Notre Dame Football: Power Ranking Irish's 5 Best Classes of the BCS Era
The BCS era wasn't exactly kind to Notre Dame football.
During the 15 years that college football crowned its champion using the BCS system, the Irish never won a major bowl game. All four of their BCS appearances resulted in losses by double digits, with the 2001 and 2006 Fiesta Bowl, the 2007 Sugar Bowl and the 2013 BCS Championship game all showing the disparity between the Irish and the elite teams of the era.
Off the field, it's no wonder that the Irish football program also went through its most tumultuous run in school history. Bob Davie, George O'Leary, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis all were fired as head coach.
If there was an area of success for the Irish during this period, it was their resurgence on the recruiting trail. After Lou Holtz and Vinny Cerrato built up a war chest of talent, the Irish lost their edge, with talent eroding under Davie and Willingham. But Charlie Weis rejuvenated the recruiting efforts for Notre Dame, and Brian Kelly has taken that success to a new level.
With Signing Day just around the corner, let's take a look back at the top Irish recruiting classes of the BCS era.
No. 5: Class of 2013
Four-Year Record: 9-4
Key Talent: Jaylon Smith, Eddie Vanderdoes, Tarean Folston, Steve Elmer, Cole Luke, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Greg Bryant
NFL Draft Picks: N/A
Consider this one a hunch. The class of 2013 has only played one season in South Bend, but already the pieces are in place for this group to be the best of the Brian Kelly era. Even with Eddie Vanderdoes' defection, this group already has a headliner in Jaylon Smith, a linebacker who will receive All-American consideration next season.
Running back Tarean Folston won a starting job as a freshman. And he might not be as good as Greg Bryant, a highly-touted recruit who sat out the season after a knee injury. Receivers Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and James Onwualu all started games in 2013, and Torii Hunter Jr. will step in and compete after recovering from an injury suffered at the Army All-American Bowl.
In the secondary, Cole Luke and Devin Butler worked their way past upperclassmen at cornerback. Tight ends Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe will be fast tracked with Troy Niklas' surprising jump to the NFL.
Along the offensive line, Steve Elmer has already established himself as a starter. Don't be surprised if Mike McGlinchey, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus eventually join him there.
No. 4: Class of 2011
Four-Year Record: 29-10
Key Talent: Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, DaVaris Daniels, Troy Niklas, Everett Golson, Jarrett Grace, Ishaq Williams, George Atkinson III, Kyle Brindza
NFL Draft Picks: N/A
With early defections like Lynch—who left South Bend after just one season— and three-and-out players Tuitt, Niklas and Atkinson, this group is starting to fray at the seams. While they'll have played a role in the 2012 BCS Championship game run, the loss of cornerstone contributors will hurt the 2014 and 2015 teams that expected this group to lead as seniors.
Still, Tuitt could be a first-round pick. Niklas is rocketing up draft boards. Golson will likely spend three seasons as a starting quarterback and Daniels and Grace should be NFL players.
Ultimately, this group will be measured by how its depth plays out. Will Ben Koyack emerge as an NFL tight end? Can the Irish get something out of defenders like Eilar Hardy, Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell?
It's not inconceivable to see maybe 10 players from this group play on an NFL roster. But it doesn't feel like the impact of this group will match some others.
No. 3: Class of 2008
Four-Year Record: 29-22
Key Talent: Dayne Crist, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, Jamoris Slaughter, Darius Fleming, Trevor Robinson, Robert Blanton, Joseph Fauria, Kapron Lewis-Moore.
NFL Draft Picks: 6
Coming off one of the worst seasons in Notre Dame history, the fact that Charlie Weis landed a class Rivals.com viewed as the No. 2 group in the country was amazing. But for as promising as this class looked, there were some critical holes that ended up contributing to the demise of Weis.
Before we get to the negatives, let's talk about the great signings. Michael Floyd became a first-round pick. Kyle Rudolph was the first tight end taken in the 2011 NFL draft. Kapron Lewis-Moore, Jonas Gray and Darius Fleming all became key contributors for Brian Kelly.
Yet there were far too many misses in this class. Dayne Crist never played up to his 5-star billing. Neither did a half dozen other players. A group that seemed destined to be the top class of the BCS era instead is mostly remembered for what might have been.
No. 2: Class of 2009
Four-Year Record: 34-17
Key Talent: Manti Te'o, Zeke Motta, Shaquelle Evans, Chris Watt, Cierre Wood, Zack Martin, Theo Riddick, Tyler Eifert.
NFL Draft Picks: 4 (and counting)
While Te'o always seemed like a transformational player, this is a sneaky strong group. This is the most efficient Notre Dame recruiting class in the BCS era. Of the 18 players the Irish signed, only Jake Golic and E.J. Banks were true flameouts.
While Shaq Evans did his damage at UCLA and Alex Bullard went home to Tennessee after his father passed away, just about every member of this group contributed. There were three specialists in this class with punter Ben Turk, kicker Nick Tausch and long snapper Jordan Cowart, making the hit rate even more impressive among position players.
Along with Te'o, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox played a ton of football. Zack Martin could be a first-round draft pick... and the best lineman Notre Dame has ever seen. Tyler Eifert won the Mackey Award and was a first-round pick.
This group was the key to the BCS Championship game run.
No. 1: Class of 2003
Four-Year Record: 30-19
Key Talent: Victor Abiamiri, Tommy Zbikowski, John Sullivan, Brady Quinn, Trevor Laws, Jeff Samardzija, John Carlson, Ryan Harris, Chinedum Ndukwe
NFL Draft Picks: 8
For all the heat Ty Willingham has taken for his recruiting efforts, the 2003 class is still the standard bearer for the BCS era. The core of this group helped Charlie Weis to back-to-back BCS appearances.
While Brady Quinn's NFL career didn't turn out as expected after he was drafted in the first round, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Jeff Samardzija was a two-time finalist for the Biletnikoff Trophy, given to college football's best wide receiver. He was surely an NFL wide receiver if he didn't sign a $10 million guaranteed Major League Baseball contract. John Carlson was a second-round draft pick at tight end.
On the offensive line, both Ryan Harris and John Sullivan are still playing in the NFL, with Sullivan named All-Pro in 2012 and Harris named to SI.com's All-Pro team in 2008. On the defensive front, both Abiamiri and Laws were second-round draft picks.
Zbikowski was a third-round draft pick. Ndukwe, who bounced from wide receiver to safety, was selected in the seventh round, playing five seasons in the NFL.
Top to bottom, this is a really strong group that all but gave Charlie Weis a 10-year contract extension.