College football fans elsewhere often scream about an SEC bias in the national media, but the fact remains: the most talented players in the country reside in the Southeastern Conference. Just ask the NFL, which invited 93 players from SEC programs and an average of 6.6 per team (both tops in the country by a wide margin) to the Scouting Combine this month. Nine college programs had eight or more players invited, and five of them (LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, and Florida) hail from the conference. Last year, nine players from the league were drafted in the first round — just one fewer than in 2018.
There are multiple reasons why the SEC is the leader of the pack. First and foremost, the conference is geographically situated with easy access to some of the most talent-rich states in the nation, such as Florida, Texas, Georgia, and Louisiana. But also, teams are recruiting nationally more now than ever, and SEC programs attract the best players from all over the country. For example, Alabama signed the No. 1 player from the state of California during the 2020 cycle in five-star quarterback Bryce Young, while Georgia plucked five-star players from both Arizona and Nevada, and Texas A&M signed players from more than a dozen different states, including New Jersey and Maryland.
But regardless of how it happens, an SEC team has landed the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country in each of the last 15 years. Over that span, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and LSU have all finished No. 1. The last non-SEC school to earn the honor was USC in 2006. Here, we’ll concentrate on the last five years, and offer some insight and analysis on which teams have dominated, who has fallen behind, and who could be poised for improvement in 2020 and beyond.
The chart below highlights the average recruiting ranking for all SEC programs across the last five years (2016-20), 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 (2015-20).
Ranking the SEC's College Football's Rosters in 2020
Alabama is still No. 1... for now
Thanks to Nick Saban’s well-oiled recruiting machine, the Crimson Tide landed the No. 2 class in the nation during the 2020 cycle. With an average of 2.4 over the last five classes, Alabama ranks No. 1 nationally during that period. This year’s haul includes four five-star signees, led by quarterback Bryce Young — the No. 2 overall player and highest-rated quarterback — and a trio of pass rushers.
But the gap has tightened in each of the last three years, and it shouldn’t be a shock given the Crimson Tide watched Clemson and LSU celebrate the last two national titles, and Alabama lost two regular-season games for the first time since 2010. The dynasty isn't officially over, but the Tide's status atop the recruiting mountain appears to be on the shakiest standing it has been in a decade.
Dawgs on top in 2020... and since 2017
Georgia claimed its second No. 1 recruiting ranking in the last three years and is trending toward the top spot nationally. In fact, since 2017, the Bulldogs have an average class ranking of 1.75 while Alabama has averaged 2.75 during the same period. All head coach Kirby Smart needs is a top-five class in 2021 to claim the top spot on this list next year.
But before we get too carried away, it’s important to note Georgia also lost some highly rated players over that period, including some from that 2018 class. Justin Fields, who was 247Sports' No. 1 quarterback in 2018 and a Heisman Trophy finalist at Ohio State last season, is the headliner, but the Dawgs also lost starting offensive lineman Cade Mays, who transferred to Tennessee last month, and pass rusher Brenton Cox, who left for Florida in 2019. Georgia also saw tight end Luke Ford and safety Otis Reese, both ranked in the top 100 nationally, leave for Illinois and Ole Miss, respectively.
LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee on the rise
Speaking of transfers, it took a transfer quarterback and change in coaching philosophy for LSU to surge to the national championship in 2019. However, the Tigers were already on the rise, having landed a top-five class in 2019 and laying the foundation of what would eventually be the No. 4 group for the 2020 cycle before capping an undefeated campaign with an impressive victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M has posted back-to-back top-six classes, which makes the Aggies one of only four teams nationally to finish sixth or better in each of the last two cycles, joining — you guessed it — Alabama, Georgia, and LSU. Jimbo Fisher has earned his salary on the recruiting trail, but we'll have to wait and see if those flashy rankings translate to a move up in the SEC West pecking order.
Tennessee has also made steady progress in each of Jeremy Pruitt's first three classes. The Vols were one of the best closers during the traditional Signing Day, and as a result, finished in the top 10 of the national rankings for the first time since 2015.
Mark Stoops does more with less
Kentucky's head coach has done one of the most impressive coaching jobs in all of college football over the last two seasons. In 2018, Stoops led the Wildcats to 10 wins for just the third time ever and a No. 12 finish in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1977. Last year, Kentucky won eight games despite replacing the school's all-time leading rusher and a top-10 draft pick at linebacker, and losing its starting quarterback to a season-ending injury - eventually replacing him with a wide receiver.
Since 2016, Kentucky has been the third-winningest team in the SEC East despite ranking toward the bottom of the conference in recruiting. But Stoops' on-field success has helped the Wildcats compete for higher-tier prospects, and UK finished in the top 25 of the national team rankings in 2020.
Will Muschamp does less with more
On the other hand, South Carolina has posted a worse record overall and in conference play despite higher-rated signing classes in each cycle. In fact, only Arkansas (23) and Vanderbilt (24) have won fewer games than the Gamecocks since 2016. Coming off the heels of a 4-8 record last year, Muschamp enters 2020 with arguably the hottest seat of any SEC head coach.
Muschamp has always recruited well, and 2020 was no exception with the addition of five-star defensive tackle Jordan Burch and instant impact running back MarShawn Lloyd atop the class. But South Carolina has not capitalized on its talent since Steve Spurrier retired, which is a major cause for concern for the program as a whole.
Sam Pittman hire paying off already?
Arkansas' new head coach has yet to lead his team onto the field, but the work Pittman and his staff did salvaging the Razorbacks' 2020 recruiting class was a great sign for the future of the program. When Chad Morris was fired, Arkansas lost a series of commitments and fell into the triple digits of the national rankings. But Pittman, who emerged as one of the SEC’s best recruiters as Georgia's offensive line coach, led a turnaround story that ended with Arkansas finishing No. 30 nationally — better than fellow first-year head coaches Lane Kiffin and Eliah Drinkwitz at Ole Miss and Missouri, respectively.
On that note, while Arkansas ranked No. 30 in 2020, which was seven spots lower than the Hogs finished in 2019, but Ole Miss and Missouri ranked as the biggest losers from the most recent recruiting cycle. It’s always difficult to put a class together during a head coaching transition, but it was disappointing for the Rebels to finish No. 39 — their lowest recruiting ranking since 2012. Furthermore, the No. 6-ranked class Ole Miss signed in 2016 will come off the board next year, meaning Lane Kiffin will need to recruit much better than his predecessor in 2021 for the Rebels to avoid falling farther in the rankings.
Mississippi State — which also replaced its head coach during the cycle — was the only other SEC program to take a step back in the recruiting rankings in 2020. Though it was only a small drop-off, it's worth noting new head coach Mike Leach was gifted a top 25 class built primarily by the outgoing staff, and that Leach's Washington State classes ranked No. 53.6 on average between 2016-20, with a high of 44th in 2017.
Transfers to know
The good folks at 247Sports don't include transfers in their recruiting rankings (yet), but it’s worth noting several teams in the league will rely on incoming transfers to play big roles next season and beyond. Most notably, Georgia expects former Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman to step into Jake Fromm's shoes as the starter, while former Florida signal-caller Feleipe Franks (Arkansas) and recent Stanford starter K.J. Costello (Mississippi State) should also be considered the early favorites to start at their new schools. Missouri, which landed TCU transfer Shawn Robinson in 2019, and potentially even South Carolina, which brought in Collin Hill from Colorado State (along with new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo) to compete with Ryan Helinski, might also turn to transfers behind center.
In addition to Brenton Cox at Florida and Cade Mays at Tennessee, others likely to earn starting roles include new Alabama tight end Carl Tucker (from North Carolina), Arkansas defensive back Jerry Jacobs (Arkansas State), Kentucky cornerback Kelvin Joseph (LSU), Missouri receiver Damon Hazelton (Virginia Tech), Mississippi State offensive lineman Scott Lashley (Alabama), Ole Miss tight end Kenny Yeboah (Temple), and Vanderbilt center Stephen Spanellis (Michigan). And if others receive waivers to play immediately, such as former five-stars Lorenzo Lingard (Miami) and Justin Shorter (Penn State), who transferred to Florida, and former Auburn turned-Kentucky quarterback Joey Gatewood, there will be even more.