A weird thing happened about a week and a half ago: Alabama's recruiting efforts were, shall we say, underwhelming. On at least five high-valued targets, the Crimson Tide came up empty. By the end of the holiday formerly known as national signing day, coach Nick Saban was in the unfamiliar position of not possessing the best recruiting class in the country.
For the first time since his hastily thrown-together initial signing class at Alabama back in 2007, Saban finished outside the top three of ESPN's Class Rankings. Instead, the Tide checked in at No. 6, leaving Saban awkwardly looking up at his former defensive coordinator, Kirby Smart, who had Georgia at No. 1.
At his afternoon news conference in Tuscaloosa last Wednesday, Saban resisted the notion that he and his staff swung and missed on key prospects. Sure, he would have liked an extra inside linebacker and defensive lineman. And, yeah, a quarterback would have been nice and maybe another offensive lineman. But, no, he said, "I really don’t think we struck out anywhere to be honest with you. You know, nothing comes out perfect because we don't control these things."
Nothing comes out perfect? Since when? Mike Shula is long gone now. From the time ESPN started keeping track of recruiting in 2006, no one has had more No. 1-ranked classes (five) or signed more ESPN 300 players (156) than Saban at Alabama.
Such is life when grading against a curve, though. There were plenty of reasons why this year was different from others, which we'll get into in a moment, and besides, this class was still solid and addressed some pressing needs. But after a decade of dominating the recruiting trail, signing day 2018 marked a different tone from the 66-year-old coach.
The man who says every year that he doesn't pay attention to recruiting rankings seemed keenly aware that he had no one's No. 1 class. He alluded to the fact that "in every recruiting class, there's always a guy that you get that you thought you might not get, and there's also a guy that you thought you might get that you didn't get." Then, a few moments later, he added that "sometimes it matches up in terms of how you get ranked and rated and sometimes it doesn't."
Ranked in the top 10 or not, Saban wasn't pleased with the final outcome.
There are plenty of reasons why, though, starting with the notion that signing day wasn't really signing day to begin with, at least not in the traditional sense. Nearly three-quarters of the players in the ESPN 300 had already signed their paperwork during the first early signing period back in December, thus rendering the post-national championship wave of momentum Alabama had come to rely on as less effective.
What's more, Saban was fairly up front about how he was feeling his way through an entirely new process, saying on more than one occasion that, "It's been something that's been hard to sort of figure out." When the first wave of the early signing period was over, he admitted that he wasn't sure what the rest of the recruiting calendar would look like.
"I can't tell you because I've never done it before," Saban said back in mid-December. "I just know there's a lot of stuff going on here right now, trying to prepare for a playoff game, trying to recruit. ... I would say now that we're going to recruit the rest of this recruiting cycle pretty much like it's been in the past. It's just going to be a smaller pool of players. But I can't answer the question because I have no experience with this."
Not that anyone needs to explain away a top-10 finish, but that's a good place to start. The coach who coined the term "The Process" was no longer sure what the process was, and it showed.
Then throw in massive turnover on the coaching staff, and Alabama's relative struggles this recruiting cycle start to make sense. Two years after losing Smart to Georgia, defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt accepted the head-coaching job at Tennessee. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll left for the Buffalo Bills and defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley went to the Oakland Raiders. Bobby Williams, a former special-teams coach turned special assistant to Saban, accepted an on-field coaching job at Oregon, and shortly after signing day it was announced that defensive line coach Karl Dunbar would be joining the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When Alabama made its final push to signing day, it had a bunch of new faces trying to build relationships on the fly. Saban said, "I don't think there's any question that there may be some prospects out there who were being recruited by someone who left and maybe that was a little bit of an issue with them."
Still -- and this is where Alabama fans should start to feel better about things -- Alabama finished with the sixth-highest-rated class in the country. Still, 13 of its 20 signees ranked in the top 300, including the No. 1 cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. and the No. 1 defensive end Eyabi Anoma. Still, with all four starters in the secondary gone, Saban got the influx of talent he needed in Surtain and No. 1 junior college cornerback Saivion Smith.
So, no, it's not all bad news for the defending champs.
The early signing period isn't going away, and Saban's former assistants continue to spread his playbook across the SEC, but the adjustment period is over and Saban is doubling down on recruiting with his recent coaching hires all sharing the common traits of youth and strong reputations on the recruiting trail (see: Josh Gattis, Karl Scott and Jeff Banks).
The Alabama recruiting giant may have surrendered its lead this past recruiting year, but it’s too soon to tell whether it’s truly fallen behind.