Alabama has secured the nation’s top recruiting class in each of the last seven years. In theory, that should mean no one can beat the Tide’s talent anywhere on the field.
To test that theory, I’ve lined up comparisons for Alabama and what the early top-25 rankings unanimously agree are its top SEC West Division competition this year, Auburn and LSU. I’m using the average numerical ratings for each recruited player at each position grouping, the same process I used when I broke down the Crimson Tide roster and compared the talent on the SEC East contenders.
Before we begin, I need to include some quick notes. I used the official rosters available at the time of posting, but with a few changes.
Alabama’s roster still lists Trevon Diggs as a wide receiver, but since he played first-team cornerback in the A-Day game, I moved him to defensive back. LSU picked up a couple of transfers after its spring session concluded: Thaddeus Moss and Breiden Fehoko. However, I’m not including them in their respective position groupings because the Tigers, by my count, were already at the 85-scholarship limit before adding them. The players have to sit out a year because they’re not graduate transfers.
Finally, I didn’t include a fullback position grouping because while Auburn and LSU have players listed there, Alabama doesn’t. For all of the periodic talk about the Tide having an offense that isn’t up to date, it’s the only one of the three main West contenders without any listed fullbacks.
Alabama is easily the leader here thanks in part to having only three scholarship quarterbacks on its roster. If I kept only the top three signal callers on each of the other rosters, Auburn would move up to an even 0.9000 and LSU would be even higher at 0.9106. The Tide would still be ahead, but the distance wouldn’t be as great.
Looking only at projected starters, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham wins the competition with his 0.9642 rating out of junior college. Jalen Hurts is next at 0.9231, while Danny Etling is last—though still a former 4-star guy—at 0.8967.
The wealth Alabama has at running back was a major takeaway from its roster breakdown, and it really shines through here. The other teams have very highly-rated backs between Kerryon Johnson on the Plains and Derrius Guice in Baton Rouge.
Even so, the Crimson Tide has three running backs with higher talent ratings than either of those two: Najee Harris, Bo Scarbrough, and Damien Harris. It has five running backs who all bore better recruiting rankings than the second-highest-rated backs on Auburn and LSU, respectively, and that doesn’t even include the effective former 3-star recruit Joshua Jacobs. Guice, Johnson, and Kamryn Pettway should all have good seasons, but Alabama runs away with this category.
Receiver is a position where Alabama lacks proven depth. With Diggs off to corner, just five scholarship receivers remain who aren’t freshmen. No matter. The Tide has three former 5-stars to headline the group with Calvin Ridley, Robert Foster, and spring game star Jerry Jeudy.
Auburn and LSU are in interesting positions: They have a lot of pieces which might be able to have breakout seasons. The Plainsmen have the advantage, though, not just because of talent, but because its pieces played more last year. The Bayou Bengals are having to replace all but one of their top receivers from 2016, whereas the reverse is true in Auburn. The Tigers lost only one top receiver.
Tight end is the only position where Alabama doesn’t have an average of at least 0.9000. It turns out not to matter, because LSU and Auburn don’t have an average that high either.
Alabama lost a huge offensive weapon with O.J. Howard’s graduation, but LSU’s top two tight ends exhausted their eligibility as well. Both teams have promising guys ready to step up, though. It’ll be interesting to track how the tight end evolves in Baton Rouge from the old in-line blocking position it was under Les Miles to the new H-back-style position it’ll be under Matt Canada. Gus Malzahn’s offenses haven’t relied on the tight end for much other than blocking, but we’ll see if new coordinator Chip Lindsey changes that.
The line is the closest we’ve seen to Alabama not having the top average for a position grouping. Auburn has also accumulated talent well on its line, and three of its top four guys (by talent rating) are going to be senior starters. I say “accumulated talent” instead of “recruited” because two of those three are transfers.
Evaluating offensive linemen is difficult, particularly going from high school to college, where a player might not have filled out during his pre-collegiate career. Two of LSU’s line mainstays, Will Clapp and K.J. Malone, are in the bottom half of the position grouping’s talent ratings. It’s not that talent ratings for an O-line are useless, but they do need some context.
With offense finished, Alabama has held the lead in every position. Let’s see if the Tide can sweep the other side of the ball.
Living up to stereotypes, defensive line is the most talented position on the field for these three teams in aggregate. The average for third-place Auburn is the highest of all third-place finishers in any position group. It’s also higher than the top-rated Alabama tight end grouping and not far from the Tide’s offensive line and quarterback averages as well.
Alabama does benefit a little from having the fewest linemen thanks to its 3-4 scheme. Auburn has more thanks to running a 4-3, while LSU still has plenty due to switching to a 3-4 last year. Of course, the teams have some inconsistencies when it comes to how they classify who is a defensive end versus who is an outside linebacker.
No matter how you classify the hybrid rush ends, though, Alabama still runs away with the talent battle on the first two levels of the defense. The Tide has a comfortable lead in both linemen and linebackers, so it wouldn’t make a ton of difference if one was to fiddle with, say, whether Auburn’s “Buck” position counts as a defensive end or outside linebacker spot.
The Tide figures to maintain its lead at linebacker for a while. It has seven underclassmen with at least a 0.9493 rating. LSU has just four linebackers of any class with that high a rating, while Auburn has just three.
Here at last, someone has bested Alabama in talent average in a position grouping. If anyone was going to do it, it makes sense it would be LSU and defensive back, given the way the school cultivates its “DBU” reputation.
Moving Diggs from receiver to defensive back did help Alabama, since his 0.9441 rating is above the Tide’s average for the backfield. A big part of why Ed Orgeron’s team stole the top spot is that LSU has three former 5-star recruits to Alabama’s two, while the Tigers have only two former 3-star recruits to the Tide’s three. Auburn, meanwhile, is in the most distant third of any position grouping looked at here, based on percentage of the leader’s average.
Alabama has the top spot in seven of the eight position groupings, which matches what Georgia had in the East. In a scoring system that hands out three points for first place in each grouping, two for each second-place finish, and one for each third-place finish, the Tide earned 23 of a highest possible score of 24 points. LSU and Auburn are about even. The former has 13 points to the latter’s 12. That also mirrors the East, where Tennessee had 13 and Florida had 12.
It’s not just like the East, though: UGA only competes with or beats Alabama at the quarterback, running back, and tight end positions. The East also doesn’t have a single position grouping where more than one team has an average of 0.9000, while five groupings here in the West have all three contenders with an average of at least that much. There’s a reason why the West is so far ahead of the East, after all.
Alabama easily having the most talent among the divisional contenders is not a surprise, nor is it new. This is just more confirmation that if the Tide doesn’t make it to Atlanta for a fifth time in six seasons, it’s going to be a tremendous upset.