By Stewart Mandel
February 01, 2012

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 the oversigning complaint this year because new SEC rules reigned in Saban.

"Alabama has become the gold standard in terms of dream schools for kids," said 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, 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."

Rinse, repeat.

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.

Most refreshing storyline:Revenge of the nerds. Stanford showed it doesn't plan to fade from the national spotlight in the wake of Andrew Luck's departure, landing Signing Day pledges from three five-star players -- tackles Kyle Murphy (San Clemente, Calif.) and Andrus Peat (Tempe, Ariz.) and defensive end Aziz Shittu (Atwater, Calif.) -- to complete a remarkable top five class. The Cardinal also landed a notable running back: Barry Sanders Jr.

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).

Most important signing: Dorial Green-Beckham to Missouri. That may sound obvious, seeing as the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Randy Moss clone was the nation's No. 1 recruit. But it wouldn't necessarily be the case if the Springfield, Mo., native had signed with Texas or Oklahoma. For Missouri, signing the No. 1 player in the country is an incredibly important moment from a purely p.r. perspective, especially as the Tigers prepare to join the SEC next fall. Whether DGB becomes the next Adrian Peterson (No. 1 in 2004) or Bryce Brown (No. 1 in '09), Mizzou should enjoy a recruiting bump in the coming year.

Recruiter of the year: UCLA's Jim L. Mora. The 26-year NFL veteran had never spent a single day recruiting prior to his Dec. 10 hire. After assembling a solid staff (led by ex-SMU assistant Adrian Klemm, a highly connected L.A. recruiter), Mora killed it down the stretch, landing 15 of UCLA's 28 signees after Jan. 1. The haul was highlighted by three of Rivals' Top 100: defensive tackle Ellis McCarthy (Monrovia, Calif.), athlete Devin Fuller (Old Tappan, N.J.) and receiver Jordan Payton (Westlake Village, Calif.), the latter of whom committed to three other Pac-12 schools (USC, Cal and Washington) before signing with the Bruins.

"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.

Biggest surprise: Miami. Remember last August when the words "death penalty" were being thrown around in the wake of Yahoo!'s report on rogue booster Nevin Shapiro? The threat of heavy NCAA sanctions didn't scare off future Hurricanes in the slightest, as Al Golden landed an enormous (33 members, including nine early enrollees who can count toward last year) Top 10 class chock-full of homegrown talent (20 of the 24 players who signed Wednesday are from Florida). The cherry on top came Wednesday when the nation's best cornerback, Tracy Howard (Miramar, Fla.), chose The U over Florida and FSU.

"There was a lot of negative recruiting," said Golden, in reference to the Shapiro investigation. "... Get your licks in now."

Biggest disappointment: LSU. Les Miles' team is normally a fixture at or near the top of the rankings, and a BCS championship game appearance last month would seemingly make this year ripe for a particularly strong class. Instead, the Tigers finished fifth among SEC teams and outside the top 15 nationally. Getting and then losing elite quarterback Gunner Kiel was a disappointment, as was four-star linebacker Torshiro Davis' last-minute defection to Texas. Quite uncharacteristically, the top four players from Louisiana -- safety Collins (Alabama) and linebackers Denzel Devall (Alabama), Davis and Otha Peters (Arkansas) -- went out of state.

Biggest stunner: Four-star receiver Deontay Greenberry's defection from Notre Dame to ... Houston. Greenberry, a Top 50 prospect from Fresno, Calif., was long set to join his cousin, early enrollee cornerback Tee Shepard, in South Bend before taking an 11th-hour visit last weekend to the soon-to-be Big East-member Cougars. Apparently he liked what he saw. "Getting Gunner Kiel was a nice addition, but this was a big shock," Farrell said of the Irish's class. "That's what Notre Dame fans are going to remember most about this Signing Day."

Most triumphant return: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. The former Florida coach showed little rust after his year-long hiatus, particularly when it came to swaying recruits. Eight of the 25 players Ohio State signed Wednesday were committed to other schools before Meyer's arrival, including four-star defensive tackle Tommy Schutt (Penn State) and defensive end Se'Von Pittman (Michigan State). On Wednesday, Meyer added tackle Kyle Dodson, a former Wisconsin pledge. "It's pretty simple," Meyer said Wednesday. "You ask a guy if he's interested, and if he says no, you move on."

Most interesting development: The four-year scholarship. In October, the NCAA approved legislation allowing schools the option to grant multiyear scholarships rather than the traditional one-year renewable grant. However, after at least 75 member schools objected, the change is now up for review. In the meantime, nine Big Ten schools and at least one SEC school (Florida) went ahead and signed players to four-year scholarships Wednesday, a potentially game-changing development. While there are still clauses that allow schools to revoke the scholarship should a player run into academic or disciplinary issues, schools that opt to offer athletes more security could potentially gain a recruiting advantage.

Best actor, drama: Texas. For years, Mack Brown wrapped up his classes eight or nine months before Signing Day, but a couple of down seasons altered his approach. The Longhorns, who finished just behind Alabama in Rivals' class rankings, kept themselves in the conversation right until the end, flipping four-star athlete Daje Johnson from TCU last weekend and stealing away LSU commit Davis Wednesday. "Having room [in the class] made it exciting to watch for Texas fans, because they've usually been so boring to follow after June," said Farrell.

Worst actor, horror: Cal. Just as Bears fans feared, defensive line coach/ace recruiter Tosh Lupoi's departure for Washington precipitated the demise of a one-time Top 10 class. All three players who committed to Cal during last month's U.S. Army All-American Game -- McCarthy, Payton and safety Shaq Thompson (Washington) -- signed elsewhere, and a class of just 15 signees fell to No. 25. Friendly advice to Jeff Tedford: Win big this fall.

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