STARKVILLE — The recruiting path to get to the first undefeated football matchup between Mississippi State University and the University of Alabama in 70 years couldn’t be more different.
MSU football coach Dan Mullen has mentioned the recruiting success of Alabama early and often each of the last three days he has discussed the game against the No. 1 Crimson Tide.
“Over the last five years, they’ve pretty much had the top recruiting class every year,” Mullen said. “You take all that talent, you coach it up really well and the result is the No. 1 defense in the country in just about every category there is.”
Mullen’s comments clearly define the philosophical differences in the recruiting tactics of both programs. Alabama (7-0, 4-0 in Southeastern Conference) goes looking for impact freshman that have been consistently hyped through their high school experience and can help head coach Nick Saban and his staff immediately the year after they sign with the defending national champions.
“I think (University of Tennessee coach) Derek Dooley said it best — Alabama drafts and the rest of us recruit,” says Paul Jones, Mississippi State reporter for 247sports.com.
Every player currently recruited by Alabama gets graded using a similar list of criteria. The Tide coaches calculate the grades by scoring each recruit based on three sets of criteria: character/attitude/intelligence, specific positional factors and a unique height/weight/speed chart. Even with all that data, they still have to have a little faith as well.
“I say this every year but recruiting is not an exact science because nobody knows how these players are going to develop in the future,”
Saban said in February during the 2012 signing day media conference. Of the freshmen in that Crimson Tide’s 2012 class, tailback T.J. Yeldon has provided the most production this season as he became the first Alabama player to rush for 100 yards in the season debut victory against the University of Michigan. Yeldon, the top ranked running back in the 2012 class out of Daphne, Ala., has 565 yards and six touchdowns this season.
In the past four seasons, Alabama has had recruiting classes ranked in the top seven in the nation according to Scout.com including the second-ranked recruiting class last February.
It’s clear Mullen believes Alabama, after winning two national championships in the last three years, are able to win the recruiting battles all across the county for top rated prospects to either help them immediately or increase their depth at every position.
“I’ve been at some schools that, when you walk in if you have a certain logo on your shirt, you can go to Alaska and everyone wants to hear what you have to say,” Mullen said referring to his days as an assistant at the University of Florida under Urban Meyer. “Hopefully one day here we have that type of tradition and we build our program that way.”
However, despite what Mullen says he hopes for in the future, the consistent trend for MSU (7-0, 3-0) has been to find two and three-star prospects primarily in the state of Mississippi to rebuild the Bulldogs program over time. According to Scout.com, MSU has only signed 17 recruits rated with four stars or higher and Alabama signed 18 in its 2012 class alone. Part of those numbers has to do with athletic budgets when the two schools represent the top and the bottom of the athletic revenues and expenditures in the league.
The perception of Saturday’s game is MSU’s in-depth player development against Alabama’s ready-made talent.
“I don’t mean for this to be negative at all but MSU has to be able to project what a kid out of high school can be in the future,” Jones said. “Everybody can project what (former Alabama running back and Heisman Trophy winner) Mark Ingram is going to turn into. Could anybody project what (MSU junior tailback and current SEC leader in rushing) LaDarius Perkins will be?”
Over the last four years, MSU has had only one Top 20 recruiting class nationally according to Scout.com but has been able to able to produce 10 players currently in the National Football League. Only three of those 10 NFL players were four-star prospects coming out of high school.
“You build your program on what you are,” Mullen said. “We came here and our deal is we’re going to develop players and we’ve had a lot of success doing it.”
And maybe that fan attitude of Alabama being able to reload while MSU has to rebuild with little-known talents coming out of small towns in Mississippi can be an emotional lift for the road team as they enter Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
“I don’t really see stars and I know our coaches say that’s not important to them,” MSU senior linebacker Cameron Lawrence said. “Actually, it may play to our advantage because I know we have a lot of guys with a chip on their shoulders that maybe weren’t the top guys out of high school.”
Lawrence’s linebacker teammate in the middle, Benardrick McKinney, is a perfect example of a player out of a small high school in Mississippi (Rosa Fort in Tunica) to being MSU’s leading tackler in his first season of action.
“MSU isn’t going to get that 4-star player out of California to plug in but Alabama’s tradition may give them a good chance,” Jones said. “That middle linebacker who starts as a freshman at Alabama is a five-star player. Benardrick was a two-star kid at MSU that’s been developed.”
Saturday’s game may not decide which system is more efficient but has an excellent chance to highlight how both philosophies work within schools 83 miles apart.
“They don’t play okay against us; they play well,” Saban said when asked about No. 13 MSU. “We struggled as much against them last year as anyone else that we played against.”