We begin with a requisite nod to Nick Saban. Fresh off his second BCS championship in three years, Saban claimed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class for the fourth time in six years at Alabama. The beast is self-sustaining now.
Lose Trent Richardson, Dont'a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick and Mark Barron to the NFL? No worries. In come the reinforcements. While lofty recruiting rankings don't guarantee future success, they're a pretty good indicator when it comes to Saban's teams. All four aforementioned Alabama players were four- or five-star prospects in Saban's top-rated 2008 and '09 classes. So, too, were 2011 NFL rookies Julio Jones and Mark Ingram, and returning stalwarts Barrett Jones and Robert Lester.
So sit back and watch over the next two to three years as several of Saban's 2012 crown jewels -- defensive back Landon Collins, running back T.J. Yeldon, athlete Eddie Williams and others -- work their way into the rotation, gain the necessary experience and eventually become the cornerstones of another title contender, just like their predecessors. Detractors can't even break out
"Alabama has become the gold standard in terms of dream schools for kids," said Rivals.com National Analyst Mike Farrell. "It used to be Florida, or USC before that. But when we ask [class of] 2013 kids what's your dream offer, the answer is usually Alabama."
Yep, everyone wants to be like 'Bama -- which is why so many of Saban's protégés now fill prominent head-coaching roles. Two of them, Florida's Will Muschamp and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, were among the other big winners in the 2012 recruiting derby. As of Wednesday evening, Rivals.com ranked the Gators' class third, the Seminoles' eighth. Other sites had FSU's small but loaded class even higher.
Now, however, it's time to find out whether Saban's pupils can coach as well as they recruit.
Fisher, entering his third season at Florida State, followed up a sterling class last year (ranked second by Rivals behind Alabama's) with a smaller (19 members) but equally loaded crop this year. It includes the nation's top two defensive tackles, Mario Edwards (Denton, Texas) and Eddie Goldman (Washington D.C.), and top 40 prospects in defensive end Chris Casher (Mobile, Ala.) and running back Mario Pender (Cape Coral, Fla.). Rivals' No. 1 quarterback, Jameis Winston (Hueytown, Ala.), didn't sign Wednesday, but proclaimed on television, "I'm a 'Nole."
Couple this group with a 2011 class that included impact freshmen like running back Davonta Freeman, receiver Rashad Greene, defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and tight end Nick O'Leary, and the 'Noles appear to be back recruiting the same level of elite talent they did during Bobby Bowden's heyday. Therefore, Fisher should rightfully be expected to start doing much more than going 9-4 and winning the Champs Sports Bowl. The honeymoon is over.
"A top five class at Florida State is nothing new," said Farrell. "Jimbo is following a legend in Bobby Bowden, but you have to win in the ACC now. With great recruiting classes come tremendous expectations."
Fisher had a year's head start on Muschamp, who took over a program that, while not far removed from two BCS championships in three years, was thrown into chaos during Urban Meyer's retirement, un-retirement, then re-retirement in 2009-10. Meyer's last team went 8-5 and Muschamp's first team was no better, going 7-6. Despite landing a No. 1 class just two years ago, a talent dropoff was largely to blame.
So Muschamp went out and replenished Florida's roster. While Florida missed on a few five-star holdouts it was hoping to land, it pried away another one, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. (St. Petersburg), a former FSU commit. He joined Rivals' No. 2 overall prospect, offensive lineman D.J. Humphries (Charlotte), and No. 6 prospect, defensive end Jonathan Bullard (Shelby, N.C.), in a class that placed heavy emphasis on the guys in the trenches -- i.e., the hallmarks of a Saban-coached team.
It should be noted that Saban, like Muschamp, went 7-6 his first season at Alabama. The Tide improved to 12-2 the next. Before that, Saban took over an LSU program that went 3-8 the year before his arrival and led it to an SEC championship two years later. Is anyone ready to bet money on Muschamp pulling off the same feat?
In fact, it's unclear at this point how much credit Fisher and Muschamp even deserve for their recruiting feats. Ron Zook signed top five classes in Gainesville, too. Bowden kept reeling in recruits during the 2000s even as his teams plummeted into mediocrity.
"They're good coaches, but I don't think they're doing anything different than their predecessors did," said Farrell, pointing out that Saban took over an Alabama program that had been reeling for far longer than the two Florida powers. "The two of them really have to prove something on the field."
Numerous NFL teams have tried in vain to emulate the New England Patriots' success by employing Bill Belichick disciples, only to find they can't replicate the real thing. Saban himself is a Belichick protégé, who's managed to dominate the college game. Like his mentor, Saban is almost robotic in his formula for success. "We added good players at every position," he said of Wednesday's class, even noting Rivals' No. 2 kicker, Adam Griffith (Calhoun, Ga.). "There were no real surprises."
Perhaps it's unfair to hold Fisher and Muschamp to the Saban standard, seeing as no other coach in America has won three BCS championships. But the comparisons are inevitable, as are the expectations when coaching at schools that consider themselves every bit as capable as Alabama.
And if you believe the recruiting rankings, they should be.
Elsewhere in the brainiac department, Vanderbilt flirted with the Top 25 right up until Signing Day, but still landed what is assuredly the highest-rated class in school history. And Northwestern landed its first Rivals100 signee, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (Centerville, Ohio).
"It's been exciting, it's been educational, it's been a lot of fun," said Mora. Now we get to find out Mora's approach to "roster management." It's believed the large class puts UCLA as much as 10 above the 85 scholarship limit.
"There was a lot of negative recruiting," said Golden, in reference to the Shapiro investigation. "... Get your licks in now."