I just returned from my first trip to evaluate the class of 2012. Trust me, watching a football game on the sideline of Bryant/Denny Stadium at Alabama in front of a raucous crowd of 101,000 people is an exciting event that every football fan should experience.
I started in Memphis, meeting the top two players in the area and interviewing Federal Express CEO Fred Smith for my television show on CBS College Sports Network. Then I interviewed the top players in every region of Alabama except Mobile before ending up in Tuscaloosa for the Mississippi State/Alabama game. On the way home, I stopped to visit the top player in Indiana.
You can't believe how the University of Alabama has changed since 1971, when I first visited the campus to see a Southern Mississippi/Alabama game before 40,000 at Denny Stadium.
Forty years later, Bryant/Denny Stadium, renamed for legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant, is a state-of-the-art palace that seats over 100,000 and has four jumbotrons. It is the most impressive college football stadium in the country, even more impressive than Michigan or Tennessee.
Notre Dame, Iowa and Wisconsin are more like college stadiums. Alabama looks like a professional football stadium or a major league baseball facility. The atmosphere is phenomenal, electric.
I suppose it has a lot to do with how important football is to the SEC. College football is king in the Deep South. The SEC is more competitive than the Big 10. There are no professional teams in Alabama or Mississippi. In the Big 10, schools have to compete with NFL teams in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania.
College football isn't a matter of life-or-death in the Big 10. But it is in the SEC. Auburn star Cam Newton was on the front page of every newspaper in Mobile, Memphis, Birmingham, Oxford, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa. The controversial Heisman Trophy candidate was the only subject that people were talking about.
College football is the only game in town, even at small-college games. On the radio, Alabama's three-point loss to LSU had people calling in and wondering if coach Nick Saban should be fired--one year after winning a national championship.
The top two players in Memphis are 5-9, 165-pound running back Brian Kimbrow, one of the fastest players in the South who has more than 20 offers from every school in the SEC and also from USC, a perfect runner for the spread offense, and 6-1, 190-pound wide receiver Nathan Cole, who has offers from Alabama, Tennessee, Memphis and Ole Miss.
The top three players in Alabama are quarterback Jameis Winston of Hueytown, a 6-4, 200-pounder who could be the No. 1 quarterback in the nation; 6-2, 210-pound linebacker Kwon Alexander of Oxford, who has 4.5 speed and is the best junior linebacker I have seen; and 6-3, 245-pound linebacker Reggie Ragland of Madison.
Winston is a high school version of Cam Newton. He also is an outstanding baseball player and could be selected in the major league draft in June. He has offers from Notre Dame, Alabama, Auburn, Ohio State, Florida and UCLA.
Alexander has been offered by Alabama, Tennessee, Ole Miss and all other schools in the SEC, Nebraska, USC and Texas Tech. Ragland has been offered by Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, Oregon and Tennessee. He could be an outside linebacker of defensive end in college. He has great speed, size and instincts.
Finally, the No. 1 player in Indiana is 6-4, 216-pound quarterback Gunner Kiel of Columbus. Remember the name? His uncle was Blair Kiel, a quarterback at Notre Dame, and his father Kip was a linebacker at Purdue. Gunner threw for 36 touchdowns this season. He has been offered by Northwestern, Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin and Indiana. He ranks among the top 40 juniors in the nation.