Is this Saban's best class ever? We won't really know the answer to that until 2017 or so, but based on recruiting ratings alone - and recruiting ratings do matter, they really do - the answer is a resounding YES. At least it is if you analyze elite prospects Alabama has signed since 2004, according to Rivals ratings.
Why Rivals, you might ask? Because, although the rise of 247 and ESPN's increased seriousness about recruiting have upped the competition, Rivals is still strong and was the unquestioned gold standard in recruiting evaluations for much of this period.
Why 2004 you might ask? Because that's when Rivals started doing its numerical ratings.
Why Alabama blah blah blah? Roll Tide, baby. So let's get going.
You probably all know about Rivals' star ranking system, but you may not know about Rivals' numerical ratings. Since 2004, all prospects have received a numerical rating of from 4.9 to 6.1 (and don't ask me why). For our purposes, it's the 6.0 prospects and the 6.1 prospects that count. All 5-stars are 6.1s, and the 6.0s are the cream of the 4-stars.
From my vantage point, it has appeared that the 6.0s are only a tad behind the 6.1s, and are deserving of the "elite" tag. Rivals gives out something like 35 6.1s and 50 6.0s a year, nationally.
Here are Alabama's elite signees since Rivals began its numerical rating system.
2004 - 1 elite signee
1 6.0 (Nikita Stover)
2005 - 1 elite signee
1 6.0 (Roy Upchurch)
2006 - 1 elite signee
1 6.1 (Andre Smith)
2010 - 1 elite signee
1 6.1 (Dee Milliner)
2013 - 12 elite signees
4 6.1s (Jonathan Allen, A'Shawn Robinson, O.J. Howard, Reuben Foster)
8 6.0s (ArDarius Stewart, Robert Foster, Altee Tenpenny, Dee Liner, Grant Hill, Tyren Jones, Alvin Kamara, Derrick Henry)
Did I say something about ratings mattering? Let's check that: leaving off anything later than 2010, because those guys haven't had time to fully develop yet, we signed 20 elite prospects from 2004-2010. We can easily reduce that to 18 since Kerry Murphy signed twice and Michael Ricks never made it on campus.
Those 18 players include Andre Smith, Rolando McClain, Julio Jones, Mark Barron, Barrett Jones, Trent Richardson, D.J. Fluker, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Dee Milliner. Yes, 50% of the elite players who actually made it to campus became 1st-string All-Americans. Of those 9 names, 3 are up for the draft this year, and the other 6 all went in the first round, and 5 of 'em were among the first 8 drafted in their year.
So, ratings, then? They matter? Let's check again: here are the guys from each class who turned into what I would call stars - and obviously, this is really subjective, so feel free to roll your own list. Again, I'm only looking at 2010 and earlier and giving the newer guys time:
2004 - not a bloody one (D.J. Hall?)
2005 - not a stinkin' one (probably the closest were Roy Upchurch and John Parker Wilson, which ain't that close, sorry)
2006 - 2 (Andre Smith, Javier Arenas)
2007 - 1 (Rolando McClain)
2010 - 2 (DeMarcus Milliner, C.J. Mosley)
10 of those 18 stars (56%) were elites, although only a little over 10% of the players signed during that period were elite.
Most 5-stars: 4, in 2009 and 2013
Jonathan Allen and A'Shawn Robinson are the first 2 5-star defensive linemen Saban has signed.
If everybody suits up as expected, in 2013 we will have 23 elite first-year, second-year, and third-year players (Jesse Williams and Travell Dixon gone bye-bye, for very different reasons). The most we have had any previous year was 13, in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Among that number will be 5 first- or second-year elite running backs, and that doesn't count Kenyan Drake, who was probably underrated coming out of high school.
Shula's 4 classes on this list produced a total of 6 elite prospects, only 4 of whom actually made it onto the team the year they were signed. This year we have 12.
Nobody talked about it at the time, but 2010 stands out among Saban's recruiting classes, and not in a good way. Dee Milliner was the only elite prospect; we have had at least 5 every other year starting with 2008, and Milliner and Mosley were the class's only stars, against 7 and 6 stars inked the two preceding years.
Still. Things picked up a wee tad when Saban hauled into the Druid City, no? (Except there's that 2010. . . .)
And by the way, ratings matter. If you still don't believe me, please follow the link.