Alabama’s consistent success is the standard to which all programs aspire. Nick Saban's program has spent the better part of the last decade churning out 11-or-more win seasons, earning No. 1 rankings in the major polls and competing for national championships. With so many other programs across the country committed to winning at the highest level, this should not be possible. The Crimson Tide make it look so easy, it feels like they’re operating on autopilot.
For as dominant as Alabama has been on the field, however, what it has accomplished off of it is just as mind-boggling. Dating to Saban’s first full recruiting cycle in 2008, the Crimson Tide have only once signed a class that finished outside the top five of Scout.com’s team rankings, and they’ve had the No. 1 class four times. According to a different scouting service, Alabama has compiled the top haul in the country seven years in a row.
The acquisition of so much first-rate talent is the driving force behind the Crimson Tide’s dynastic run. Yet as it approaches another season with College Football Playoff-or-bust expectations, Alabama seems to be tracking toward a serious downturn in its recruiting. As of Wednesday, it counted only five commitments and ranked 47th in Scout.com’s 2018 team rankings, below schools such as Kansas, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Boston College and Iowa State.
There’s a major shock factor when you read that list of Power 5 also-rans, but it probably won’t end up mattering all that much. Alabama is almost certainly going to be fine.
The Crimson Tide’s class doesn’t look great in full right now, and that won’t change overnight, but they’re beginning to generate some momentum on the trail, even with Tuesday’s swing-and-miss on five-star running back Zamir White. Alabama has secured verbal commitments from three players just this month: Four-star Crisp County (Ga.) High linebacker Quay Walker, four-star St. Paul’s Episcopal (Ala.) School cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis and Nation Ford (S.C.) High’s Skyler DeLong, the nation’s top punter.
One reason the Crimson Tide have been slower out of the gates this cycle could be the size of the haul. Saban said on a teleconference in May that Alabama’s 2018 class will comprise “I think it’s 22 [players] this year or whatever.” With fewer scholarships to hand out (the Crimson Tide signed 26 recruits in 2017), it’s possible Saban and his assistants are not pressing for early pledges with as much urgency as they would if they had more room. That approach may ultimately pay off in the form of a more esteemed class on a per-player basis.
In the interim, however, Alabama needs to grapple with a hastened timetable due to the implementation of a late-December signing period this year. Depending on the number of Crimson Tide targets who decide to put pen to paper in that window, Alabama may have to work more quickly than in previous years, when players who didn’t enroll early had no choice but to ink their NLIs in early February.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Alabama’s class, other than its number of commitments, is the absence of a quarterback. Recruits at that position often help attract ones at other positions, like wideouts or tight ends, who want to line up alongside the QB and reap the statistical rewards of his throws. Auburn QB pledge Joey Gatewood, for example, told Sports Illustrated last year that one of the reasons he committed to the Tigers as a sophomore was so that he could “start recruiting other kids that I want playing on my team.”
Alabama does not have a signal-caller to serve as the pied piper of its class, and it’s unclear whether it will be able to add one. Only three of Scout.com’s top 26 QBs in the class of 2018 remain uncommitted, and the Crimson Tide are not considered the clear frontrunner for any of them. Maybe the presence of a true sophomore starter (Jalen Hurts) and a highly touted true freshman reserve (Tua Tagovailoa) is driving top 2018 passers away from Tuscaloosa.
At the same time, should Alabama not take a QB in this class, it would hardly be a devastating blow. The same reason prospects may be reticent to join a crowded quarterback rotation is cause for optimism in the here and now: The Crimson Tide have promising youth at the most important position on the field. And anyway, the lack of a verbally committed QB probably isn’t the main culprit for Alabama’s modest returns in the 2018 cycle to date.
A more convincing explanation is the program’s coaching staff turnover. Since the end of the 2016 regular season, Alabama has lost its offensive coordinator (Lane Kiffin), his one-game replacement (Steve Sarkisian), its offensive line coach (Mario Cristobal) and its wide receivers coach (Billy Napier). The Crimson Tide also waved farewell to their defensive coordinator (Kirby Smart), defensive backs coach (Mel Tucker) and defensive line coach (Bo Davis) after the conclusion of the 2015 regular season.
Saban may go down as the best recruiter ever, but his success owes in large part to the connections his assistants have spent months cultivating with prospects. Staff changes disrupt that process, leaving the Crimson Tide in a position where they need to make up ground on other programs that have more staff continuity and longer-standing relationships with players. Closing that gap takes time, even for a program whose pitch might as well be as simple as, “Here’s our trophy case.”
None of the above, however, gets at the basic fact that Alabama can point to as a retort to the rankings: It’s not done. The Crimson Tide are still in contention for a handful of top-tier prospects who have yet to end their recruitments, including five-star Long Beach Poly (Calif.) High quarterback Matt Corral, five-star Central (Ala.) High wide receiver Justyn Ross and four-star Colquitt County (Ga.) High linebacker JJ Peterson.
Some of Alabama’s top targets may choose to put off their college reveals until closer to the December period or later, which could keep the Crimson Tide’s ranking down for a while. Yet that could also position Alabama for a rousing close that vaults it past other programs that have gotten most of their work done by the start of the season. The low pledge count could lead to some temporary second-guessing, but that’s an acceptable trade-off for a fruitful final stretch of the cycle in which they seal a handful of bluechippers.
In the short term, Alabama’s standing in the rankings relative to other programs will feel, well, weird. It’s ranked 10 spots below Cincinnati! Since Saban took over, the Crimson Tide have become as synonymous with SEC banners as they have with a roster stocked with so many four- and five-stars that their second-string unit would acquit itself well against most programs’ first teams. Alabama should add another heap of talent of that caliber in its 2018 class. It just doesn’t have it right now.