Recruiting: The big game behind the big game

Landon Collins could have his choice of just about any college in the country, but the Dutchtown High star seems destined to wear the colors of one of two teams.

Those colors will be on the field together Saturday as No. 1 LSU faces No. 2 Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Collins will be there, on an official visit, to soak it all in.

“I think it’s a two-horse race,” Dutchtown coach Benny Saia said. “I think it’s LSU or Alabama.”

Some might have the same thing to say about this year’s national title contenders, but the action on the recruiting trail is often as heated - and as significant - as the action on the field.

Alabama and LSU are perennial signing-day heavyweights, forever corralling top-10 signing classes in the various recruiting rankings.

Consider that the two teams combined will start six players Saturday who came out of high school as Rivals.com five stars and 25 more who were four stars. Players like LSU’s Rueben Randle and Spencer Ware and Alabama’s Trent Richardson and Dre Kirkpatrick were household names on recruiting message boards long before they began striking fear into Southeastern Conference rivals.

“It all starts on the recruiting trail. You’ve got to bring in talent, get them qualified, get them on campus, mold them into your type of football players and make them prepared to win SEC championships,” said Chad Simmons, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, known throughout his career as a grand-slam recruiter, put together a class in his second season that must be one of the best in recent years.

Star linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are among seven 2008 signees who will start for the Crimson Tide on Saturday. Terrence Cody, Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones and Mark Ingram, a former Heisman Trophy winner, have all been first- or second-round NFL draft picks.

The Crimson Tide has a 44-5 record, with a BCS championship, since that class came aboard.

“I feel like our recruiting class helped build up the program,” Hightower said. “I feel like we’re kind of the foundation of the program.”

The strength of LSU’s team resides in a 2009 recruiting class that was ranked by ESPN as the nation’s best.

Some of the players in that class include Randle, Chris Faulk, Russell Shepard, Michael Ford, Michael Brockers, Bennie Logan, Sam Montgomery, Kevin Minter and Morris Claiborne.

Coming off a rocky 8-5 season when the 2009 signees arrived, LSU has gone 29-6 since then.

“It’s absolutely a validation when you look at the amount of talent on the football field,” said Barton Simmons, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “There are guys already projected to be NFL draftees. I think it really makes us feel good when you look back and see where we had some of these guys ranked.”

It explains why Alabama may have as much talent in the stands Saturday as on the field. All kinds of up-and-coming star power will visit The Capstone for the first 1-2 matchup of the Southeastern Conference’s regular season.

“I think it will go down as possibly the biggest day in the country this year as far as having top prospects - not only from 2012, but 2013’s and 2014’s,” Chad Simmons said. “I think this is one of the times Bama will definitely have to cut off the free tickets to prospects. They will have national guys 150 deep on Saturday. This won’t be guys tagging along with friends on Saturday for a free game.”

One of the biggest recruits in the crowd will be a senior from Dutchtown seemingly torn between two powerhouse programs.

Collins is listed by Rivals as the nation’s No. 14 prospect and by Scout as No. 20. He has the potential to grow into a linebacker, but his combination of 4.4 speed and next-level instincts make him a natural at safety.

“I think he’s the safest prospect in the country,” Barton Simmons said. “I can’t imagine he wouldn’t be successful.”

Collins, who played at Dutchtown with LSU safety Eric Reid and Alabama running back Eddie Lacy, earned Defensive MVP honors on the The Advocate’s All-Metro team after making 102 tackles and intercepting four passes as a junior.

If his decision comes down to the two schools playing Saturday, Saia said he can’t go wrong either way.

“You’re talking about 1 and 2 in the country,” Saia said. “That’s not a bad place to start.”