Time and time again over the last decade, it's been proven that nobody recruits like Nick Saban. His ability to do just about every detail of the job as college head coach is unmatched, but it helps that Alabama has had a talent advantage over almost everyone, year after year.
Entering this recruiting cycle, Saban had landed the No.1 class according to Rivals.com in five of the last six years -- slacking off with only the No. 5 class in 2010 -- and after expressing his displeasure with how the 2013 season ended on the field, Saban turned right around and landed what may be the best class he's ever brought to Alabama.
As always, we can't properly evaluate a recruiting class for another three or four seasons, but the number of projected stars Saban signed on Wednesday's National Signing Day gives Alabama plenty of hope for continuing its remarkable run of success, since Alabama's class of 2014 ranked No. 1 on Rivals, ESPN, Scout and 247Sports. According to Rivals' rankings, Alabama landed six five-star recruits -- twice as many as anyone else -- capping things off with one of the biggest coups of Wednesday's announcement, when five-star linebacker Rashaan Evans of Auburn, Ala., chose the Crimson Tide over the hometown Tigers, much to the chagrin of the Auburn staffers who allowed his profile to appear on the Tigers' website before he committed to their archrival.
So, headlined by players like Evans, defensive end Da'Shawn Hand, offensive lineman Cameron Robinson, athlete Bo Scarbrough and cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Tony Brown -- and, for good measure, Florida State transfer Jake Coker at quarterback -- Alabama has the consensus top class, one projected to be one of the best of the 21st century. Time will tell where it will ultimately land, but its competition is steep.
Let's go back through the classes of the Internet recruiting era -- dating to the emergence of Rivals and Scout in 2002 -- to identify the groups that ended up finishing as the best classes, taking into account the number of star players that achieved individual and team success. In the next few years, perhaps Alabama 2014 will prove itself worthy, along with Florida State 2012 (Jameis Winston, Mario Edwards, Ronald Darby). For now, here's who they're up against:
1. USC, 2003
Key Players: Sam Baker, Reggie Bush, Sedrick Ellis, Lawrence Jackson, Ryan Kalil, Fili Moala, Will Poole, Steve Smith, Terrell Thomas, Chauncey Washington, LenDale White
The Trojans finished 37-2 in the three seasons following the signing of this historically great class, winning the BCS championship in 2004 and losing the title game to Texas in 2005. Bush, Ellis, Jackson and Baker were all first-round picks in the NFL draft, while White, Moala and Thomas all went in the second round. This was Pete Carroll at the height of his recruiting prowess at USC, capitalizing on the breakout success of the 2002 Orange Bowl season and Carson Palmer's Heisman Trophy to build USC back into a behemoth. Yes, Bush's 2005 Heisman ended up getting taken away as the era ended in NCAA scandal, but there's no denying the talent Carroll was able to amass in bringing USC back to the level it should be as one of the most appealing jobs in college football.
2. Alabama, 2008
Key Players: Mark Barron, Terrence Cody, Marcel Dareus, Don'ta Hightower, Mark Ingram, Barrett Jones, Julio Jones, Courtney Upshaw
The class that changed the balance of power in college football. Saban slogged through a 7-6 season that featured a loss to Louisiana-Monroe in his first year in Tuscaloosa, but that didn't stop him from signing the No. 1 class, according to both Rivals and Scout, in his first full recruiting cycle. With this infusion of talent, the Crimson Tide went to the Sugar Bowl in 2008, then won their first of three national championships in four years in 2009. The class includes a Heisman winner (Ingram), an Outland and Rimington winner (Barrett Jones) and three top-10 draft picks (Dareus, Julio Jones, Barron), among other stars like Cody, Upshaw and Hightower, launching Alabama into the nearly unmatched success of The Process era.
3. Texas, 2002
Key Players: Justin Blalock, Aaron Harris, Brian Robison, Aaron Ross, Kasey Studdard, David Thomas, Rodrique Wright, Selvin Young, Vince Young
Any class that claims one of the greatest college quarterbacks in history is going to work out quite well, with Young surrounded by several key pieces for Texas' national championship team in 2005. Young and Wright were consensus All-America picks, while Blalock and Ross were first-round picks and Robinson and Thomas became productive NFL players. The 2002 Longhorns class was the first No. 1 ranked group on both Rivals and Scout since the online recruiting boom, and for good reason. They led Texas to a 24-1 record with two Rose Bowl wins and a national title in 2004-05, propelling Texas back to national prominence after many years of disappointment in Austin.
4. Ohio State, 2002
Key Players: Bobby Carpenter, Maurice Clarett, Doug Datish, Roy Hall, A.J. Hawk, Santonio Holmes, Nick Mangold, Quinn Pitcock, Nate Salley, Troy Smith, Rob Sims, Justin Zwick
The Big Ten has had its share of recruiting problems since the turn of the century, but Ohio State is the big exception. Despite some embarrassments in high-profile games, Ohio State has consistently been one of the best teams in college football, and this class helped push Ohio State to both the national title in 2002 and a runner-up finish in 2006. In 2002, the Buckeyes rode a stellar defense and the running of the freshman Clarett to a win over Miami for the championship. That was the end of Clarett at Ohio State, of course, but four years later, Smith won the Heisman in leading Ohio State to an unbeaten regular season before the loss to Florida. In between, Ohio State won two Fiesta Bowls and an Alamo Bowl. Hawk, Carpenter, Holmes and Mangold all went in the first round of the 2006 draft.
5. Alabama, 2009
Key Players: Kenny Bell, James Carpenter, D.J. Fluker, Nico Johnson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Eddie Lacy, AJ McCarron, Kevin Norwood, Trent Richardson, Anthony Steen, Ed Stinson, Chance Warmack
If Alabama's class of 2008 started the Alabama dynasty, 2009 continued an avalanche, forming the heart of championship teams in 2011 and 2012. McCarron, of course, led the Crimson Tide to those two titles at quarterback and then predictably/bizarrely finished second in the Heisman voting in 2013. Richardson won the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back in 2011 and was drafted third overall. Warmack, Fluker and Carpenter were all first-round picks along the offensive line, and Lacy is now a budding star in the Green Bay Packers backfield. Yeah, it's not hard to see why Alabama has been so successful.
6. Florida, 2006
Key Players: Riley Cooper, Jermaine Cunningham, Marcus Gilbert, Percy Harvin, Brandon James, Brandon Spikes, Tim Tebow
Before he became the most divisive football player in the history of the planet, hopefully everyone remembers that Tebow was actually one of the most successful college football players ever. He became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, in 2007; he played a key situational role behind Chris Leak in the Gators' 2006 national title; and he was the star of the 2008 national title team. Of course, he didn't do it alone: Harvin was Urban Meyer's most dangerous weapon, Spikes was a two-time All-America linebacker and James a two-time All-America return man and Cooper, Cunningham and Gilbert have all moved on to the NFL.
7. Florida State, 2011
Key Players: Kelvin Benjamin, Devonta Freeman, Rashad Greene, Timmy Jernigan, Tre Jackson, Nick O'Leary, Terrance Smith, James Wilder, Karlos Williams
After signing many key players in his first class of 2010 (Lamarcus Joyner, Bjoern Werner, Telvin Smith, Christian Jones, Cameron Erving), Jimbo Fisher took another leap forward in landing many of the core players in this past season's national championship run. Jameis Winston came the next year, in 2012, but in landing the No. 2 class, according to Rivals, Fisher secured the supporting cast that Winston would help push to the next level in what proved to be one of the most dominant teams ever. Greene and Benjamin were among the ACC's leading receivers; Freeman, Wilder and Williams made up one of the most potent running back units in the country; O'Leary broke out as one of the nation's best tight ends; and Jernigan is set to be a top-15 pick in the upcoming draft at defensive tackle.
8. Oklahoma, 2006
Key Players: Sam Bradford, Quinton Carter, Jermaine Gresham, Gerald McCoy, DeMarco Murray, Trent Williams
After signing this class, Bob Stoops led Oklahoma to three straight Big 12 championships, reclaiming the league throne after Texas' national title in 2005. The Sooners came up short in the championship game against Florida in 2008, but Bradford won a Heisman and became the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, where he was quickly followed by McCoy at No. 3 and Williams at No. 4, with Gresham at No. 21. Throw in Murray, who became the Dallas Cowboys' starting running back, and this was the most fruitful class of individuals in Stoops' successful tenure.
9. Notre Dame, 2003
Key Players: Victor Abiamiri, John Carlson, Ryan Harris, Trevor Laws, Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, John Sullivan, Tom Zbikowski
The Tyrone Willingham era may have crashed and burned in South Bend, but it got off on the right foot with a 10-3 season in 2002, followed by the signing of a strong recruiting class that outperformed its ranking of No. 12 on Rivals (Scout had it fifth). Willingham went 11-12 the next two seasons before getting fired, so he wasn't able to capitalize on the talent he recruited. Charlie Weis did, however, going 19-6 in his first two seasons before suffering the same fate as Willingham. The Fighting Irish made appearances in back-to-back BCS games with this core, with Samardzija earning All-America honors at wide receiver before moving on to a professional baseball career, and Quinn, Abiamiri, Harris, Carlson, Laws and Zbikowski all getting selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft.
10. LSU, 2004
Key Players: Xavier Carter, Glenn Dorsey, Early Doucet, Marlon Favorite, Jacob Hester, Chevis Jackson, Tyson Jackson, Herman Johnson, Craig Steltz, Claude Wroten
The depth here is ridiculous, with Saban building upon his 2003 national title to leave a stacked roster for Les Miles when he left for the Dolphins. The group proved to be the foundation of Miles' 2007 national champions, with Dorsey and Steltz earning All-America honors that year, and Dorsey and Tyson Jackson going on to become top-five picks in the draft.
Just Missed: 2003 LSU, 2004 USC, 2005 USC, 2005 Texas, 2007 Florida, 2008 Oregon, 2009 LSU, 2009 Stanford, 2010 Florida State