TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- For Nick Saban, his success started on the recruiting trail, not the football field.
In his first season, the University of Alabama head football coach went 6-6 and guided the Crimson Tide to a berth in the Independence Bowl, the lowly Independence Bowl, where they hung on to defeat Colorado.
Almost immediately, the turnaround began. Saban and his staff put together the No. 3 recruiting class in the country during his first full year. The group featured seven ESPN 150 prospects, five first-round NFL draft picks and included a Heisman Trophy winner.
It was also a class that made an immediate impact on the field and changed the culture of Alabama football for the immediate future. The group included UA stars such as Mark Barron, Marcel Dareus, Dont’a Hightower, Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Courtney Upshaw.
As freshmen, they helped lead the Tide to an undefeated 12-0 regular season before losing in the SEC title game and the Sugar Bowl. The next year they went 14-0 and claimed Alabama’s first national championship since 1992.
And that’s all it took. The Tide were officially back on the national stage in college football, and recruits from Florida to California knew it.
Since that first class, Saban has been able to pull in a top-three recruiting class each of the last four seasons. Last year, Alabama boasted the nation’s No. 1 class which featured 13 players ranked in the ESPN 150 and six of the top 31 prospects overall.
With that type of success in recruiting, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Tide are 10-1, ranked No. 2 going into the Iron Bowl and aiming to repeat as national champions. It would be their third title in four years.
The only surprise might be that Alabama’s 2013 recruiting class is ranked outside the top three in ESPN’s updated rankings, released on Friday. But not by much -- with plenty of talent still being pursued, the class sits at No. 3 with nine players in the ESPN 150.
In September, UA landed its top-ranked commitment when four-star athlete Derrick Henry, No. 26 overall, chose the Tide over Georgia and Tennessee. Alabama also has a pair of elite defensive end commitments, Jonathan Allen and DeMarcus Walker, both ranked in the top 40 in the new ESPN 150 rankings.
This class, as well as future classes, stem from Saban’s first full recruiting class in 2008.
The nation’s top athletes want to be the next Ingram or Jones. Defensive linemen and linebackers alike want to play the Tide’s Jack linebacker position so they can follow in Upshaw’s footsteps to the NFL.
Looking into the future, as long as the Tide keep winning like they are on the field, and producing first-round draft picks thanks in part to Saban's NFL background, there’s no stopping the recruiting success they’re having off of it.