TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- They’re talented. So, so talented.
With 19 ESPN 300 signees -- three more than any other school and twice the average of the SEC -- there is no doubt that Alabama has the most stacked recruiting class in college football. Coach Nick Saban not only signed the country’s No. 1 passer (Blake Barnett), he signed its No. 1 receiver (Calvin Ridley), its No. 2 running back (Damien Harris) and its No. 3 cornerback (Kendall Sheffield). Not to mention the 14 other players he signed who rank among the top 10 at their respective positions.
It’s staggering really.
But there is a bigger question at play. Because it is Alabama and because it holds ESPN's recruiting title for four years running now, you have to look at things differently. Unlike Florida, which is rebuilding under a new head coach, or Auburn, which went after better personnel on defense, Alabama didn’t have to make wholesale changes or cover up obvious deficiencies on its roster. With 54 ESPN 300 recruits already on campus, the talent was there before signing day ever began.
So at what point do you move past the obvious recruiting numbers and ask whether Alabama is truly any better than it was at this time a year ago? Trading one blue-chip prospect for another doesn’t guarantee anything. It only begs the question: do any of these new recruits translate to a national championship in 2015?
In a sense, this was what Saban was getting at when he told reporters on Wednesday that, "Every coach is going to stand here at this podium ... and say they're pleased with the guys they recruited."
"No one has a bad recruiting class," he explained. "And we're certainly pleased with our guys, but predicting how a young person is going to do academically and athletically in college by giving them some rating when he's in high school is not very scientific.
"We try to use science to create things that are very subjective in terms of what someone's performance is going to be, and I don't think that's really possible. There's no scientific way to know what the achievement of any person is going to be in anything they try to do. It's impossible."
He’s right, there is no way of knowing. Just look at the quarterback position where Alabama has signed seven prospects since 2010, including Phillip Sims, who ranked No. 1 out of high school, David Cornwell and Cooper Bateman, who each ranked in the top five, and Jake Coker, who was viewed as an uber talent upon leaving Florida State. Who won the job last season? A three-star athlete. A fifth-year senior. A former running back by the name of Blake Sims.
Talent is great, but development trumps all.
It’s why the secondary took a step back last season and is not guaranteed to get better in 2015. Because though you could say that signing cornerbacks like Sheffield and four-star Minkah Fitzpatrick will help, you have to at least acknowledge the year before when five-star freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey had little impact. For that matter, neither did sophomores and former four-star recruits Maurice Smith and Anthony Averett.
That is not to say those players won’t become starters with time, only that you can’t get carried away with what happens on signing day. At least you can’t when it’s Alabama and you’ve watched it carry home the recruiting trophy four years in a row.
Saban signed the best players in the country on Wednesday. He signed the players who best fit his team’s needs. And he will probably send a few of them to the NFL in time.
But what has changed? The same things were true last year before Alabama lost to Ohio State in the playoff, and the same things were true the year before, when Alabama's championship drought began.
You have to respect the talent Saban has assembled, but when the four- and five-stars become too many to count, you move on to what it all means. And when you venture into the territory of predicting a No. 1 class will lead to the country's No. 1 team, you're not relying on science. Knowing that with certainty is impossible.