By Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview

When Najee Harris faced a certain tackle at the hands of Nick McCloud after a gain of a couple yards in the first quarter on New Year’s Day, he did what every other 6-2, 230-pound man running at full speed would do……in his dreams! He hurdled over McCloud without missing a step and turned a short gain into a 53-yard game breaker. Good heavens, in the hallowed name of George Gipp, what did I just see?!


Well, McCloud is 6 feet tall, but he did duck a bit as Harris flew over him.


No other play better illustrates the argument that Alabama’s talent was better, and maybe a lot better than Notre Dame’s in the Rose Bowl. The results of an observer’s ‘eyeball test’ is pretty obvious when your eyeballs pop out! When Brian Kelly talked post game about getting beaten by plays on the perimeter last weekend, most observers knew exactly what he meant.


A similar eyeball test took place in the 2012 BCS championship. Notre Dame fans that year recall the exploits of 6-0 230-pound Alabama running back Eddie Lacy who ran over ND linebackers 20 yards into the end zone early in that game on the way to a 140-yard day.


Still, the eyeball test is everyone’s opinion. Is there a more objective way to judge talent?


Recruiting services-247, Rivals and ESPN, think so and their rankings have become ubiquitous. Recruiting junkies’ hang on every tweet coming out of five-star rated athletes, and even casual fans know quite a bit about where their favorite school’s recruiting stands.


The information provided by these services is not perfect. For every 5-star Jaylon Smith and Manti Teo who lives up to the hype there are 2 stars who also make it big. Try Russell Wilson, and JJ Watt on for size, they were 2-star athletes. How about Antonio Brown? His rating? He didn’t have a rating! None the less, the teams that lead in the recruiting class ratings, consistently are the teams that win a lot of football games.


So just how much better is Alabama’s talent, and has Notre Dame closed the talent gap between the 2012 Alabama beat down in the BCS championship game and the most recent domination by Alabama?


To answer those questions, Fighting Irish Preview set up some objective criteria based on recruiting service ratings and compiled some numbers. What they reveal is significant.


To judge a snapshot of a team’s talent level in a given year, the numbers of 5-star athletes and the overall class ranks from 247 sports ratings was studied and aggregated. The four recruiting classes of Alabama, and ND that made up the 2012 teams and the 2020 teams was then compared. This compilation resulted in each school’s make up of 5-star talent and a ranking of the overall talent that made up both teams in 2012 and 2020.


The four recruiting classes that made up the 2012 Alabama team had an average national rank of 2.25 and included 12, 5-star athletes. Notre Dame’s 2012 team was made up of recruiting classes with an average rank of 14 and included 4, 5-star athletes. Did most everyone notice a talent disparity in the 2012 BCS championship game? You bet they did, the eyeball test said so and the 247 recruiting judgment agrees with your eyeballs.


But has Notre Dame narrowed the gap?


Najee Harris’s leap over Nick McCloud and a comparison of the recruiting ranks that made up both teams indicate the Irish still have a way to go.


The 2020 Alabama team was also made up of four classes with the same average composite rank in 2012 of 2.25 nationally. Two of the classes were rated #1 overall, 2018, and 2019. Notre Dame’s composite class rank? Average nationally: 13.25! Slightly better than 2012 but still significantly below Alabama.


Perhaps even more significant, Alabama’s haul from the last four years included a whopping 15 5-star players, including among others, Najee Harris. Almost unbelievably in the last four years, the Irish secured the services of just 1 player with a 5-star designation, TE Michael Mayer.


Notre Dame is landing overall talent at a consistently higher level than almost all other schools and the University provides every tool necessary to succeed. Especially relative to teams this side of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, ND is loaded. Notre Dame facilities and support staff are second to none. Since Matt Bayliss took over strength and conditioning in 2017, ND seems to have dialed in that area as well as any program in the nation.


But Notre Dame is NOT bringing in 5-star talent.


Certainly, there are varied reasons why Notre Dame has struggled to recruit the ultra-elite athlete. Most point to the different academic discipline required to progress towards a degree at ND as a reason elite athlete prefer other schools. Simply put, the “easier” path to the NFL does not include 4 years of rigorous study and high academic standards.


Najee Harris’s leap over Nick McCloud notwithstanding, the eyeball test tells me that the Irish have in fact somewhat narrowed the gap with Alabama since 2012. However, it looks like they still have quite a way to go, especially in the recruitment of high level skill position athletes. The news is not particularly good because an objective judgment of recruiting talent brought in, based on overall class ranks and 5-star commits, makes a clear point. The rich have gotten richer and the Irish, in the most critical areas, arguably have fallen even farther behind Alabama.


Anyone know a 6-3 kid who can hurdle a good size refrigerator? Call Brian Kelly.

By Phil Houk

For 25 years, bringing you the glory of Notre Dame football.

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