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Ranking the top 15 recruiting classes in college football history

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Plenty of great players came through Tallahassee as the Seminoles racked up 14 consecutive top five finishes between 1987 and 2000, but this group provided the building blocks for the best team of the Bobby Bowden era.

The members of this class played for the national title three times. The Seminoles lost to Florida in the 1997 Sugar Bowl and Tennessee in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, but coming into the 1999 season, Florida State was loaded. Class of 1995 star Peter Warrick was the nation's most dangerous receiver, and defensive tackle Corey Simon led a stingy group of future NFL players. In all, nine members of the 1995 class started for the 1999 FSU team, which was the first in history to stay at No. 1 from the preseason poll until the end of the season.

The class also included junior college transfer Walter Jones, who redshirted in 1995 and started at offensive tackle in 1996 before leaving to become a first-rounder and nine-time Pro-Bowler. Also in the class was Dan Kendra, the quarterback who set school weightlifting records when he wasn't practicing amateur chemistry. Kendra wound up as the starting fullback on the 1999 team.

Simon didn't originally sign with Florida State. He signed with Georgia, but the Bulldogs released him from his scholarship after it was discovered that Georgia gymnast Leah Brown had visited Simon in his hometown of Pompano Beach, Fla., shortly before Signing Day. An NCAA investigation cleared Georgia, but Simon still wound up in Tallahassee.

Miami had signed two full classes since emerging from the shadow of NCAA sanctions, but this class launched the Hurricanes back into the nation's elite and helped lay the foundation for the 2001 BCS title team, which is on a Muggsy Bogues-short list of the best football squads in NCAA history.

Quarterback Ken Dorsey, receiver Andre Johnson, offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Vernon Carey, tailbacks Clinton Portis and Jarrett Payton and cornerback Phillip Buchanon punched their tickets to Coral Gables in 1999. Once there, they joined a group that included safety Ed Reed (class of 1997) and awaited the arrival of a 2000 class that would include tailback Willis McGahee, tight end Kellen Winslow and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

The group would have won two BCS titles if not for a controversial pass interference call late in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl that allowed Ohio State to pull off an upset.

At the turn of the century, Longhorns coach Mack Brown had the unfortunate nickname "Coach February." In other words, he could sign big-time recruits, but they didn't win championships on the field. Brown's fifth class at Texas changed all that.

The group included nine players (quarterback Vince Young, tailback Selvin Young, tight end David Thomas, offensive guard Kasey Studdard, offensive tackle Justin Blalock, cornerback Aaron Ross, linebacker Aaron Harris, defensive end Brian Robison, defensive tackle Rodrique Wright) who would go on to start for Texas as the Longhorns chased the BCS title in 2005.

Young split time with Chance Mock as a redshirt freshman and took over the starting job in 2004. That season, Young led Texas to an 11-1 record. As a junior, he destroyed opponents, throwing for 3,036 yards and rushing for 1,050. Still, he finished second to USC's Reggie Bush in the Heisman Trophy race.

Young got his revenge against Bush and the Trojans in the BCS title game with the most dominant individual performance in college football history. He threw for 267 yards and ran for 200 and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score on a fourth-down play late in the game.

Shortly after he was hired in December 2000, Pete Carroll stitched together a recruiting class that kept previously committed quarterback Matt Leinart and added defensive tackle Shaun Cody in a Signing Day stunner. Carroll's next class added future stars such as safety Darnell Bing and offensive tackle Winston Justice.

Carroll truly hit his stride in 2003, when he brought in a group that included offensive tackle Sam Baker, quarterback John David Booty, defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis, center Ryan Kalil, receiver Steve Smith, linebacker Thomas Williams and tailback LenDale White. Carroll topped that list of future pros with San Diego tailback Reggie Bush, who would go on to win the 2005 Heisman Trophy.

Players from this class helped the Trojans win the AP national title in 2003 and the BCS title in 2004. They might have helped USC win the BCS title in 2005 if not for the members of the 2002 Texas class.

When Urban Meyer arrived to take questions about his second recruiting class as Florida's coach, he made a sheepish admission. '"I hate to say this, but I actually hit Rivals.com and saw we were ranked a little bit ago," Meyer said. "The competitive part of me wants to see where we end up."

The Gators wound up second to USC for the mythical recruiting national title that day, but four years later, Florida's class was clearly the best of 2006 and one of the best ever. The group went 48-7 and won two national titles.

The crown jewel was quarterback Tim Tebow, who in 2007 became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. Tebow, receiver Percy Harvin, linebacker Brandon Spikes and return specialist Brandon James were complementary players when the Gators won the 2006 national title, but they and classmates Carl Johnson, Riley Cooper, Jermaine Cunningham, A.J. Jones and Dustin Doe led the way for the Gators' 2008 title. With Harvin helping the Minnesota Vikings reach the NFC title game in the 2009 season, the Gators went 13-1, losing only to eventual national champion Alabama.

The end of World War II saw a return to normalcy for college football, and Michigan's first postwar recruiting class helped the Wolverines return to the top of the college football world for the first time since 1933. A group that included quarterback/halfback Pete Elliott, guard Dom Tomasi, guard Stuart Wilkins, tackle Joe Soboleski, halfback Wally Teninga and fullback Dan Dworsky helped Michigan win national titles in 1947 and 1948.

In 1947, Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 in the final regular season Associated Press poll, but Michigan moved to No. 1 after smashing USC, 49-0, in the Rose Bowl. In 1948, Elliott was named a first-team All-America. Elliott, who had followed older brother Bump to Michigan, would go on to become the head coach at Nebraska, Cal and Illinois.

Bear Bryant brought hundreds of great players to Tuscaloosa, but this class made the biggest contributions to two national championship teams. The second, in 1979, was Bryant's most dominant team.

This class produced only three NFL players, but one was center Dwight Stephenson, who was named an All-America in 1978 and 1979 and went on to a Hall-of-Fame career with the Miami Dolphins. Another future pro was defensive back Don McNeal, who pushed Penn State's Scott Fitzkee out of bounds at the one-yard-line to set up the goal-line stand that won Alabama the 1979 Sugar Bowl and the 1978 national title.

In 1979, class member Steadman Shealey piloted the Crimson Tide's wishbone offense while defensive linemen Curtis McGriff and Wayne Hamilton led a unit that allowed just 67 points all season as the Tide rolled to a 12-0 record.

The seeds of this class were planted in 1970 when ace Sooners assistant Larry Lacewell convinced Lucious Selmon, an undersized defensive lineman from Eufala, Okla., to come to Norman. Lacewell wanted to sign Selmon after he visited the Selmon home and met Lucious' brothers, Dewey and Lee Roy, who had been born 11 months apart and who were both high-school sophomores.

Defensive linemen Dewey and Lee Roy were the cornerstones of the 1972 class, and they joined linebacker Jimbo Elrod, quarterback Steve Davis, split end Tinker Owens and halfbacks Joe Washington and Horace Ivory to help lead the Sooners to national titles in their junior and senior seasons. The class was the last one signed by Chuck Fairbanks, who turned over the reins to offensive coordinator Barry Switzer before the 1973 season.

Davis, already an ordained Baptist minister as a collegian, won the starting job in 1973 when presumed starter Kerry Jackson left school after Big Eight officials learned his high school transcript had been changed. Davis led the Sooners to a 32-1-1 record in three seasons as the starter, running Switzer's wishbone to devastating perfection with Washington and Ivory. Meanwhile, the Selmons joined older brother Lucious and former wrestler Elrod to form one of the nation's most ferocious defenses. In 1976, the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Lee Roy Selmon the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft. He rewarded the franchise's faith by becoming its first Hall-of-Fame inductee.

The Cornhuskers can thank Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier and Dennis Erickson for the most important piece of the most dominant two-year run in college football history. Had the coaches at Florida State, Florida or Miami offered Bradenton, Fla., star Tommie Frazier a serious shot at playing quarterback, he might not have left the state. "They all said they would give me a shot at it," Frazier told The Miami Herald before starting against Florida State as a true freshman in the 1993 Orange Bowl. "But if it didn't work out, they said they would change me to wide receiver or defensive back."

Determined to play quarterback, Frazier went to Lincoln, where he teamed with classmates such as offensive tackle Chris Dishman, rover Mike Minter, defensive tackle Jared Tomich and cornerback Tyrone Williams to help the Cornhuskers to national titles in 1994 and 1995. Frazier missed much of the season in 1994 because of blood clots, but he returned in time to earn Orange Bowl MVP honors. In 1995, Washington State was the only team to come within two touchdowns of Nebraska. Frazier got the ultimate revenge against a home-state foe when the Huskers pounded 12-0 Florida, 62-24, in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the national title.

In true Nebraska fashion, the contributors to the two national title teams didn't all arrive in Lincoln as scholarship players. Tomich, fullback Brian Schuster, offensive tackle Adam Treu and receiver Jon Vedral originally came as walk-ons.

The class also produced a No. 1 overall draft pick -- just not in the NFL draft. Darin Erstad, who started at punter on the 1994 team, was the top pick in the 1995 baseball draft. Erstad has played 14 seasons in the majors.

It's unlikely another group will ever be as successful as this class. Coach Frank Leahy's Fighting Irish owned college football in the years immediately following World War II, and this class provided much of the firepower.

From 1946-49, Notre Dame went 36-0-2 and won three national titles. The best known player in the class is end Leon Hart, who won the 1949 Heisman Trophy. The class also included fullback Emil Sitko, who led the Irish in rushing all four years and left as the school's all-time leading rusher.

According to Notre Dame historian Lou Somogyi, 17 members of the class became starters or regulars in an era when players played on both sides of the ball. As in most classes of the era, some freshmen were a bit older because they didn't go to college until after they served in World War II. One of those was future hall-of-famer Jim"Jungle Jim"Martin, an end/tackle who served in the Marines before coming to South Bend.

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