Alabama followed up a dominant national championship run with a historic recruiting class
The southeastern United States is home to a huge share of the nation's most talented high school football players, so it's no surprise the SEC consistently posts many of the best recruiting classes in college football. While marching towards the College Football Playoff national championship last season, Alabama reclaimed its spot as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country with a historic collection of talent. It's been more than a decade — since 2008, in fact — since a program outside the SEC won the mythical recruiting national championship. The Crimson Tide has won more often than not during that span.
However, the talent gap isn't as wide as we might expect given that level of dominance. Rivals LSU and Georgia are close behind, ranking Nos. 3 and No. 4, respectively in the most recent recruiting cycle. The SEC has had three of the top four classes in the national rankings in each of the last three seasons, and the Bulldogs have placed in the top four now five years in a row, including two No. 1 classes. The Tigers brought in their third straight top-five crop in 2021, maintaining an elite level of talent that makes Ed Orgeron's squad the top threat to Alabama in the SEC West and an annual national championship contender (despite the hiccup last year). Texas A&M has finished in the top seven of the national recruiting rankings in each of the last three seasons and jumped from sixth to fourth in the SEC on average over the last five years. And while that means reigning SEC East champion Florida has lost some ground on the recruiting trail, Dan Mullen has supplemented the Gators' high school signees with a series of 5-star transfers — meaning Florida is just as talented as ever.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for SEC schools over the last five (2017-21) classes according to 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings and each team's record over the last five (2016-20) seasons. 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 2021
Alabama back where it belongs
The Crimson Tide fell behind Georgia on the recruiting trail in both 2018 and '20, which helped the Bulldogs narrow the gap overall. Nevertheless, Nick Saban led Alabama to the sixth national championship of his tenure, and then capped a remarkable season on the field with the highest-rated recruiting class of all-time according to the 247Sports Composite ratings. Of the top 50 high school recruits in the country, 10 signed with the Tide. Seven of them were rated as 5-star prospects, including the two best offensive linemen in the country.
Georgia catching up
The Bulldogs recruited well under Mark Richt, but Kirby Smart quickly built his alma mater into an elite program on the recruiting trail. Georgia landed two No. 1 classes over the last four years, and hasn't fallen below No. 4 in the national recruiting rankings with Smart as the architect of a full class. The Dawgs have gone toe-to-toe with Alabama off the field, but still have some catching up to do on it, especially after losing to archrival Florida in 2020. The talent is there, though. Five-star quarterback and local product Brock Vandagriff, the SEC's top quarterback recruit, is the star of the 2021 class, though three other 5-star prospects joined him.
Texas A&M on the rise
The Aggies landed their fair share of 5-star prospects under Kevin Sumlin, but the Jimbo Fisher era has brought consistency on the field that has made Texas A&M a steady riser both in the SEC standings and on the trail. Fisher has now landed three straight top-10 classes nationally, and though the rankings have fallen slightly in each of the last three seasons, the overall strength of the roster is now on par with LSU. In other words, Fisher and his staff have put the Aggies in position to challenge for SEC West titles.
Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt in transition
Four SEC programs hired new head coaches this winter, and both Auburn and South Carolina saw their usual lofty recruiting rankings take a dip during the transition. The Tigers averaged a class that ranked 9.6 nationally over the final five years of Gus Malzahn's tenure, but Bryan Harsin's first official crop ranked 27th. Will Muschamp had the Gamecocks recruiting at a top-20 level, with a 20.2 average ranking from 2016-20, but Shane Beamer has an ugly No. 78 — lowest in the SEC — in the rankings column for his first class.
Harsin and Beamer aren't at fault, of course, especially in the era of the early signing period and we should expect both programs to rebound on the trail in 2022. Nevertheless, a dip in talent isn't a great way to begin a new tenure. We didn't see a major drop in the recruiting rankings at Tennessee, though the late decision to move away from Jeremy Pruitt played a role. Of course, the Volunteers have also suffered several high-profile transfers since Pruitt was fired, meaning Tennessee enters 2021 with a weaker roster than it appears here.
On the other hand, new Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea inherited some positive momentum from the outgoing Derek Mason staff. The Commodores finished in the top 50 of the national rankings and out of the cellar in the league for the first time since the 2018 cycle.
Which program can make a jump in 2022?
Vanderbilt isn't the only SEC East program that made progress with its most recent recruiting class. Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz signed the Tigers' first top-30 class since 2015. Fellow second-year head coach Sam Pittman signed a top-25 class, giving the Razorbacks two in the last three seasons and helping the program jump both Kentucky and South Carolina in the five-year window. Ole Miss maintained its spot at No. 9 in the SEC over the same time period, but Lane Kiffin hauled in a 2021 class that ranked 18th in the country — the best in Oxford since the incredible 2016 cycle. Mississippi State continued its steady top-25 pace under Mike Leach, but don't be surprised if Kiffin propels the Rebels ahead of their archrivals, and back into the top 10 nationally, very soon.
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