With Alabama football poised to surpass 2001 Miami, which is the greatest college roster ever? | Hurt
There’s no real way to settle one of college football’s greatest debates: Which was the best team ever?
Every conference, every region, every school has its own favorite, and there’s no truly accurate way to compare 1945 Army to 2004 USC or 1955 Oklahoma to 1995 Nebraska. ESPN gave it the old college try as part of its 2019 College Football 150 project and came up with a list that went heavy on teams that had undefeated seasons. That list, inevitably, became immediately obsolete in January 2021 when Alabama fielded an obvious all-time great team, certainly better in most ways than the 1979 Crimson Tide squad that made ESPN’s Top 10.
While that debate rages, though, a slightly different framing usually produces a consensus that the roster of the 2001 Miami Hurricanes was the most talented and productive ever. The list of NFL draft choices and the number of those players who went on to become stars has been the benchmark for talent ever since.
That analysis may stand, but 2017 Alabama will have a case to make. The players on that UA roster won two national championships, the 2017 and 2020 titles, and while that’s not a comparison that occurs in a vacuum, it’s worth noting that the core of 2020’s offense (Mac Jones, Najee Harris and Heisman winner DeVonta Smith) were on the 2017 roster.
Miami hasn’t won a title since 2001, although the Hurricanes have cause for debate about the next season’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. After that, there are issues like roster replacement (Alabama has continually recruited at a high level) and the rarely debated “Nick Saban vs. Larry Coker” comparison.
Alabama’s 2017 roster could top that Miami squad in total draftees (38) and will at least move into the neighborhood for first-round NFL Draft choices this weekend. The Crimson Tide could hypothetically have at least four 2021 first-round choices who were not a part of the 2017 team: Jaylen Waddle, Patrick Surtain II, Christian Barmore and transfer Landon Dickerson. That still leaves Jones, Smith, Harris and possibly Alex Leatherwood. If Jones, Harris and Smith are taken on Thursday, that would give Alabama 13 first-rounders from its 2017 squad, impressive but short of 2001 Miami’s 17 first-rounders.
Depth might end up favoring Alabama, and any evaluation of the potential pro careers ahead for Crimson Tide alumni has to be speculative.
Here is a position by position comparison:
Quarterback: If there is a spot of shade in the tropical glare of Miami’s 2001 roster, this is where people find it. Ken Dorsey, a serviceable starter surrounded by talent at Miami, was a seventh-round draft choice and started a handful of games in the NFL, although his greatest claim to fame was being traded for Trent Dilfer.
Alabama will probably end up with three quarterbacks drafted on its 2017 roster, with Tua Tagoviloa and Jones being first-rounders and Jalen Hurts (who subsequently transferred to Oklahoma) going in the second round in 2020. Will any of the three ultimately surpass Dorsey? Their development is an endless source of NFL talk radio fodder, but one has to assume that at least one of the three will become a secure starter, so advantage Alabama.
Running back: Intriguing in a way, but not exactly close. Alabama’s 2017 backfield included Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, Bo Scarborough, Najee Harris and a potential fifth draftee in Brian Robinson Jr. in 2022. Jacobs’ career has started well and Najee Harris has first-round credentials. But the Miami group included four all-timers in Clinton Portis, Najeh Davenport, Willis McGahee and the incredibly still-active Frank Gore. An easy call for Miami.
Wide receiver: Miami’s standout here is Andre Johnson, a perennial All-Pro. Roscoe Parrish was a playmaker but injury-prone as a pro. Against that, Alabama can put Calvin Ridley, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, Heisman winner Smith and two others (Robert Foster and Cam Sims) who made rosters as undrafted free agents. Give Alabama the nod here.
Tight end: Miami’s two tight ends were the outstanding Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow II (not to be confused with his Hall of Fame father or judged on a contentious off-field career but a solid pro). This is not a knock on the Vikings’ Irv Smith Jr., but in this category, Alabama has to settle for some lovely parting gifts.
Offensive line: Jonah Williams’ injury issues don’t help Alabama, but he was a high first-rounder. Jedrick Wills had a strong rookie season in Cleveland, Bradley Bozeman has earned a spot in Baltimore and Leatherwood could go in the first round Thursday night. Miami had two productive tackles (Bryant McKinnie and Vernon Carey), a Rimington Award winner (Brett Romberg) and some knockabouts. An edge to Miami but one that might change over time.
Defensive line: Vince Wilfork, an all-timer at nose tackle, gives Miami the edge here unless Quinnen Williams or Daron Payne eventually become another Vince Wilfork.
Linebacker: Again, one player (Jonathan Vilma) lifts Miami here. D.J. Williams was a No. 1 prep recruit in the nation as well. Alabama’s numbers are good (Rashaan Evans, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Mack Wilson, Dylan Moses) but, again, no Vilma so far.
Secondary: Alabama had a really strong 2017 secondary: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Ronnie Harrison, Xavier McKinney, Levi Wallace, Tony Brown. But you just can’t compare. Miami’s group was easily the greatest in college history: Hall of Famer Ed Reed. The late Sean Taylor. Antrel Rolle. An eventual six first-rounders.
Special Teams: Both teams, unsurprisingly, turned out good returners. Alabama punter J.K. Scott gives a slight edge to the Crimson Tide.
Synopsis: At this point, there is no way to say Alabama’s 2017 roster surpasses Miami. If one (or more) of the quarterbacks goes on to Super Bowl/Pro Bowl success in his career, that changes the argument. The same can be said, to some extent, about Alabama’s group of wide receivers. But with what it has proven, 2001 Miami will be hard to dethrone.