and Orgeron also could find himself on a pretty short leash if that trend continues. LSU dropping out of the top 10 in the composite team rankings for the first time in a decade already has some Tiger fans concerned about the future of the program. But expectations remain high for 2018, as LSU once again has one of the most talent-rich rosters in the conference.
Auburn dropped out of the top 10 in composite team rankings for the first time since 2012. Fortunately, it wasn’t a colossal slide, with the 2018 signing class coming in at No. 12. The Tigers also lose some key components with four players electing to leave early for the NFL draft. Most notably, SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Kerryon Johnson, along with All-SEC defenders Carlton Davis and Jeff Holland. However, the cupboard is far from bare on The Plains. The passing game should be hitting on all cylinders in 2018 with the return of QB Jarrett Stidham to go along with his top five pass catchers from 2017. The Auburn defense isn’t lacking in the talent department either. Gus Malzahn’s Tigers should once again be in the mix to compete for the division crown in 2018.
No one has done less with more than Tennessee
There isn’t a team in the SEC, or maybe even the country for that matter, that has underachieved more than Tennessee. The Volunteers did parlay their success on the recruiting trail into back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015 and '16 under Butch Jones. But the wheels really came off in 2017. Tennessee would go 0-8 in conference play to endure its worst season in the 121-year history of the program. Granted, there may not be a team in the country that was hit harder by injuries and attrition. The good news is that Tennessee returns as the fifth-most talented team in the conference for 2018 (at least on paper). The question is, can new head coach Jeremy Pruitt develop that talent into winners in short order?
A fresh start for the Aggies and Gators
Texas A&M and Florida are two more examples of classic underachievers. Despite recruiting at a high level, the results didn’t show up on the field. Like Tennessee, the wheels fell off for Florida in 2017, going 3-5 in conference play, just one season removed from winning the SEC East. The Aggies have squandered plenty of talent along the way, posting a record of 19-21 in the SEC over the last five seasons. And that’s exactly why Kevin Sumlin and Jim McElwain found themselves out of a job. Fortunately, Sumlin and McElwain didn’t leave behind total rebuilds for Jimbo Fisher and Dan Mullen. There is talent in place at both programs. Fisher and Mullen also managed to close with solid recruiting classes under the circumstances. Both coaches should thrive in the future with fertile recruiting grounds in Texas and Florida.
The classic overachiever
Starkville may be among the hardest locations in the nation to recruit, let alone the SEC. And keeping that in mind, Dan Mullen did a respectable job on the recruiting trail during his time at Mississippi State. That said, the Bulldogs finished inside the top 20 of the composite team rankings just once in the last five years (average class ranking of 27th). From a talent standpoint, that ranks 10th in the conference. However, the results on the field tell a different story. The Bulldogs have compiled the fifth-best record (41-24) in the league over the last five years. And new head coach Joe Moorhead inherits a solid roster that should make the Bulldogs a legitimate contender in 2018.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.