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The Recruiting Iron Bowl

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As we all know, Auburn has reeled off six consecutive wins over Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Intuitively, you would think that would mean something to somebody, but you would be wrong. As National Signing Day officially and affirmatively showed, Auburn has six straight wins over Alabama, yet not a single top recruit in this state who cares the least little bit about that fact.

The sudden Alabama domination over Auburn in the recruitment of the top prep talent is as impressive as it is unquestionable. In the past several days, many people have continually repeated that Alabama has 16 signees with firm offers from Auburn, while Auburn does not have a single signee with a firm offer from Alabama. I am not sure if the exact number is correct, but the underlying truth is undeniably certain.

Browsing the Alabama commitment list, we have countless signees who were pursued very hard by Auburn. Courtney Upshaw grew up in Auburn's backyard, and despite the Tiger coaching staff going all out for him, he nevertheless remained firm with Alabama. Jerrell Harris and Marcel Dareus both had the full-court press put on by Auburn, but signed with Alabama. The same thing goes for Burton Scott and the kids from St. Paul's, but all went to no avail. Julio Jones wouldn't even give them the time of day, even after the emergence of the hilariously dubbed Spread Eagle, and several others also passed up offers from Auburn to head to Tuscaloosa.

Browsing the Auburn commitment list, on the other hand, I cannot personally find a single person who our coaching staff really went after. Barrett Trotter was probably the state's top senior quarterback, but we never went after him, and his embarrassing performance in the Alabama v. Mississippi All Star Game showed why. Jomarcus Savage is a pretty good prospect who we would have pursued under Shula, but with Saban he was far behind guys like Dareus, Murphy, Cody, and others. The same thing goes for Reggie Hunt as well. We may have given Neiko Lipscomb an offer had we struck out on Alonzo Lawrence, but that never came to fruition. We never gave a second look to guys like Cameron Henderson, Spencer Pybus, Ken Adams, Derrick Lykes, D'Antoine Hood, and Marcus Jemison.

I really just cannot find a single Auburn commitment that we would have really wanted to pursue, sans Raven Grey. Onterrio McCalebb is pretty highly-touted, but he is almost certainly headed to junior college. Jermaine Johnson would have been a great pick-up on the offensive line, but he did not qualify a year ago, and a lot of people don't think he will this year either. Deshaun Barnes looks to be a good linebacker, but he couldn't meet the standards to enroll at Tennessee a year ago. Academic concerns alone prevented us from showing any real interest in any of those three. The only prospect in their entire class that we would have legitimately pursued is Raven Grey. Shula actually went very hard after Grey a couple of years ago, but he signed with Auburn instead, where he failed to qualify academically. This year he returned with his grades in order, and enrolled in Auburn early, while never really re-opening his recruitment. Grey was an Auburn guy through and through, admittedly, and he would have been a great pick-up for us, but he is really the only one we would have liked to have had. We largely wouldn't give the other 28 signees the time of day.

Now, going back to Auburn's complete crash and burn on the in-state prospects, some people might dismiss that by saying that a large portion of Auburn's signees typically come from out of state, and that many of the state's top prospects generally go to Alabama. And to a degree that would certainly be true. Auburn has a tendency to get more recruits out of Georgia, Florida, and Mississippi combined than they do out of the state of Alabama, and that is a long-held tendency for the Tigers. However, despite generally not signing that many in-state prospects the past several years, Auburn has certainly had success in signing several of best in-state prospects.

In 2001, Auburn snagged away one of the nation's best tailbacks, Cadillac Williams, who grew up a life-long Alabama fan. In 2002, Auburn got Ben Obomanu, without doubt the state's top receiver, in a year Alabama was desperate for wide receivers. That year also saw them take Tommy Jackson, Ben Grubbs, and Montae Pitts, three more of the top players in the state. 2003 saw them take Tez Doolittle and Eric Brock. 2004 ended up with them getting Tony Bell, who was arguably the top defensive prospect in the state that year. 2005 was truly an incredible year for them in-state. They got Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie -- two of the nation's top tight end prospects -- plus Sen'Derrick Marks, Antonio Coleman, and Jerraud Powers. We wanted just about every one of those guys, and swung and missed on every single one of them. 2006 was probably even worse. We went very hard after Michael Goggans, Tim Hawthorne, Jermarcus Ricks, Raven Gray, Terrell Zachery, and Bart Eddins, but yet again couldn't come up with a single one of them. We made a bit of an in-roads with a few in-state guys once Saban arrived in January of 2007, but they still landed Michael McNeil, Ryan Williams, and Ryan Pugh, all three of which we would have loved to have had.

Again, while Auburn has not generally signed a particularly high number of in-state prospects in recent years, they have had a knack for signing several of the top prospects in the state. Of course, though, that all changed this year in a very big way. Far from the previous norm, they struck out on every single top prospect in the state.

Being quite frank, it simply seems that Tuberville just cannot keep up with Saban on the recruiting trails. Saban apparently not only spent much longer hours out on those recruiting trails, but he also did a much better job of selling his program. Now, much of that should reflect on the fact that Saban is simply an incredible recruiter. Mal Moore said himself that Saban was the best recruiter he had ever seen, and given that he currently sports seven national championship rings, he would certainly be one to know. As a recruiter, Saban apparently is in a class all of his own.

However, Saban's indisputable greatness as a recruiter should not underscore the undeniably pathetic job Tuberville did in recruiting this year. In fact, if anything, pathetic might not be quite enough of a strong word to accurately describe how Tuberville did this year.

Most damning of all, arguably, is that not only did he miss out on all of the Alabama kids, he couldn't even get the lifelong Auburn kids, namely Jerrell Harris, Marcel Dareus, and Antoine McClain. Jerrell Harris grew up an Auburn fan, but he ended up going to Alabama, and actually later stated that Auburn finished fifth of his remaining five schools. Marcel Dareus also grew up an Auburn fan, but he too signed with Alabama, and had he not he may have very well went to North Carolina instead. Antoine McClain also grew up loving the Tigers, but he signed with Clemson after getting his panties in a wad with us when we refused to accept his commitment on two separate occasions because we had higher-rated players still left on the board.

It gets worse, too. Dee Finley was one of the state's top prospects, and he grew up and lived in Auburn. Nevertheless, he committed to Florida early on in the process, and he never wavered. The Auburn coaching staff tried, but they could not convince the kid who lived ten minutes away from Jordan-Hare Stadium to sign with the Tigers. William Green was one of the state's top prospects, but we never really pursued him particularly hard. He was entirely too small to play soon as a linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, and our coaching staff largely feared that once he added the needed weight he would have lost his speed and athleticism in the process. The situation seemed right for Auburn to swoop in and pick up a very good 4-3 linebacker prospect, but Tuberville struck out again as Green committed to, and signed with, Florida.

The only real success that Auburn had in recruiting this year was with former commitments to previous classes, and they did not even have complete success in that area. Raven Gray was a commitment to the 2006 class, and he has enrolled, admittedly a very big signing. Jermaine Johnson was a good addition, but he was an academic casualty from the 2007 class, and may not qualify this year either. Enrique Davis would have been a huge commitment, but he ended up going to Ole Miss after Auburn changed directions with the offensive coordinator.

This class ended up being ranked 18th in the nation by Scout.com, and 20th by Scout.com. There is nothing particularly good about the Shula-esque recruiting rankings in the first place, especially considering how big of a class it was (29 players), but it gets even worse the deeper you go. The class isn't ranked highly to begin with, and the only reason that it is ranked as high as it is is because of the academic casualties from previous classes. The presence of Raven Gray, Jermaine Johnson, and Deshaun Barnes are why this class is rated as highly as it is, and without them it may very well not even be a top 35 class, a very relevant fact considering that Auburn won't be able to rely on the old academic casualties next year. Perhaps more concerning for Tiger faithful, however, is the fact that this class could plummet even further once the academic question marks are resolved, as several of the top signees may not qualify. As mentioned earlier, Onterior McCaleb will almost certainly not qualify, Jermaine Johnson may not either, and several others have academic concerns as well. This class may plummet even lower as a result of academic casualties, just like their class did a year ago.

At the end of the day, again, it was just a pathetic showing by Tuberville. Aside from a few successes with former academic casualties, Auburn was reduced to taking leftovers. They took the kids Alabama didn't want, the kids Georgia didn't want, the kids LSU didn't want, the kids Florida didn't want, and so on and so forth. All told, it is a class almost entirely full of players that all of the top programs looked at and effectively said, "No, I don't want that kid, I can get better players elsewhere."

Many Auburn fans were upset, and rightfully so. Tuberville, of course, attempted to deflect all criticism by saying that he didn't care about star ratings or anything of the sort, and stating that their staff did their own evaluations. But it's an absurd argument on two fronts. First and foremost, these highly-touted players with the very high star ratings were not just hyped by the recruiting services, they were strongly pursued by all of the top programs who could have effectively gotten their pick of the litter. It wasn't just the recruiting services that were high on these kids, it was the top programs as well. Second, and perhaps most telling, is that Tuberville and his coaching staff actually pursed the kids with the high star ratings. It wasn't that they didn't want those kids, and it wasn't that they didn't do all they could to get them, it was just they couldn't actually get any of them. Despite much talk to the contrary, they did care about star ratings -- judging by the prospects they pursued -- they just couldn't get any of them to sign on the dotted line. At best it is an absurd argument made by a man taking a hypocritical stance on the subject -- Tuberville was certainly fond of the star system for the positive publicity it gave him in his own fan base when he was signing the highly touted recruits.

The bad news on the recruiting front for Auburn is seemingly unlikely to end any time soon, either. The class of 2009 is likely to bring a very similar end result. Alabama already has the commitment of D.J. Fluker, and are hot on the trails of several other of the state's top prospects, such as Dre Kirkpatrick, A.J. McCarron, Nico Johnson, Tana Patrick, Kendall Kelly, and others. To be precise, Auburn will likely do a bit better in 2009 than they did in 2008 -- though in all honesty, how could they really do any worse? -- but the truth remains that the overwhelming majority of the state's top players will end up wearing crimson. Auburn may get one or two of the top players, but I cannot find any objective reason to believe that Alabama will not dominate in-state recruiting once again next year.

In the short-term, though, things are far from all roses for Alabama. Personally, given a variety of factors -- namely the personnel losses by LSU, the extremely narrow game between Auburn and LSU a year ago, the fact that LSU hasn't won in Jordan-Hare in a decade, and the likely inability of Alabama to successfully compete for the West at this stage -- I expect that Auburn will win the SEC West in 2009 and end up playing either Florida or Georgia in Atlanta. As much as all Alabama fans would like to think otherwise, the odds are good that the Tigers run their current streak to seven straight.

In the big picture, though, regardless of the previous six Iron Bowls or next year's contest, the Tide has turned. The current Auburn streak of dominance has been the result of more top-level talent, more quality depth throughout the entire roster, and better coaching. Not a single one of those three major causes are likely to continue in the future. Saban is as at least as good of a coach as Tuberville, and likely better, and at the current rate the talent level that Alabama will have will dwarf that of the Auburn roster in the very near future. At the very least, the next six Iron Bowls are almost certainly going to be far, far less memorable for the Tiger faithful than the previous six.