Jimbo Fisher's arrival at Texas A&M has only added to the SEC's dominance on the recruiting trail
Recruiting has made college football a year-round sport, and nobody does it better than the SEC. The last time a team outside the conference earned the No. 1 overall ranking according to the 247Sports Composite was 2008, and it should come as no surprise the league has won more national championships and produced more NFL draft picks than any other since.
With the 2019 recruiting cycle coming to a close last week, the SEC once again dominated the national recruiting rankings. Alabama regained the No. 1 spot it held from 2011-17, barely holding off Georgia, which ended Bama’s streak and ruled the recruiting trail last year. Texas, Texas A&M and LSU followed, respectively, giving the SEC an incredible four of the top five teams in the country according to this year’s rankings. Florida also pushed back into single digits at No. 9, meaning the SEC owned half the top 10. Once all the ink dried, 11 of the 14 teams in the conference finished with a class ranked in the top 25.
Clearly, the SEC offers more talent than any conference in college football. But how do the rosters stack up from top to bottom? And which programs have made the most progress in recent years?
The chart below highlights the average recruiting ranking for all SEC programs across the last five years (2015-19), according to the 247Sports Composite Team Rankings, in addition to the won-loss record for each team (both overall and in conference) during the last five years (2014-18).
Ranking the SEC's College Football's Rosters in 2019
The dynasty continues
Alabama head coach Nick Saban came up short in his bid for national championship No. 6 with the Crimson Tide, and he also has rebuilt his coaching staff (again) following the departure of several assistants. But the recruiting process in Tuscaloosa is a well-oiled machine, and after failing to land the No. 1 class for the first time in seven seasons in 2018, the Tide are back on top — both in the SEC and nationally.
Saban signed three five-star standouts and 23 other blue-chip four-star prospects in the most recent cycle. Four players were rated No. 1 at their position across the country, and 15 have already enrolled at the university and will go through spring practice. Alabama’s 2019 recruiting class flirted with the all-time record for recruiting points in the 247Sports Composite, but came up a few spots short of the greatest recruiting class, on paper, in history.
With an average ranking of 2.2 over its last five classes, Alabama is not only the most talented team in the SEC, it's also the most talented in college football. And, it should come as no surprise that the most talented program in the league has also been the most successful, posting a 37-3 record in conference play and a 67-6 overall mark since 2014.
But Georgia continues to narrow the gap
The rest of the SEC may still be looking up at Alabama in the recruiting rankings and the conference standings, but the Georgia Bulldogs have narrowed the gap considerably — both on the field and in the talent race — since former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart took the reins at his alma mater. The Bulldogs, who unseated Alabama as SEC champions in 2017, also dethroned the Tide in the national recruiting rankings in '18. In fact, across the last three seasons, the Dawgs have posted an average national recruiting ranking of 2.0, which is better than Alabama over both the same three-year window (3.0) and on pace to beat the Tide across the rolling five-year average (2.2).
Smart and his coaching staff landed an FBS-best five five-star prospects in what was the No. 2-ranked class in the country. Georgia also signed the No. 1-ranked player in the 2019 class in pass rusher Nolan Smith, who is one of 14 players already on campus.
West is best
It’s no secret the SEC West has long been superior to the East in on-field performance throughout the last decade, and a big reason for that is the superiority West programs have displayed on the recruiting trail. Incredibly, the West has an even firmer grip on the top of the recruiting rankings now than it did a year ago.
This time last year, Tennessee ranked No. 5 in the rolling five-year average (12.4), mere percentage points ahead of Texas A&M. But the Volunteers saw their rolling average dip a full point to 13.4 while Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher pulled in a star-studded class ranked No. 4 in the country in 2019. With its first elite class since 2014, A&M vaulted into the top five behind only heavyweights Alabama and Georgia and division rivals LSU and Auburn — giving the SEC West four of the five most talented rosters in the conference, according to the rolling five-year rankings. LSU also jumped 10 full places in the national recruiting rankings in 2019 over its '18 results — joining Texas A&M and Arkansas as the only SEC teams to climb double digits over the last year.
And, moving down the list, the bottom half of the division has once again avoided the bottom three in the conference recruiting rankings. Arkansas, which improved its rolling average from 32.0 to 30.8 on the strength of a top-25 class in Chad Morris’ first full recruiting cycle, held steady at No. 11 — ahead of SEC East foes Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Speaking of Arkansas, the job the Razorbacks did on the recruiting trail over the last year was truly remarkable. Not only did the Hogs move up 22 spots in the national rankings (the biggest jump of any team in the conference) despite a 10-loss season, Arkansas posted its best class ranking since 2015 and its first top-25 class since '17. Of the 25 new Razorbacks who put pen to paper since the early signing period in December, 11 were rated as four-star prospects — as many four-stars as Mississippi State, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt signed, combined. The 11 four-stars also were more than Ole Miss and South Carolina, the same number as Tennessee, and just one fewer than Auburn. Though the Vols and Tigers signed two five-stars apiece, it’s obvious Arkansas has made itself a factor across the region.
The Hogs have a brutal road ahead as they attempt to pass their SEC West rivals, but Arkansas made progress. With a five-year rolling average recruiting ranking of 30.8, the Razorbacks are now 1.2 points closer to Alabama than they were a year ago. Even better, the Hogs gained ground on LSU (1.8 points closer), Auburn (2.2) and Ole Miss (2.6) — meaning more than half the division is closer to Arkansas on the talent spectrum than it was this time last year.
Jockeying for position in the East
Georgia might be the only top-5 recruiting power in the SEC East, but the top half of the division has improved recently. Though Tennessee saw its rolling average fall, head coach Jeremy Pruitt landed a class ranked No.12 nationally in 2019 — eight spots better than his first class last year. The Vols also were the only SEC East program outside Georgia to land multiple five-star prospects in 2019, which helped Tennessee avoid falling out of the top half of SEC recruiting averages despite posting a second consecutive losing record.
Under second-year head coach Dan Mullen, Florida also found more success on the recruiting trail in 2019. The Gators' five-year average remained unchanged (13.4), but Mullen inked Florida’s first top-10 class since 2014. And, though the Gators failed to sign a five-star prospect, 17 four-stars are headed to Gainesville, including a few who announced their decisions during the traditional February signing period, which helped Florida finish strong and shoot up the rankings at the end of the cycle.
Florida and Tennessee sit tied with a 13.4 rolling average, which ranks second in the SEC East and sixth in the conference overall. And though the Gators and Vols have their sights set on Georgia, they can’t forget about South Carolina, which improved its standing from No. 8 to No. 7 in the league and boosted its five-year average to 20.6 thanks to a second straight top-20 class. The Gamecocks, the only other SEC East program to sign a five-star prospect, have closed the gap between themselves and the No. 2 spot on the division leaderboard from 8.4 points a year ago to 7.2 points this season.
There was a lot of great news for SEC football programs during the most recent recruiting cycle, but a few teams took a step back in the five-year average rankings. Most notably, LSU and Auburn lost ground, falling by an average of 0.6 and 1.0 points, respectively. Ole Miss — which was undoubtedly one of the biggest winners of National Signing Day 2019 with its strong February finish - was actually the only West division team to fall in the conference standings, from No. 8 in 2018 to No. 9 this year.
Meanwhile, in the East, Kentucky and Vanderbilt both saw their five-year averages fall. The Wildcats and Commodores each saw their rolling averages drop 2.4 points compared to last year, which tied for the biggest overall drop in the SEC. One year after making a huge jump in both the national rankings (from No. 64 to No. 41) and among its SEC rivals (from No. 14 to No. 12), Vanderbilt fell 17 spots in the FBS recruiting rankings to 58th — the second-worst ranking of any SEC class over the last five years.
Recruiting is key to building a college football power, but we know recruiting rankings aren’t perfect. Underrated players can rise above their low-star status as high schoolers, such as departed Kentucky senior Josh Allen, who blossomed from a two-star recruit into a first-round NFL draft pick. We also know there’s no such thing as a can’t-miss five-star prospect, as every year some of the most gifted high school athletes across the country fail to meet the heavy expectations that come with such status.
Recruiting rankings are still very important, especially when it comes to determining which college football programs have the elite talent necessary to compete for a national championship. And a snapshot showing how each team stacks up to one another in the conference based on recent recruiting performances also provides a great deal of value. Nevertheless, as the list of underclassmen declaring early for the NFL draft continues to grow each year, and transfers — both graduate transfers and those utilizing the newly popularized transfer portal — are increasingly common, we must understand attrition no longer impacts programs evenly, even across a five-year window.
For instance, of the 23 players Alabama must replace from its roster this season, seven left early for the NFL and another, former starter and SEC Championship Game hero Jalen Hurts, jumped to fellow heavyweight Oklahoma after earning his diploma. All eight were members of a No. 1 recruiting class. And, speaking of No. 1, the headline signee of Georgia's 2018 class, five-star QB Justin Fields, will be suiting up in the scarlet and gray of Ohio State in '19 instead of red and black. Given how similar departures would weaken each top-ranked class, it’s possible the SEC talent gap has tightened even more than the figures above would indicate — especially when we also consider how other programs across the league have utilized transfers to strengthen their rosters.
This time last year, LSU had no idea its starting quarterback would be Joe Burrow, who was preparing to battle eventual Heisman contender and likely first-round draft pick Dwayne Haskins for the for the job with the Buckeyes. In 2019, we will likely see three new SEC starting signal-callers who played elsewhere in 2018. Former SMU quarterback Ben Hicks — an under-the-radar three-star signee in 2015 — became the all-time leading passer for the Mustangs before opting to team up with former SMU head coach Chad Morris at Arkansas as a grad transfer. Also, former Clemson starter Kelly Bryant enters spring as the top candidate to win the job at Missouri after receiving interest from a bevy of programs across the country, including Auburn.
Finally, Vanderbilt might also be better off than its recruiting rankings would suggest. Riley Neal, who started 32 games at QB for Ball State, should be the new quarterback for the Commodores after pursuing a graduate transfer, and Vanderbilt also has added three other senior transfers, including FCS All-American receiver and kick returner Justice Shelton-Mosley from Harvard. They join a roster that also includes running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who made a huge impact in 2018 as a transfer from Illinois and opted to stay in school for his final year of eligibility despite NFL potential.