Back Alabama’s Still February’s Number 1

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Alabama’s Still February’s Number 1

By Matt Smith
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Perhaps the only more dominant performance than Alabama on the field is Alabama on the recruiting trail during the 10-year Nick Saban era.

Despite last month’s 35-31 defeat to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship, Alabama’s last decade remains the most dominant by a single program in the past-half century.

Perhaps the only more dominant performance than Alabama on the field is Alabama on the recruiting trail during the 10-year Nick Saban era.

The Crimson Tide have four national championships since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, but are expected to sign the No. 1 recruiting class in the country on Wednesday for the eighth time in the past 10 years. Only the 2010 (No. 5) and 2015 (No. 2) classes, per rankings, did not rank No. 1.

In many ways, these consistent results shouldn’t be surprising. Alabama has as many natural advantages as any team in the country in terms of tradition, fan support, championships, NFL Draft selections, locale and facilities. They are also led by the greatest coach in the history of college football (sorry, Mr. Rockne and Mr. Bryant).

Other schools have similar selling points as well, and perhaps even bigger geographical advantages – particularly Florida, Texas and USC. Of that trio, only the Trojans are expected to land a top-10 class once the ink dries and the faxes (yes, faxes) are all accounted for.

How does the Alabama machine keep running better than everyone else? It starts and ends with Saban.

Only two assistants remain from Alabama’s 2015 national title team. Coaches come and go in Tuscaloosa. Many receive better jobs on the heels of the program’s success, and many just grow weary of the grind that working for Saban requires.

When Saban was hired by Alabama in 2007, the Crimson Tide were coming off of a messy decade that included sanctions for illegal involvement by boosters, with the name Albert Means, a prized defensive linemen from Memphis, to this day still causing all Alabama backers to cringe.

During the hiring process, Saban stressed to then-athletic director Mal Moore that the outside noise would not be permitted under his watch, and that the most important factor winning is the quality of players.

Moore was in lockstep with the then-Miami Dolphins head coach, and external influences were minimized while Alabama increased spending for facilities and off-field and recruiting personnel, a model many other top programs have attempted to emulate in recent years. Saban has done his part, proving to have the bulldog mentality on the recruiting trail of a young coach combined with the cache that comes with being one of the sport’s most recognizable names.

The recruiting dominance began with Saban’s first full class in 2008, when the likes of Terrence Cody, Marcell Dareus, Donta’ Hightower, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Courtney Upshaw all signed with Alabama. 23 months later, Alabama won its first national title since 1992, and there has been no looking back to this day.

Alabama and its border states (Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee) produce plenty of talent, but Saban made the program a nationwide destination. The Crimson Tide’s 2006 class, the last under predecessor Mike Shula, had just three players from outside Alabama or its four border states. On Wednesday, Alabama is expected to sign at least ten players from outside that region, including one from Hawaii and two from California.

The only two programs who can even see the exhaust on Alabama’s recruiting train are Florida State and Ohio State. The Seminoles and Buckeyes under Jimbo Fisher and Urban Meyer respectively have matched the continental traipsing of Alabama, with the former landing 5-star tailback Cam Akers out of Mississippi and maintaining their pipeline from the Washington, D.C., and Virginia area, and the latter having as much (or more) success in Florida and Texas than the home state schools.

Saban changed the game. Others have followed, but haven’t quite caught up, and there appears to be no signs of a slowdown in Tuscaloosa. Already on campus are 5-star early enrollees running back Najee Harris, wide receiver Jerry Jeudy, offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood and linebacker Dylan Moses. At least one more should sign Wednesday – offensive lineman Jedrick Wills.

It was a rare championship-less January at Alabama, but its February championships will continue for another year at least.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.