The e-mail came late last week from one of my seven bosses.
Can you put together a list of the top 10 recruiting classes for 2011 for this week's issue of the magazine?
I begged for mercy. Didn't he realize what he was asking? He wanted me to commit to paper a list that, in three years, almost certainly will look foolish. Even the coaches don't really know which players will develop once they get on campus. An idiot sportswriter doesn't stand a chance.
Like most Sunday morning quarterbacks, I prefer the clarity of hindsight. That's why, for the third consecutive year, I'm re-ranking the classes that signed three years ago based on actual on-field production. As in 2006 and 2007, the initial 2008 recruiting rankings pegged some classes perfectly and severely underrated or overrated others. Just like the coaches did.
This year marked the first time the defending national champ didn't make the top 10 in the re-rank. Auburn's team was a mix of veterans signed in 2006 and 2007 and junior college transfers and youngsters signed in 2009 and 2010. Only two key contributors (wide receiver Darvin Adams and running back Onterrio McCalebb) signed with the Tigers in 2008. TCU also didn't make the list despite a top five finish. The Horned Frogs' 2008 class produced only three 2010 starters. Also absent was Boise State. The reason? The core of the group that had so much success signed in 2007, which is why the Broncos finished No. 2 in last year's re-rank.
The rest of the group should look pretty familiar. While many of the players listed here weren't household names when they signed in 2008, you know them now.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 12008 Scout.com rank: 1Record since 2008: 36-5Conference titles: 1BCS titles: 1
2010 starters/major contributors: S Mark Barron, DE Marcell Dareus, LB Jerrell Harris, LB Dont'a Hightower, RB Mark Ingram, OG Barrett Jones, WR Julio Jones, S Robert Lester, DE Courtney Upshaw, TE Michael Williams
Analysis: The Crimson Tide brought in a whopping 32 players in this class, but this isn't going to turn into a debate about oversigning. (If you'd like to read up on that issue, click here, here and here.) Plenty of other schools oversigned in 2008, but none brought in the level of talent Alabama did. This class included a Heisman Trophy winner (Ingram in 2009) and multiple players who started as sophomores on a national title team. Not included on the list of 2010 starters is nose tackle Terrence Cody, a junior college transfer who immediately became one of the nation's most dominant defensive linemen. The gurus nailed this class.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 192008 Scout.com rank: 23Record since 2008: 32-7Conference titles: 2
2010 starters/major contributors: RB Kenjon Barner, S John Boyett, RB LaMichael James, LB Josh Kaddu, QB Darron Thomas
Analysis: The Ducks' 2008 class included a few misses, but the hits were huge. James led the nation in rushing in 2010, and Thomas made everyone forget about Jeremiah Masoli, another member of the 2008 class who led Oregon to a 2009 Pac-10 title. This class also included junior college transfer LaGarrette Blount, a back who played his best football for Oregon in 2008. Blount torpedoed his 2009 season when he sucker-punched Boise State's Byron Hout after the season-opener, but Blount proved in the NFL this season that Oregon coaches knew talent when they saw it.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 42008 Scout.com rank: 4Record since 2008: 33-6Conference titles: 3 (solo and shared)
2010 starters/major contributors: OT Mike Adams, C Mike Brewster, P Ben Buchanan, S Orhian Johnson, WR DeVier Posey, QB Terrelle Pryor, OT J.B. Shugarts, TE Jake Stoneburner, LB Andrew Sweat, DE Nathan Williams
Analysis: If you include guard Justin Boren -- who transferred to Ohio State two months after this group signed -- the Buckeyes' 2008 class included four-fifths of an excellent offensive line. This class was highly regarded from the start because of Pryor, who was widely considered the nation's best high school player in the class. Three years later, it also includes one of the nation's best centers (Brewster) and a player who could be one of the nation's best pass-rushers in 2011 (Williams). Pryor, Adams and Posey will have to sit out the first five games of the upcoming season after being caught selling memorabilia, and that suspension may be the only thing that could keep the class of 2008 from leading the Buckeyes to a national title.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 252008 Scout.com rank: 31Record since 2008: 28-12Conference titles: 0
2010 starters/major contributors: DT Jimmy Burge, LB Will Ebner, TE Michael Egnew, QB Blaine Gabbert, LB Zaviar Gooden, OT Dan Hoch, WR Jerrell Jackson, S Kenji Jackson, WR Wes Kemp, DE Brad Madison, DE Aldon Smith, DE Jacquies Smith
Analysis: Missouri fell short in its chase for the Big 12 title, but the Tigers stayed near the top of the conference thanks in large part to the contributions of the class of 2008. Gabbert was considered a can't-miss prospect from the start, and he made good on recruitniks' predictions. What the pundits didn't predict was the pass-rush boost the Tigers would get from a trio of three-star prospects. Madison, Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith didn't get a ton of recruiting hype, but they grew into excellent players.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 362008 Scout.com rank: 24Record since 2008: 23-15Conference titles: 0
2010 starters/major contributors: WR Joe Adams, DT Lavunce Askew, WR Greg Childs, LB Jerico Nelson, S Tramain Thomas, QB Tyler Wilson, WR Jarius Wright, DE Tenarius Wright
Analysis: Because coaches also have to recruit transfers, it's only fair to include quarterback Ryan Mallett in this class. That pushes the group into the top five. Mallett was the triggerman Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino needed to make his offense one of the SEC's most feared. Of course, it didn't hurt that this class also included three receivers (Adams, Childs and Wright) who combined for 138 catches, 2,260 receiving yards and 17 receiving touchdowns -- and those numbers would have been higher if Childs hadn't injured his knee midway through the season. This class might look even better in a year if Mallett's heir apparent, Wilson, is as good as he seemed during a 332-yard, four-touchdown performance in relief of Mallett at Auburn in October.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 502008 Scout.com rank: 43Record since 2008: 25-13Conference titles: 0
2010 starters/major contributors: OG David DeCastro, S Delano Howell, QB Andrew Luck, OT Jonathan Martin, WR Chris Owusu, LB Chase Thomas, S Michael Thomas, P Daniel Zychlinski
Analysis: Even if this class had included just one player (Luck), it might have cracked the top 10. That's how good Luck is, and that's how big a difference that kind of quarterback can make for a program. But the fact that a 17-signee class produced eight starters on a 12-1 team is a testament to former Cardinal coach Jim Harbaugh's recruiting prowess.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 412008 Scout.com rank: 26Record since 2008: 28-11Conference titles: 1 (shared)
2010 starters/major contributors: TE Jake Byrne, LB Kevin Claxton, CB Antonio Fenelus, C Peter Konz, P Brad Nortman, CB Devin Smith, LB Mike Taylor, OG Kevin Zeitler
Analysis: The Badgers signed a solid group of future starters in this class. The list includes Konz, the 300-pound potential NFL center who earned even more respect from me by dropping a reference to the Articles of Confederation in an interview. But the guy who puts this class over the top isn't a signee. It's a transfer from Central Michigan who came to Madison as a walk-on. His name? J.J. Watt. We'll now pause and let Big Ten offensive tackles recover from the traumatic memories of all their unsuccessful attempts to block Watt, the 6-foot-6, 292-pounder who will terrorize NFL quarterbacks next season.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 262008 Scout.com rank: 40Record since 2008: 29-10Conference titles: 0
2010 starters/major contributors: WR Justin Blackmon, CB Brodrick Brown, DT Chris Donaldson, S Markelle Martin, P Quinn Sharp
Analysis: In-state rival Oklahoma has been more successful overall and did sign quarterback Landry Jones in 2008, but Oklahoma State landed more key contributors in this class. (Some of Oklahoma's best players in 2010 signed in the class of 2006, which came in at No. 2 when I re-ranked those classes two years ago.) Several of Oklahoma State's best signees (DE Jeremiah Price, DT Swanson Miller, LB Donald Booker and S Lucien Antoine) in 2008 didn't play in 2010 because they were junior college transfers who had exhausted their eligibility. In 2010, a member of the class of 2008 (Brown) gave the Cowboys this play. More importantly, a three-star receiver the Cowboys beat Colorado, Missouri and Northern Iowa to sign grew into one of the nation's best. Blackmon finished the year with 111 catches for 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 182008 Scout.com rank: 20Record since 2008: 31-10Conference titles: 2
2010 starters/major contributors: WR Jarrett Boykin, LB Lyndell Gibson, LB Jeron Gouveia-Winslow, DT Antoine Hopkins, WR Dyrell Roberts, LB Bruce Taylor, S Eddie Whitley, RB Ryan Williams
Analysis: One of these days, Hokies coach Frank Beamer and his staff will get credit for their recruiting acumen on National Signing Day, but that hasn't happened yet. In 2008, Beamer and company did what they do every year. They brought in a group of undervalued recruits, several of whom grew up to become starters on a conference champion. The undisputed star of this class was Williams, who redshirted and then tore up the ACC as a freshman in 2009. Williams struggled with injuries in 2010, but he still showed enough potential to enter the NFL draft.
2008 Rivals.com rank: 92008 Scout.com rank: 8Record since 2008: 26-14Conference titles: 0
2010 starters/major contributors: LB Nigel Bradham, OT Andrew Datko, DT Everett Dawkins, QB E.J. Manuel, S Nick Moody, Terrance Parks, Beau Reliford, OT Zebrie Sanders, OG David Spurlock, RB Jermaine Thomas, DE Markus White
Analysis: If we re-rank these classes in a year, this Florida State class could rise even higher. The Seminoles took a huge step forward in 2010, and this group -- the first signed after current head coach Jimbo Fisher essentially took over FSU's recruiting operation as offensive coordinator -- is a big reason why. Datko and Sanders struggled as freshmen starters, but they grew into excellent players. Bradham led FSU in tackles in 2010. Manuel, meanwhile, has been groomed to replace Christian Ponder at quarterback.