Five Questions Heading Into National Signing Day
The gates of National Signing Day are about to come crashing down. No more trees to climb or equipment big rigs to wheel in front of the houses of recruits. No more touring Nick Saban's lake or sledding with Dabo Swinney. But while that madness is just about behind us, not everything's wrapped up with a pretty bow. I'll be posting a more detailed conference breakdown on Thursday after the dust has settled, but for now, here are a few questions entering college football's equivalent of Christmas. Unless otherwise noted, I'll be employing Rivals' rankings. Keep in mind that everything from numerical ranking to star rating varies depending on your outlet of choice. In some cases, they vary wildly. Projecting high school players is an art, not a science. Remember, Carson Wentz received zero stars out of high school.
Question 1: Where does DT Rashan Gary sign?
Gary's the consensus No. 1 in the country. At 6-foot-5, 295 pounds, the New Jersey native's a defensive terror, an athletic freak and a bunch of other positive adjectives. He has the talent to go No. 1 in the draft in three years should he elect to jump after his junior campaign with...? That's the problem. Nobody knows where Gary will sign. Michigan's been considered the front-runner for some time. He visited in September and it became clear that this was HC Jim Harbaugh's race to lose. And that looked to be the case up until Gary checked out Clemson this past weekend. His mom, Jennifer Coney, came out raving about the Tiger environment, throwing in an “those kids, oh my gosh,” which is great on every level. Toss in Jim Harbaugh's recent recruiting controversy (and thanks for making me look up the definition of “meritocracy,” Coach), the race no longer looks quite so cut and dried. Michigan should still be considered the favorite, but it would not shock me if Gary swung this around.
Question 2: Who finishes with the No. 1 recruiting class?
This is almost a dead heat. LSU's been crushing it, with six recruits in the Top-105 on Rivals, highlighted by LB Erick Fowler, the scouting outlet's No. 13 prospect. Les Miles' squad remains a serious contender for No. 5 overall, LB Ben Davis, too. Ohio State's the other heavyweight in the mix to finish out with the best crew of youngsters. The Buckeyes already have five-star DT Nick Bosa in the fold and two steals from Maryland in four-star QB Dwayne Haskins and five-star LB Keandre Jones. Of their 23 commitments, 16 are four or five-star studs. They've also got feelers out for athlete Mecole Hardman, Rivals' No. 11 overall prospect. He made a visit to the Buckeyes in mid-January. Georgia's the strong front-runner to land Hardman, though, meaning that LSU could march to the head of the class if they do what they're expected to do. A distant third with a shot at the top is Florida State. They might not technically win the day, but their class has much upside as anybody's with the likes of four-star QB Malik Henry (No. 34) and five-star CB Lavonta Taylor (No. 10). They have an additional 12 four-star targets currently committed. The Seminoles aren't likely beat out Ohio State or LSU for top billing, but could make serious noise on the Playoff level in a few years if these guys blossom.
Question 3: Who might flip when the clock strikes zero?
We've already touched on Gary, who might actually cause Jim Harbaugh to spontaneously combust if he signs with Clemson. I'm not as certain about the combustibility of Les Miles, but Texas has been gunning hard for Fowler and there are reports that his family wants him to stay in-state. There seems to be steam behind this one. Beyond those two, one of the more interesting names to follow is four-star WR Tyrie Cleveland, who's been a Houston commitment since mid-December. That's looking wobbly right now, as TCU and Florida both earned face time in January. The Gators got in the last bite on January 29. Jim McElwain's offense horrified the nation last season, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism. They've got four-star wunderkind QB Feleipe' Franks committed. Adding Cleveland along with four-star WRs Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain (who conveniently sit No. 160 and No. 161 in Rivals' rankings) and you can see things starting to coalesce. Tom Herman's likely sleeping with one eye on his phone as he waits on Cleveland. Other names to watch include four-star recruits OL Patrick Hudson (committed to Baylor but being pursued doggedly by Texas and Arkansas), DE Mark Jackson (Texas A&M commit, with Oklahoma and Texas hot on his trail) and RB D'Vaughn Pennamon, whose soul is being fought over by Ole Miss and Alabama. Ole Miss is the favorite to land him right now. Speaking of which...
Question 4: What (if any) impact will the NCAA's rule violation charges have on this Ole Miss' recruiting class?
Being that you're reading this on the Internet, I'm guessing you're accustomed to seeing cynical takes on a daily basis. Because nobody's happy. So here's some more cynicism for you! I don't think these violations—and to be fair, as they stand right now, the bulk of the charges against the program since Hugh Freeze took over in 2011 seem to stem from tackle Laremy Tunsil accepting improper benefits, which resulted in a seven-game suspension to open the 2015 campaign—will have one bit of consequence on Wednesday. I remember high school. Dark days at Eagle High, let me tell you what. If I happened to be advanced at writing at that age (I wasn't, it was horrible, you aren't allowed to read it) and Knopf wanted to publish my book, and they told me that I could also have some cars, I would definitely have taken the cars. Because why not? I don't blame high school kids for being impressed by cars or money or dreaming of the NFL on a learner's permit.
That's why I don't think these charges will have an actual negative effect on the 2016 recruiting class. Right now, everything exists in abstraction and Yahoo Sports stories. They're just words. It's not like a viral video of Hugh Freeze and Chad Kelly reenacting The Revenant bear scene surfaced on the Internet. Deontay Anderson, a four-star CB from Texas and Rivals No. 84 recruit, actually discussed this whole matter with Freeze last week during a visit to Ole Miss. What Anderson said? “It didn’t affect me. I talked to Coach Freeze about it. He said it was about things that had happened in the past before he got to Ole Miss. I knew he would be honest with me.” Ole Miss' coaching staff sits in living rooms and talks with high school seniors. That in and of itself has an enormous gravity that a few thickly-worded reports do not. By the by, Anderson's expected to sign with the Rebs, one of a slew of recruits they'll be bringing on board. If Ohio State, LSU and Florida State have the three best recruiting classes in the country, Ole Miss is right behind them, headlined by twin jewels in QB Shea Patterson (No. 3) and T Gregory Little (No. 4).
Question 5: Are Oregon and USC dueling to see who can have the most uninspiring recruiting season?
This appears to be the case. Let's start with Oregon. Not only did they see grad QB Vernon Adams turn into a magical dragon in the second half of the season with the knowledge that he would never play for them again, they then blew a 31-0 lead in the Alamo Bowl, demoted DC Don Pellum and brought Brady Hoke in to fill the coordinating role despite the fact that he hasn't done that since 1982. Which leads us to the recruiting trail. I've traveled out to the Oregon Trail before, like the actual one. It's not particularly well-defined in places. If you stumbled upon it without the aid of the giant signs, you would just think it a faded path. Now imagine said faded path, except with football. I'm not exactly sure how this is possible with a program that has their pedigree, but the Ducks somehow went six weeks without a commitment until three-star LB Keith Simms came in with a cape over the weekend to break the drought. Despite the bizarre lack of action, Rivals still ranks theirs the No. 21 class in the country. You have to keep going if you're looking for their Pac-12 buddies over at Southern Cal. The Trojans check in at No. 33, but with just 13 commitments. Nine of the 13 are four or five-star players, led by 6-foot-2, 176-pound wideout Tyler Vaughns (No. 22), so the quality's there at least, but HC Clay Helton's first stab at this thing's been incomplete, at best. I'll withhold judgment until he's had a full recruiting cycle all his own. Stanford and UCLA will be coming away the big winners in the Pac-12, as both are projected to finish with borderline Top-10 classes.
Check back on Thursday for a look at how the larger conference picture could change (for better or worse) based on Wednesday's results.