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Recruiting: Ranking the SEC's Best Football Rosters

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Preseason prognosticators like Athlon Sports — the most accurate college football preview magazine on newsstands — use many things to attempt to predict what the coming football season will look like. Returning starters, scheduling, historic trends, coaching, pending off-the-field issues and, of course, recruiting rankings all help Athlon editors predict the future of college football.

Recruiting rankings have their detractors. Yes, evaluating 16- and 17-year-old kids is an inexact science. No, star rankings aren’t the only thing that matters. Yes, leadership (e.g., Nick Saban) is more important than national recruiting rankings (See Auburn).

But using national team recruiting rankings to attempt to pinpoint how “talented” any given roster is can be an interesting and illuminating practice.

For the sake of this discussion, the 2013 conference alignment was used to calculate, rank and organize teams and leagues. Rivals.com national team rankings over a five-year span (2008-12) were used for the sake of consistency. And the 72 “BCS” conference teams as well as Notre Dame, Boise State and BYU were used to form the 75-team ranking.

Therefore, in the SEC rankings below, fans will find where Texas A&M and Missouri have been ranked in the team rankings.

So what do the team recruiting rankings teach us about the SEC:

He who has the best players, wins the game
In the Big 12, Kansas State overachieves while Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech do the same in the ACC. But in the SEC, the champions have the best players. Alabama tops the recruiting rankings (1.8) and has the most SEC wins (35-5). Florida is No. 2 in SEC recruiting (6.2) and is No. 2 in wins (29-11). LSU is third on the recruiting trail (8.6) and third in the SEC in wins (28-12). Finally, Georgia is fourth in recruiting rankings (9.0) and fourth in wins (27-13). In the nation’s toughest league, it couldn’t be clearer that he who has the best players wins the most games.

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What happened to Auburn and Tennessee?
Since the 2008 football season, the Tigers and Vols have had a combined seven different coaches. They are two of the SEC’s biggest underachievers and one of the obvious reasons has been coaching, because both programs recruit at an elite level. Auburn has the 10th best roster in the nation just behind Ohio State and Oklahoma and just ahead of Michigan and Notre Dame. Tennessee is 14th nationally, just ahead of Oregon and Clemson and just behind Miami since 2008. Needless to say, the coaching has been the issue. Auburn is just 17-23 in league play over that span — including an 8-0 national championship season — and the Vols are even worse at 12-28. Fans have been moaning that both programs haven’t been recruiting at a level required to win in the SEC (especially in Knoxville). The facts indicate this couldn’t be further from the truth. Top 20 classes, most of which were ranked in the top half of the SEC, were not the problem, the coaching was. According to the rankings, both rosters roster are more talented than South Carolina, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Missouri.

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Rich Get Richer-er
The SEC is the best conference. There is no arguing that. Commitment from boosters, fans and administrations is a big reason why. But having the best players helps, too. Of the best 25 rosters in the nation over the last five seasons, nine of them hail from the SEC. And that doesn’t include consistent bowl teams like Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi State. Ole Miss, which has won four SEC games in the last three years, is ranked 23rd among power conference teams in terms of recruiting. This makes it all the more difficult for the lower-tier programs to develop into contenders.

Bobby Petrino is THAT good
From 2009 to 2011, Arkansas was 29-10 overall and 15-9 in the SEC under Bobby Petrino. His recruiting classes in Fayetteville ranked no higher than seventh (2009) in the SEC recruiting rankings and cracked the top 20 nationally just once. Otherwise, Arkansas finished ninth or tenth in the SEC rankings every cycle. It proves that not only can a team win big in the SEC (10-11 wins) with a recruiting class ranked outside of the top 20 but that Petrino (aka, elite leadership) was the great equalizer. As soon as he stepped away, the 10th-best roster in the league played like it, finishing 4-8 after back-to-back 10-win seasons. Beware Sun Belt, beware.

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Dan Mullen is Petrino-lite
Mississippi State ranks 12th in the SEC and last in the West in terms of talent over the last five years. Yet, the Mullen-led Bulldogs have won 24 games in the last three seasons including three bowl appearances. Hail State has also had nine players selected in the last three NFL Drafts including a first-rounder in each of the last two seasons. Breaking through against LSU or Alabama (and now Texas A&M) is a tall order, but for a team ranked last in the SEC West in terms of talent to win eight games per season is incredibly impressive.

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James Franklin isn’t done yet
Vanderbilt has the “worst” roster in the SEC according to the rankings as it has had one class inside of the top 60 over the last five seasons (29th in 2012). Yet, somehow Franklin and his band of merry men got the Commodores to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history. His 2013 class could be the best in the history of the program, so the sky is the limit for this coaching staff once it gets its hands on elite prospects.

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Missouri is in for a tough time
The Tigers were 19-14 in Big 12 play over the four years prior to joining the SEC. That is slightly better than average in a league that is perceived to be vastly inferior. Gary Pinkel might be the Tigers' best coach ever, but his current roster ranks 11th in the SEC and it showed with a 2-6 debut performance. This coaching staff will have to consistently overachieve on the field if it expects to compete, because it doesn’t appear Mizzou will be able to attract equivalent talent — despite the once-in-a-while prospects along the lines of a Blaine Gabbert, Sheldon Richardson or Dorial Green-Beckham.

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Sleeping giant awakes
Unlike Mizzou, the Texas A&M Aggies are built for long-term, big-time success in the SEC. They have a better natural recruiting base, a richer tradition of winning and dramatically better fan support. This team has recruited at an SEC level (19th nationally over the last five years) and appears to be poised to continue to blossom into a recruiting powerhouse in the Lone Star State. Of course, it takes the right coach leading the way, and in Kevin Sumlin, Aggieland feels like they have found their guy. Winning double-digit games and a Heisman Trophy right out of the gate doesn't hurt either.

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What makes Hugh Freeze any different?
Ole Miss has recruited at a surprisingly high level for a team that has been the laughing stock of the league. The Rebels' average class ranked 24.8 nationally, including three straight top 20 classes from 2009-11. Yet, the Rebs went 31-32 overall and just 13-27 in the league over that span. New coach Freeze got fans excited in Oxford with the most surprising 7-6 season in recent SEC memory. And his 2013 signing class is pushing for top 10 status. The pressure will be on the new staff to prove 2012 was no fluke and that they will have a different fate than Ed Orgeron or Houston Nutt — two guys who recruited extremely well but didn’t win many games. 

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More: Ranking the ACC's Best Rosters
More: Ranking the Big 12's Best Rosters

SEC's National Team Recruiting Rankings Breakdown:

Rank

Team

Avg Nat'l Rank

"BCS" Rank

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Record (Conf.)

1.

Alabama

1.8

1st

1st

1st

5th

1st

1st

61-8 (35-5)

2.

Florida

6.2

4th

3rd

11th

2nd

12th

3rd

52-15 (29-11)

3.

LSU

8.6

6th

11th

2nd

6th

6th

18th

51-15 (28-12)

4.

Georgia

9.0

7th

7th

6th

15th

5th

12th

46-21 (27-13)

5.

Auburn

12.0

10th

20th

19th

4th

7th

10th

38-26 (17-23)

6.

Tennessee

16.8

14th

35th

10th

9th

13th

17th

28-34 (12-28)

7.

South Carolina

19.0

18th

22nd

12th

24th

18th

19th

45-21 (24-16)

8.

Texas A&M

19.4

19th

16th

22nd

17th

27th

15th

37-27 (21-20)

9.

Ole Miss

24.8

23rd

29th

18th

18th

19th

40th

31-32 (13-27)

10.

Arkansas

31.8

27th

36th

16th

49th

24th

34th

38-25 (19-21)

11.

Missouri

33.0

31st

25th

40th

21st

48th

31st

41-23 (21-20)

12.

Mississippi St

36.2

34th

44th

25th

38th

44th

30th

31-28 (15-25)

13.

Kentucky

54.2

56th

57th

41st

50th

61st

62nd

27-36 (9-31)

14.

Vanderbilt

64.2

63rd

90th

71st

61st

70th

29th

26-37 (12-28)