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Alabama hasn’t won a National Championship since 2020. Are Recruiting Busts to Blame?

Turns out, losing your top recruit multiple years in a row doesn’t help

NCAA Football: Arkansas State at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I went off on a bit of a tangent complaining about how the 2019 recruiting class had too many busts in critical spots, and it crippled Alabama in 2021 and 2022.

Alabama fans have, of course, lamented the Early Signing Period, followed by more lamenting over the NIL no-rules as factors affecting the success of Alabama’s recruiting, which led to the Tide falling short of their goals in 2021 and 2022.

For my own part, I felt like the busts along the defensive line in 2018-2020 played a major part in things, and the WR classes of 2020 and 2021 were the other biggest whiffs that have impacted Alabama’s roster.

Feelings are, just that, though. Feelings. So of course, I had to go back and make up some maths to see if things really have been falling apart, or if Alabama has just always dealt with busts.

At first, the exercise seemed simple: Just look at the total # of recruits , count how many were busts, and then calculate the percentage. The problem is, there are only 85 scholarships on the team, and only 26-ish starting spots every year, so it ultimately becomes a zero-sum game, and every class winds up having about the same number of busts, plus or minus a few.

So instead, I put in some filters. I (somewhat arbitrarily) chose to only look at recruits who were consider a top-75 player. These are players who fans expect big things from, and I think are the type of guys that are recruited with the expectation of becoming a starter and hopefully a star for the Tide. This cuts out many of the lower rated players who were likely recruited as depth guys who could develop, or may just wind up transferring.

From there, I broke up the players into three buckets: they either busted, lived up to expectations, or became a career role-player (somewhere in the middle) for the Tide.

Julio Jones obviously lived up to expectations, while B.J. Scott busted. Jerrell Harris was in the middle bucket of a highly rated guy who got some starts for the Tide and played his whole career, but never quite lived up to his ranking.

A couple of notable players I included as busts were Alvin Kamara and Drew Sanders. No disrespect to either player, as they went on the absolutely live up to their talent... but this study is primarily about how players leaving/busting affected Alabama.

I also added together the busts and mid-level guys to get a “Didn’t live up rate,” but didn’t really get any helpful conclusions from it. I’ll leave it in for you to see, though.

And without further narrative-building, here’s the raw “data”

Alabama Football Recruiting bust rates

Year # of top 75 Busts Starter but not a star Lived up TBD Bust Rate Didn't live up rate
Year # of top 75 Busts Starter but not a star Lived up TBD Bust Rate Didn't live up rate
2008 5 2 1 2 40.00% 60.00%
2009 4 0 1 3 0.00% 25.00%
2010 3 1 1 1 33.33% 66.67%
2011 8 3 2 3 37.50% 62.50%
2012 8 2 1 5 25.00% 37.50%
2013 11 5 1 5 45.45% 54.55%
2014 9 0 4 5 0.00% 44.44%
2015 9 3 1 5 33.33% 44.44%
2016 7 3 2 2 42.86% 71.43%
2017 10 0 2 8 0.00% 20.00%
2018 4 2 0 2 50.00% 50.00%
2019 7 4 1 2 57.14% 71.43%
2020 9 2 4 3 22.22% 22.22%
2021 14 5 4 5 35.71% 35.71%
2022 12 1 1 10 8.33% 8.33%

Ok, so there’s a lot of signal noise here. And, unfortunately, the 2021 and 2022 classes still have too many young players who are waiting their turn to really have a full view of how the class turns out. That said, here’s some observations:

No Busts = Championship

Three times, Alabama’s recruiting class had 0 busts in their top players: 2009, 2014, and 2017.

All three times, that senior class won a National Championship (2012, 2017, 2020). Even in the case of 2009, when 34 of those top guys went pro after their junior year, I think it likely instills a level of confidence or something intangible when your top guys coming in as freshmen go on to become the core of the team.

The #1 guy never busts... Until recently

Julio Jones, Trent Richardson, Dee Milliner, Cyrus Kouandjio, Landon Collins, Reuben Foster, Cam Robinson, Calvin Ridley.

From 2008 to 2015, the top rated recruit in every single class went on to become a top player and multi-year starter for the Tide. In most cases, they were already making an impact as a true freshman.

Then things started going downhill a little. Ben Davis was the first #1 disappointment. Then two seasons later, Eyabi Anoma barely saw the field before leaving, and Antonio Alfano did the same the very next year.

Two extremely high profile busts in back to back years in 2018-2019 put Alabama behind the curve up front on defense in 2020-2022.

2013- Lots of busts, or just a Derrick Henry effect?

In 2013, Alabama had a ridiculous 11 players ranked in the top 75. Technically, 5 of them busted. HOWEVER, I think it would be a mistake to gloss over the fact that 4 of these 11 players were running backs, and there was no way they were all going to get the ball.

Derrick Henry was obviously Derrick Henry, and Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones, and Altee Tenpenny all transferred out. I don’t think that this really derailed any roster management for the Tide, so I would be willing to lower the 45% bust rate on this class.

2019.... What happened, man

Yeah. This is the bad one. 2018 was bad enough with a 50% bust rate, but it was also just a smaller and weaker class overall, following the ridiculous 2017 haul.

But 2019? It’s just awful. 3 of the top 4 were Antonio Alfano, Trey Sanders, and Pierce Quick. And with much love to Trey for sticking with the team and making it back from gruesome injury to play some important snaps for the Tide a couple of years ago, he’s still bust at a position where Alabama had to go out and get a transfer player to fill the hole last year. And imagine if Pierce Quick had been ready to play right tackle in 2021 what Bryce Young was getting sacked from the right side every other play the whole season?

The Receivers

And my personal pet peeve for years now... The wide receivers. 2017 was amazing, of course. But with so many star players at one position, Alabama had to recruit light in 2018 and 2019. Even so, Jaylen Waddle, John Metchie, and even Slade Bolden all lived up and surpassed many expectations.

After that, though, things fell apart. 2020 turned out no starters. 2021 had two top 75 guys and a third that just missed that cut off. Two busted already, as has the 4th guy in the group.

2022 showed some promise last year, but Aaron Anderson is the only bust of the class so far, and the guys that did flash (Kobe Prentice, Isaiah Bond, Kendrick Law) didn’t exactly take the bull by the horns.

Are busts really become more common for Alabama?

At this point, I would say the trend is starting to be a little worrying, but not yet conclusive. 2018 and 2019 were the two worst classes of Saban’s tenure in terms of top-level busts.

2020 has mostly looked a lot better, but there are still three guys (Chris Braswell, Quandarrius Robinson, Tim Smith) who could really swing the numbers, depending on what they do this season.

2021, though, could be as much of a disaster as 2019. An astounding 35% of them have already busted, and it’s only been two seasons. The guys that have lived up, lived up quickly (Dallas Turner, Kool-Aid McKinstry, JC Latham, Ja’Corey Brooks), but there’s a lot that flamed out immediately, and quite a few more still waiting their turn who could swing the numbers.

This was a massive, powerful class at the time, and a huge chunk of it is gone already.

And then in 2022, most of these guys are still in the TBD column. There was a lot of promise from this class last year, but not many really stood out enough to go ahead and declare that they “lived up” to expectations.

Ultimately, if 2021 salvages a bit (say, 34 of Deontae Lawson, Terrion Arnold, Damon Payne, and Keanu Koht don’t bust), and 2022 builds on what they did last year, then I think we can write off 2018-2019 as an aberration that affected Alabama’s upperclassman talent in 2021-2022.

But if much more of 2021 falls out, then we will have to consider it a very worrying trend.