College football will welcome more than 3,000 new faces to its ranks on Wednesday.
National Signing Day is a mix between Christmas morning and Valentine’s Day for most diehard NCAA fans. New toys in the form of 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebackers are neatly wrapped under the tree and new crushes are fawned over by fan and coach alike when a bunch of high school prospects sign their Letter of Intent for the first time — making them an official member of a collegiate roster.
Every year, the media and fans (as well as many athletic directors) make a big fuss about recruits decommitting and switching teams, especially when coaches change jobs around this time of year. “Recruits commit to a school, not a coach” is the standard cry across the board.
I am here to tell you this isn’t true. Recruits commit to a coach and they sign with a school. All is fair in love and recruiting.
So National Signing Day is the first time that anything binding between recruit and school takes place. These future stars can commit to whomever they like for months on end, but come NSD, they must put pen to paper to certify their final decision.
To be sure, it isn’t an easy one to make. It is a decision that will shape and mold the rest of their lives. And not just on the football field.
It’s an intense and stressful but very fun time for all parties involved — coaches, players, fans and, yes, even us in the media (try an 18-hour work day trying to sift through 3,000-plus new roster additions).
Love or hate recruiting rankings, the bottom line is NSD matters in a big way. It shapes and molds the future of college football and is the lifeblood of future championships.
To those who don’t agree with imperfect “star rankings” I submit this fact: Of the 32 teams to play in the BCS National Championship Game, only one, Virginia Tech in 1999, had an average recruiting ranking outside of the top 15.
You gotta have quality players to win titles, folks. Plain and simple.
So how will the 2014 edition of NSD influence college football? What are the storylines to watch? The teams and players to keep an eye on? And what wackiness will ensue?
Here is what I am watching for come Wednesday:
How bad ass is the SEC?
The SEC's reign of terror technically ended in January when Florida State finally snapped the Southeastern Conference’s seven-year BCS title streak. Mike “Vito” Slive has finally been slain.
Or has he? No matter which recruiting service you subscribe to, the SEC is still the top dog. And it’s not even close.
According to 247Sports, seven of the top 10 and 10 of the top 20 classes heading into Wednesday hail from the SEC. According to Rivals, six of the top 10 and nine of the top 15 classes heading into NSD are SEC programs. Scout has seven of the top 12 classes coming from the SEC. ESPN’s team rankings include seven SEC teams in its top 10 as well.
Using Athlon Sports’ composite team rankings and assuming that Alabama will hold onto the top spot again this year, the No. 1 class in the nation has come from the SEC in six of the last seven years, including what will be Nick Saban’s third straight No. 1 class. More impressively, three different teams have claimed the mythical recruiting national championship as Florida claimed the top spot in 2010 and LSU in '09 (Bama won it in '08).
The only non-SEC team to win the recruiting championship according to Athlon Sports was, you guessed it, Florida State in 2011. That class helped lead the Seminoles to a BCS title this season.
Finally, the No. 1 recruit in the nation will sign with an SEC school for the fifth straight year when New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette signs with LSU. Again, what’s more impressive is that all five No. 1 overall players have come from different SEC states and signed with different SEC schools.
New Orleans, La.
Rock Hill, S.C.
Moreno Valley, Calif.
Will the Big 12 struggle… again?
Keith Ford was the top-rated recruit in the Big 12 last year, finishing as the No. 24 overall player in the nation according to the 247 composite rankings. He would have been the 14th-rated player in the SEC, the sixth-rated Pac-12 recruit and only the fourth-best player in the ACC. In all, only four of the top 100 players in the nation signed with the Big 12 in 2013 — down from 10 the year before. By comparison, the SEC bragged 42 top-100 signees last year while 11 of the 14 SEC programs inked at least one top-100 player.
Will 2014 continue what has to be a very scary trend for the Big 12? It appears so. Heading into NSD, the Big 12 has six top-100 players committed thus far while the SEC boasts 41. That is a massive talent differential that no coach — not even Bill Synder — can overcome. The Big Ten now boasts two of the most dynamic recruiting personalities in the nation (more on that in a second), the ACC just claimed the national title and the Pac-12 appears to be on par with the SEC. If the Big 12 doesn’t regain its recruiting strength — looking at you “Stronghorns” — the league could significantly fall behind the rest of college football in a dangerous way.
The James Franklin ripple effect
Vanderbilt had a top-25 class when James Franklin left Nashville to return home to The Keystone State to coach Penn State. No one can blame him for the move but what he has done to the Dores' recruiting class is downright absurd. Vandy has some quality prospects set to sign on Wednesday but is now ranked 82nd in the nation by 247Sports. So unless new coach Derek Mason works a few minor miracles, the Commodores are looking at an extremely disappointing class in 2014.
On the flip side, Penn State’s recruiting has been buoyed by the addition of Franklin and his crack staff of ace recruiters. The Lions flipped five of the Dores' commitments and have jumped way up the team rankings into the top 25. The Lions, despite major scholarship limitations, are competing with the likes of Oregon, South Carolina and Oklahoma for positioning in the team rankings. Basically, Franklin has been a godsend for the Nittany Lions.
But the ripples from Franklin's new address go much farther than just State College or Nashville, Tenn. Franklin’s emergence in the Big Ten is a direct challenge to the recruiting powers that be in the Midwest — aka Urban Meyer, Mark Dantonio, Michigan and Nebraska. Bo Pelini and Dantonio are having a hard enough go of it as it is against Meyer and the Buckeyes, but Franklin knocks them even further down the pecking order. Michigan State and Nebraska are sitting at 34th and 35th respectively entering NSD. Wisconsin isn’t much better at 30th in the nation and don’t even get started with new members Rutgers and Maryland. A powerful PSU presence in the DC/Maryland and New Jersey areas are a nightmare for both programs as they enter the Big Ten fray.
The battles on the trail — and hopefully in the media — between Franklin and Meyer should be the stuff of legends. With two polarizing, take-no-prisoners personalities, its only a matter of time before the verbal barbs start flying between Columbus and State College.
Can anyone stop Nick Saban?
As mentioned earlier, Saban is looking for his fourth recruiting championship in seven seasons. That is a Pete Carroll-level of production on the recruiting trail as Saban is beginning to redefine recruiting greatness. Alabama is ranked No. 1 in all four major online services’ team rankings (ESPN, Scout, 247, Rivals) heading into NSD this week. The Tide leads the nation with five five-star commitments — no other team has more than three — and is second only to Tennessee (16) with 15 four-star commits.
Saban still has some big-time targets left on his board like five-stars Rashaan Evans, a linebacker from Auburn, Ala., or John Curtis (La.) wide receiver Malachi Dupre among others. Even if Bama misses on every one of its remaining targets on NSD (which is highly unlikely), it is still in great shape to finish atop the team rankings for the third straight year.
Ohio State, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida State and Tennessee are nipping at Saban’s heels, however. Florida State (27) and Tennessee (34) already have massive classes, yet each will find it hard to reach Bama’s level. But the Buckeyes, Bayou Bengals and Aggies each have enough space and enough targets left on the board to potentially challenge for top billing.
My prediction? Saban lands one or two more big names and crushes the field again on the recruiting trail. What he is doing right now in terms of attracting talent is downright unfair.
New coaches get their first taste
The coaching carousel had a unique year in that huge jobs came open and not many of them were filled with first-time head coaches. So while Mason at Vandy will be going through his first National Signing Day as a head coach, most new faces are old veterans when it comes to recruiting. Steve Sarkisian has not only been through many a Signing Day but has done it at USC as an assistant. Franklin’s effectiveness at Vandy was well documented and Charlie Strong recruited extremely well at Louisville.
Still, each of these names must acquaint themselves with a totally new zip code and what it takes to recruit in that area. In particular, Strong moving to a massive state with elite talent where he has very few ties. And his comments about closing the borders were direct shots at Bob Stoops, Art Briles, Mike Gundy and Kevin Sumlin. Now, fans in Austin will see if he can back it up on his first Signing Day on the 40 Acres.
One unique name to watch will be Chris Petersen at Washington. Coach Sark had Husky recruiting rolling when he headed south to Los Angeles and Petersen hasn’t ever had to recruit at this type of level. Can he keep U-Dub’s momentum going on the trail and is he equipped to battle the Pac-12’s big boys — Stanford, Oregon, USC, UCLA, Arizona State — when it comes to recruiting. Keep in mind, he won a lot of games at Boise State without ever calling, much less signing, a five-star recruit.
The Ol’ Switcharoo
Decommitments are a part of recruiting like official visits or Letters of Intent. Each Signing Day there will be plenty of names who flip at the last second. Some do it for family reasons. Others because a late sales pitch struck a chord. And sometimes, shockingly, adolescent teenagers change their mind at the last minute. Last year, A’Shawn Robinson flipped from Texas to Alabama and became one of the best freshmen in the SEC. A couple of years ago, top-100 wide receiver Deontay Greenberry signed with Houston without even telling Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly that he had decommitted. A big name or two will change their minds, make no mistake, so don’t be surprised when it happens.
Who will close strong?
Bobby Bowden wrote the book on closing strong over the years at Florida State and Jimbo Fisher has revived that tradition in Tallahassee. Clemson also has been a strong finisher under Dabo Swinney. Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze have proven in very short order that they are two of the best closers in the SEC currently after dominating the headlines on NSD last year.
So who will make a big move this year? Sarkisian at USC could be a prime candidate to make a big push on signing day. The Trojans could land three superstars in five-star cornerback Adoree' Jackson, five-star athlete JuJu Smith and four-star blocker Damian Mama. Land all three and USC could move from outside the top 25 to near the top 10. Malzahn, Fisher and Freeze should all make waves as well on Wednesday. But don't forget about Saban at Alabama. The Tide are sure to make some big moves on Wednesday as well en route to yet another recruiting title.
National Signing Day will always have some bizarre storylines. Alex Collins last year — who was one of the better running backs in the SEC this year — couldn’t get his family to sign his LOI and it turned into one of the bigger stories in 2013. How about Floyd Raven’s mother forging his signature to Mississippi State when he sent his LOI to Texas A&M? Who could forget Kevin Hart’s public selection of Cal over Oregon at a press conference? There was only one problem, he didn’t have a scholarship offer from either school and Jeff Tedford hadn’t ever heard of Hart.
And, of course, there was Ron Weaver. Weaver signed with Texas in 1996 and played most of the season, however, Ron Weaver wasn’t Ron Weaver. Weaver had assumed the identity of someone else, Ron McKelvey, and faked his way into Texas despite being a 30-year old who had run out of eligibility. The hoax was discovered just days before the Texas-Virginia Tech Sugar Bowl and Weaver/McKelvey was promptly suspended. The NCAA ruled that he had officially duped everyone, including the entire University of Texas.
So what will 2014 bring? The good money might be on April Justin. The outspoken and disappointed mother of Landon Collins and Gerald Willis. She obviously wanted them both to play at LSU and Willis is scheduled to sign with Florida. Will she let another one of her boys leave The Pelican State?
I, for one, can’t wait until tomorrow.