Recruiting season never actually "ends," instead giving way to the next year of prospects the moment every player has signed and enrolled.
But individual recruiting cycles—the building blocks that make up the one long recruiting season—do have a finite expiration date, and 2014's is approaching fast.
National signing day is this Wednesday, Feb. 5, and teams are thus running out of time to solidify their respective classes. Though much of the heavy lifting has already been done, the next 48 hours are of disproportionate importance.
As far as the Big Ten is concerned, this is the first cycle that includes 14 teams, thanks to the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. That means two extra keys to look at down the home stretch.
What is the most important thing every Big Ten team can do before and during national signing day this season? Let's take a look.
Note: Unless otherwise specified, all player rankings, team rankings and star ratings courtesy of the 247Sports composite.
Key: Holding on to DT Jihad Ward
Illinois' class is in fairly stable shape right now. Seven of 17 commits have either enrolled or signed their letter of intent, including its top-ranked player, receiver Tyrin Stone-Davis, and 3-star pro-style quarterback Chayce Crouch.
Defensive tackle Jihad Ward, its top-ranked player who hasn't enrolled or signed, hasn't visited elsewhere since committing in late December, which is good news. According to Tom VanHaaren of ESPN.com (subscription required), however, he's been tweeting that he's wavered in his commitment, which is very much the opposite.
Ward is ranked the No. 6 overall JUCO player on the 247Sports subjective rankings, and with Daniel Cage a long shot to end up in Champaign, his size (6'7") and skill are a must-have for the Illini in this class. If he defects for a place like West Virginia, it would be crippling.
Key: Keeping the Class Intact
Indiana has done a decent job at closing strong, but Wisconsin poached cornerback Derrick Tindal from its ranks on Jan. 24, taking away what was a pretty important piece of the defensive class.
With few targets left for the Hoosiers, Kevin Wilson and Co. need to focus on playing defense instead of offense. Already this offseason, leading receiver Cody Latimer and precocious offensive coordinator Seth Littrell have departed.
The last thing IU needs is to lose another person of importance—which everybody in the class technically is. Fortunately, the keystone of the class, 4-star wide receiver Dominique Booth, has already enrolled and will not be able to be poached.
Key: Poaching OT Chukwuma Okorafor
Iowa is more or less finished with its class, and it's a decent one for Kirk Ferentz and Co. in Iowa City.
Nineteen of 21 committed players are 3-star recruits, and a couple at the top—athlete Jay Scheel and running back Markel Smith—are actually 4-stars on the 247Sports subjective rankings. Quarterback Tyler Wiegers has the potential to be a good one, as well.
With little necessary work left to do, Iowa's biggest key these next few days might be continuing its recruitment of Western Michigan tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who was recently also offered a scholarship by Ohio State.
He's 6'6" and a pretty good athlete, which are requisites in the Big Ten far more than the MAC. Even though OSU's entry to the derby might, at first, seem to hurt the Hawkeyes, anything that makes Okorafor consider wavering from Western Michigan is a good thing.
Key: Landing OT Damian Prince
There was a time when this Maryland class looked special, but that was back before 5-star cornerback Jalen Tabor soured on the Terrapins, committed to Arizona, then eventually flipped to Florida.
The other prized recruit of this class, however, has yet to spurn his hometown UMD, though Florida is in play once again. Fellow 5-star tackle Damian Prince is close with Tabor and considering the Gators, but Maryland still has a very good chance of landing him.
The Terps already have 4-star prep school tackle Derwin Gray, so this isn't a matter of necessity. It's a matter of principle. Randy Edsall needs to prove that he can land another blue-chip recruit from the state of Maryland beyond just getting Stefon Diggs a few years back.
Having said that, landing a 5-star offensive lineman before heading to the Big Ten would also serve a decisive practical purpose.
Key: Landing DE Malik McDowell
Michigan got an early jump on its 2014 class, and it hasn't had to do much adding in the recent months.
In fact, the Wolverines haven't landed a commitment since August, but they still check in with the No. 16 class in America, headlined by athlete Jabrill Peppers, who some feel might be the next Charles Woodson in Ann Arbor.
Short of ensuring he signs and enrolls—which Peppers has made clear he plans to do—the most important thing Michigan can do is focus on 5-star defensive end Malik McDowell, who once seemed a strong bet to play for Brady Hoke and Co. at the Big House.
Since then, though, Michigan State, Ohio State and Florida State have all emerged as very strong threats to land McDowell, relegating Michigan to the role of relative underdog. If the Wolverines can force McDowell's recruitment to go full circle and add another 5-star, this class could go from very good to great.
Key: Flipping OT Jamarco Jones
Malik McDowell is very much in play for the Spartans, and he would be a huge get for Pat Narduzzi's defense. On this, there is very little doubt.
But impressive front-seven players come in all different shapes, sizes and star ratings—especially under Narduzzi. Meanwhile, the last blue-chipper Sparty has landed was Lawrence Thomas, and he's yet to make the impact people projected in East Lansing.
A more important get than McDowell might be Ohio State commit Jamarco Jones. The Buckeyes barely edged out MSU the first time he committed, and after his official visit to East Lansing on Jan. 31, they might have even more trouble holding it off on his final decision.
Jones is a top-60 overall player in the country and would, like McDowell, instantly become the highest-ranked player in MSU's class. He'd be a huge get at a position that is very important to the Spartans, too, as their unimaginative offensive scheme requires sound, consistent blocking to function properly.
Key: Keeping RB Jeff Jones
There's no such thing as a "one-prospect class," but, as I've previously written, Minnesota comes pretty close. And that could be a problem.
Running back Jeff Jones looked a little too good for the Gophers' own good at the Under Armour All-America Game, winning MVP of Team Nitro and generally looking like one of the five best players on the field.
Even more than he already had, the performance raised the eyebrows of teams like Michigan and Florida, which had just lost Dalvin Cook to Florida State. Now, he seems a little more likely to defect on the Gophers than he does to play for them.
If that's the case, it would devastate this class. If it's not, Minnesota, fresh on the heels of a surprising eight-win season, would bring some serious momentum into 2014.
Key: Flipping WDE Spencer Williams
Cincinnati commit Spencer Williams is only a 3-star commit, but he comes at a position of need for the Huskers and would help round out an already-strong class.
Williams visited Lincoln for his official on Jan. 31 and, in a class with 26 players already committed, would become the only weak-side defensive end.
There are two other defensive ends in the class, both roughly of the same pedigree as Williams in the mid-3-star range. The more darts you throw at the dartboard at these positions—especially with a good, athletic specimen like Williams—the better your chances of success.
Key: Not Letting Any Committed Players Flip
According to Tom VanHaaren of ESPN.com, Northwestern only has one scholarship left in the class, which has been offered to defensive end Xavier Washington. He's expected to sign but didn't have any other power-conference offers.
Still, Pat Fitzgerald and his staff are happy to sit on a very impressive 15-prospect class (to date), headlined by 4-star prospects Parrker Westphal, Justin Jackson, Clayton Thorson and Garrett Dickerson.
The most important thing Northwestern can do is make sure all 15 committed players enroll, especially since there's no one else it sorely wants to land. None of that Big Four is wavering on his commitment, but in a class this small, losing any player late would be magnified.
Update: Xavier Washington commited to Northwestern on Monday.
Key: Securing the Offensive Line
Ohio State's recruiting class is stacked, checking in at No. 2 in the country behind Alabama and well ahead of No. 3 LSU. It could still stand to add a few quality pieces, too.
There's just one problem.
A class that—in its current form—has very nice position balance is a little tentative along the offensive line. Kyle Trout and Marcelys Jones have already enrolled, but Jamarco Jones and Demetrius Knox, the two highest-rated blockers in the class, both have very serious interest in Michigan State and UCLA, respectively.
Those players are fine and all, but they stick out like a sore thumb against the rest of Ohio State's class. If Jones and Knox both defect, this group would have palpable issues in the offensive trenches, which would put a damper on an otherwise astounding haul.
Key: Landing DT Derrick Nnadi
James Franklin has pillaged his recruiting class from Vanderbilt since signing on at Penn State, which has seemed a little cruel and unusual but been mostly good for the Nittany Lions.
The only major negative of the Franklin era was the defection of defensive tackle Thomas Holley, who is rated a 5-star prospect and the No. 18 overall player in the country on 247Sports' subjective rankings. He's now signed on to play at Florida.
There's some depth at the position in this PSU class, but the current tackles lack the high-end potential of Holley, whose absence makes the class feel hollow. If Franklin can somehow find a way to land Derrick Nnadi, a 4-star from Virginia who is also considering Virginia, Virginia Tech, Florida State and Ohio State, it would make a nice consolation prize.
Key: Getting QB David Blough Spring Reps
We'll deviate from the rest of the slideshow for Purdue, which really has little recruiting left to conduct this cycle. After recently landing its highest remaining prospect, JUCO tackle Miguel Machago, the Boilermakers could very well stand pat during signing day.
So while this doesn't necessarily fit "what it has to do these next few days," Purdue does have a very important task to do with its class this spring. Quarterback David Blough is talented enough to compete for the job under center, and as he's one of just two enrolled prospects, the Boilermakers need to get him important reps as soon as humanly possible.
In an ideal world, Danny Etling, last year's freshman who came on at the end of the season, would win the job with ease and Blough could take time to get his feet wet. But it's hard putting too much stock in Etling, so Blough is worth keeping an eye on for both the short and long term.
Key: Finding a WR to Replace Saeed Blacknall
James Franklin and Penn State poached Saeed Blacknall from the Rutgers recruiting class, robbing it not just of its highest-rated player, but also of its only quality receiver. Especially after losing Brandon Coleman to the NFL, the loss was devastating to Rutgers' future.
That puts Kyle Flood's staff in the unenvious position of trying to both evaluate and recruit talent this late in the game. Tyrone Washington, a teammate of Jabrill Peppers at Paramus Catholic, becomes a very important prospect. Also in play is 3-star Appalachian State commit Shaedon Meadors, who took an official visit to Rutgers on Jan. 31.
Whether it be Meadows, Washington or ideally both, the Scarlet Knights can't have their first Big Ten class feature only one (fairly anonymous) pass-catcher in Sam Martin.
Key: Landing CB Chris Lammons
It seems a little off that Chris Lammons, a Florida product who also likes the Gators and South Carolina, is even considering Gary Andersen and Wisconsin this late in the game. But it's best for the Badgers to not ask questions and do their best to land him.
Only 5'9.5", Lammons makes up for his height deficiency with great quickness and change-of-direction ability in coverage. He's an ideal slot cornerback prospect, which would make him a useful addition to the Badgers secondary—an area of relative weakness on a strong roster.
Derrick Tindal is a decent 3-star prospect, but he shouldn't be the headline corner for a class at a program as successful as Wisconsin, especially if it needs help at that position. Scoring Lammons would be a great out-of-state coup for Andersen in his first full class.