Ranking the top 15 recruiting classes in college football history
Every Signing Day, a fan base declares its haul the greatest class of all time
These 15 classes truly represent the pinnacle of college football recruiting
The criteria: national titles matter most, college success trumps NFL success
On Feb. 3, after the fax machines have spit out their last signed national letters of intent and the recruiting services have finished tallying points to determine the winner of the mythical recruiting national title, some fan base will declare its 2010 haul the greatest recruiting class of all time. Chances are, that fan base will be wrong.
But the inevitability does raise an interesting question: What set of signees really comprises the best class in college football history?
After days spent poring over media guides and historical databases, I've come up with the answer. In compiling the 15 classes that represent the pinnacle of college football recruiting, I established a few criteria:
It's all well and good if the class produced a group of future NFL stars, but college success trumps pro success. After all, college coaches are recruiting players to win college games.
The class had to contribute to a national title -- and not one of those suspect titles. If Dunkel or Football Thesaurus was the only poll to rank your team No. 1, your classes don't stand a chance.
Beyond that, the rankings are completely subjective. As with most historical rankings, these tend to be biased toward more recent events. That's a problem in most cases, but not here. Recruiting a superstar class actually has become much more difficult in the past 30 years. The NCAA began imposing scholarship limits in 1977 (the limit has been 85 since 1994), and the proliferation of cable television has tilted the balance of power considerably. Thirty years ago, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Nebraska were certain to show up on television. Mississippi State wouldn't have played a nationally televised game unless aliens had landed on the 50-yard line in Starkville. Now, every team in a power conference plays almost every game on television, meaning the Boise States and Toledos of the world appear regularly in front of a national audience.
So the recruits who would have flocked to one of the name-brand schools in the past may now elect to star at a school with a lower profile rather than compete with two dozen fellow blue-chippers for playing time. That makes it even more impressive when a school puts together a class that wins or competes for multiple national titles, and it makes it increasingly less likely that a school will ever assemble a class that can outperform SI.com's No. 1 recruiting class of all time.
15. Alabama, 2008
It seems premature to rank a class that has played only two seasons, but consider the facts: Alabama's 2008 class produced the program's first Heisman Trophy winner (tailback Mark Ingram) and eight starters on a team that went 14-0 and won the BCS title.
The highlight of the class on Signing Day was receiver Julio Jones, and Jones hasn't disappointed. Ingram was a pleasant surprise, as was nose tackle Terrence Cody, a massive junior college transfer who made it impossible to run up the middle against the Tide. Defensive end Marcell Dareus, whose interception return for a touchdown gave Alabama a nearly insurmountable lead against Texas in the BCS title game, also signed in 2008.
If we revisit this project in 10 years, this class could wind up ranking much, much higher.
14. Ohio State, 1998
John Cooper's lasting legacy is his inability to beat Michigan, but the former Buckeyes coach deserves credit for signing what might be the most efficient class in college football history.
In modern recruiting, a coach who gets a significant contribution from 60 percent of a class had a good year. If half his signees develop into regular starters, he's working miracles. Thirteen of Cooper's 16 1998 signees became regular starters. Eleven were selected in the NFL draft, including defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and cornerback Nate Clements, who left after their junior season for first-round riches. Quarterback Steve Bellisari, offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley, defensive end James Cotton, linebacker Cie Grant, fullback Jamar Martin, cornerback Donnie Nickey, defensive tackle Kenny Peterson, cornerback Derek Ross and tailback Jonathan Wells all wound up getting drafted as well.
Several players also helped the Buckeyes win the 2002 national title as fifth-year seniors. Nickey, Grant, Peterson and offensive tackle Ivan Douglas all started for the team that beat Miami in the Fiesta Bowl for the BCS title.
13. Miami, 1984
Miami's 1984 recruiting class got a shock more than three months after Signing Day, when Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger accepted a $3 million-a-year deal to coach the USFL franchise that planned to move to Miami for the 1984 season.
Some recruits were angry. One took it in stride. Guess which class of 1984 signee gave the following quote to The Miami Herald: "I can't have any animosity toward him. He is only looking out for himself." If you said receiver Michael Irvin, give yourself a gold star.
Irvin was one of a host of stars Schnellenberger's final class produced. The Hurricanes also signed receiver Brett Perriman, cornerback Bubba McDowell, safety Bennie Blades, defensive tackle Derwin Jones and linebacker Randy Shannon -- the guy who is now the Hurricanes' head coach.
Jimmy Johnson took over the program, and the Hurricanes didn't drop off. The class of 1984 helped Miami go undefeated during the 1986 regular season and took part in the infamous camouflage fatigues incident before a Fiesta Bowl loss to Penn State. In 1987, Miami didn't falter. After two Irvin touchdown catches helped the 'Canes survive a scare against Florida State, Miami rolled to the national title. In a 20-14 Orange Bowl win against No. 1 Oklahoma, Jones, Shannon, McDowell and Blades helped Miami's defense hold the Sooners to 179 rushing yards -- 249 yards below their season average.
12. Penn State, 1982
The fact that this class included All-America heroback Michael Zordich and 11 starters on the 1986 national title team is enough to put it on the list, but the 1982 class is Penn State's finest because it featured the best linebacker to ever attend Linebacker U.
Nittany Lions assistant Tom Bradley worked hard to convince coach Joe Paterno to offer a scholarship to Shane Conlan, a 185-pounder from tiny Frewsburg, N.Y. Bradley did not have to work hard to get Conlan to accept the scholarship after Paterno finally relented. "If every school in the country had offered me a scholarship, I still would have picked Penn State," Conlan told SI in 1986. "I liked the defense. And I loved the uniform and the black shoes."
Conlan and classmates Duffy Cobbs, Steve Smith, Eric Hamilton, Brian Silverling, Dan Morgan, Keith Radecic, Bob White, Don Graham, Massimo Manca and John Bruno capped their careers by beating Miami in the 1986 Fiesta Bowl. After watching the Hurricanes parade around in their aforementioned camouflage fatigues during a pregame event, Conlan -- with black shoes on his feet and a stripe down his helmet -- made eight tackles and intercepted two passes in his final college game.
11. Georgia, 1980
Seven members of this class were selected in the NFL draft, but it was the player who wound up in the USFL that made it one of the best recruiting hauls ever.
Tailback Herschel Walker left early and arrived late. If you thought 2009 tailback Bryce Brown and 2008 quarterback Terrelle Pryor were the first blue-chippers to prolong the drama of their recruitments, you don't know your history. Walker, the nation's top recruit in 1980, didn't sign until Easter Sunday. That disturbed the domestic bliss in the household of Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley, who had previously promised his wife he would accompany her to visit relatives for the holiday. Dooley would forgive Walker for landing him in the marital doghouse. The juggernaut from Wrightsville, Ga., immediately established himself as the best back in college football and left after three seasons as possibly the best player in college football history.
As a freshman, Walker was instrumental in helping the Bulldogs win the SEC and national titles. He and his classmates -- including tight end Clarence Kay, defensive end Freddie Gilbert and defensive back Terry Hoage -- won three consecutive SEC titles, and Walker ran away with the 1982 Heisman Trophy. Unfortunately, he couldn't bring the Bulldogs a second national title; they lost to Penn State in the 1983 Sugar Bowl.
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