GOAT Recruiting Class Conversation Begins with 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide

John Garcia, Jr.

After a dominant national championship win for Alabama over Ohio State on Monday night, quarterback Mac Jones was asked of Nick Saban's status as the greatest college football coach of all time.

"Oh come on man!" he said. "Of course he is."

The 52-24 exclamation point the G.O.A.T.'s latest team put on the season, just the second undefeated run in his time at Alabama, likely brings an end to the majority of the senior class that helped wrap it up. Jones included, it has sparked another all-time conversation surrounding recruiting classes and where the UA 2017 group fits within it.

Signature recruiting classes on national title teams aren't hard to find in this modern era. The 2006 Florida class brought in Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes and others. USC's 2003 group included Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Ryan Kalil and Steve Smith and the 2006 class was ranked even higher. Clemson's recent runs are as top-heavy as any while there are great hauls to fall short of a title like Ohio State just did. How about Georgia's 2018 class, which was led by current Buckeye QB Justin Fields, a massive offensive line plus edge rushers soon to play at the next level in Adam Anderson, Azeez Ojulari and Brenton Cox?

We could go on and on here, but the conversation beyond prospect ranking algorithms has to combine facts with things that contributed to that sustained success whether on the recruiting trail or recruiting current players to stick it out that much longer like DeVonta Smith, Alex Leatherwood, Najee Harris, Dylan Moses and others did on this Alabama team. Each had clear NFL Draft value a year ago when classmates Tua Tagovailoa, Jedrick Wills, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and Xavier McKinney departed early before being picked among the draft's first 36 selections.

These scenarios are why Alabama has its own category in the conversation with a handful of classes in the running considering every four-year class signed by Saban has won at least one national title. A bevy of top-ranked recruiting classes have panned out to the tune of six national championships over Saban's time in Tuscaloosa. Most in the Yellowhammer State point to the 2009 class in the thick of the topic, rightfully so with the three national title teams it contributed to. But it begs the question when looking at that AJ McCarron, Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, D.J. Fluker, Eddie Lacy group -- do we measure by college championships and on-field success or the combination of that and NFL Draft value?

That's where the 2017 Alabama haul begins to separate itself from potentially all others. It will have the most collegiate and early NFL juice. The Saturday accolades all line up from multiple national titles (and playing for another), the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and three more top-five finishers along with the near 2020 sweep it pulled off in winning the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O'Brien, Doak Walker, Biletnikoff and Outland awards just last week. But the transition of winning it all under Saban and moving towards the game's highest level may leave this class unmatched. 

Four of the early-entry members of the class went in the first round in 2020 and McKinney was right on the cusp at No. 36 overall. It could be more gaudy in the 2021 draft given how just about everyone else in the class upped their stock based on their performance this fall. Smith should be the first wide receiver off the board as may Harris at running back while Leatherwood at tackle and Moses at linebacker will be in the discussion. Then there is of course Mac Jones, who just wrapped up a run not even classmate Tagovailoa could match during his Heisman campaign in 2018. 

Jones finished with 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns against just four interceptions while completing 77.4 percent of his passes, establishing a new national record. Despite a great year at the position with Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields at the top of the list, the improved Crimson Tide leader could wind up playing his way into the Round 1 dialogue.

NFL Draft Bible has four Alabama players in their latest first round mock, including Smith and Jones from the 2017 recruiting class. CBS has Leatherwood in Round 1 and ESPN has Harris coming off the board late in the round to Pittsburgh. It means as many as six players from the roster, and four from the singular recruiting class, are currently in the conversation to push for history come April. Miami holds the record for first rounders in a single draft as a half-dozen came off the board for The U in 2004.

The 2020 Alabama roster, which Saban said was among his favorite groups to coach because of the adversity faced and SEC-only schedule domination no other program was able to navigate unscathed, was truly a senior-laden one. 

"We have great leadership on this team, really good players, that are the best people on the team," Saban said after the latest title. "I think it's always fun to coach when the best players on your team are the best people. The other undefeated team we had had great people and great players. They were a great team, too. I think ball has changed. It's a little more wide open, a little more spread. 

"This team has adapted, and we've changed with it. Our coaches did an outstanding job with this team all year long. Just proud of our whole organization and everybody who contributes to it for what we were able to accomplish."

Building the 2017 class was no simple task, even for Alabama. It suffered key decommitments, beginning with quarterback Jake Fromm and highlighted by running back Cam Akers, not to mention McKinney befor being reeled back into the class in somewhat of a rare move. Several key members of the group, like Smith (Georgia), Jones (Kentucky), Moses (LSU), starting safety Daniel Wright (Florida State) and tight end Major Tennison (Texas) were committed to other programs for long stretches before opting for UA.

As has become the norm for programs chasing a trophy, Saban's staff found key success outside of the state of Alabama lines, signing seven prospects from Florida and a whopping six from LSU territory in the state of Louisiana. Bayou State natives Smith, Moses, Chris Allen and Phidarian Mathis each started in the title game Monday night. Junior college transfer Isaiah Buggs, a Ruston, La. native, was a key cog in the 2018 title run. That fateful Tua-to-Smitty win over Georgia featured several members of the class starting in overtime a year removed from high school.  

Don't look now, but Alabama has a growing margin on the No. 1 incoming recruiting class for next season, too. 

2017 Alabama Recruiting Class

Quarterback - Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones

Tagovailoa burst onto the scene with the walk-off winner in 2018 before becoming a Heisman finalist and top five draft pick. Jones waited his turn and held off banner freshman Bryce Young to command the position in 2020 ahead of his own Heisman finalist and record-breaking run. 

Running Back - Najee Harris, Brian Robinson

Harris is Alabama's all-time leading rusher and broke Derrick Henry's single-season touchdown mark with 30 in 2020, part of the reason he took home the Doak Walker nod for America's top tailback. Robinson served as a key reserve to help with the load through four years, registering 1,361 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 5 yards per carry.

Wide Receiver - DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, Tyrell Shavers, Chadarius Townsend

The group will be known for its three Round 1 wideouts, who combined for 100 touchdowns in college, and now a Heisman winner in Smith. It will be the positional measuring stick for any future wide receiver haul with several talented recruits signed in the same cycle. Shavers and Townsend transferred.

Tight End - Major Tennison, Kedrick James

Tennison has spent considerable time on the field since 2018 while James transferred.

Offensive Line - Jedrick Wills, Alex Leatherwood, Elliot Baker, Kendall Randolph, Hunter Brannon

All but Brannon had considerable experience up front, including starting for a national title team in some capacity. Leatherwood won the Outland in 2020 while Wills was off the board early in the 2020 draft. He's now protecting Baker Mayfield's blindside in the NFL playoffs.

Defensive Line - LaBryan Ray, Isaiah Buggs, Phidarian Mathis, Jarez Parks

Not a lot of star power but plenty of consistency and production from this trench group. Buggs was a late-round pick of the Steelers in 2019 and helped the team start 11-0 in 2020. 

Linebacker - Dylan Moses, Chris Allen, VanDarius Cowan, Markail Benton

While Cowan and Benton ended up elsewhere, Moses served as signal-caller and captain while he and Allen patrolled the second level for four years in some capacity. Each should be selected in the 2021 draft should they enter their name into the player pool.

Defensive Back - Xavier McKinney, Daniel Wright, Kyriq McDonald

McKinney starred at safety before being selected in the early second round in 2020 and Wright has all but filled in for him since. McDonald had health concerns and left the program.

Specialist - Thomas Fletcher, Joseph Bulovas

Fletcher started from the outset of his career as a special teams snapper while Bulovas is a reserve place kicker. 

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