College Football Teams Most in Need of a Big Early Signing Period
Every college football program wants to hit a home run on early national signing day (Dec. 18), but some teams need to knock it out of the park for one reason or another.
In cases like USC, Michigan State and Vanderbilt, they need to land a few quality recruits to justify keeping coaches who were boiling on the hot seat for months.
Conversely, Florida State and Arkansas need to hit the ground running to show that firing their head coaches less than two full seasons into the job was the right move.
Others simply need to show some life after a disappointing start to this recruiting cycle.
Regardless of the justification, keep an eye out for where these teams' classes rank on the morning of Dec. 19. If they haven't improved from their current position, it could spell trouble.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order, and team rankings are current as of Saturday afternoon.
Current Ranking: 117
There's no way to sugarcoat the situation in Arkansas.
As of Saturday afternoon, Arkansas was the only Power Five team ranked outside the top 100. Virginia Tech (No. 97) was the only other one outside the top 85. And every other team from the SEC West is in the top 45—which is the biggest hurdle for the Razorbacks to overcome.
This is already clearly the worst team in what is either the best or second-best division in college football, and a recruiting class on par with those of San Jose State and Old Dominion isn't going to help matters.
Arkansas is 1-23 in SEC play over the past three seasons, and that lone win came more than two years ago on a last-second field goal against a bowl-ineligible Ole Miss team playing for nothing. In their last 12 games against Alabama, Auburn and LSU, the Razorbacks are winless and have lost by an average margin of 31.4 points. Only one of those games was decided by fewer than 19 points.
Suffice it to say, things weren't getting any better under Chad Morris, so they kicked him to the curb and brought in Sam Pittman from Georgia.
Pittman has been an offensive line coach, often an assistant head coach and a key recruiter at seven different Power Five programs over the past 23 years. Eventually, he should be able to revive a program that hasn't had a top-eight-in-the-SEC class since ranking sixth in 2008.
How long will it take, though? Can the Hogs show some semblance of life by at least signing a top-400 recruit this week? Could they perhaps make a big splash by flipping Jacolby Criswell (UNC) and/or Chris Morris (Texas A&M), otherwise known as the top two recruits in Arkansas?
Whatever it is, Arkansas needs to do something big to at least start the long climb out of the SEC West cellar.
Florida State Seminoles
Current Ranking: 24
Over the past four years, Mike Norvell did an incredible job of finding diamonds in the rough.
Less than two weeks after being named the head coach at Memphis in December 2015, he snagged JUCO transfer Riley Ferguson, who threw for 70 touchdowns and nearly 8,000 yards over the next two seasons. Two years ago, he found an unheralded recruit from Mississippi named Kenneth Gainwell, who is merely on pace to join Ron Dayne as the only freshmen in FBS history with at least 2,075 yards from scrimmage.
Now it's time to find out if Norvell can also find diamonds in the jewelry store.
As noted in my column after the Seminoles fired Willie Taggart, it is imperative that the new head coach be able to protect the state of Florida from outsiders, particularly Clemson.
In his prime, Bobby Bowden was amazing in that regard. So was Jimbo Fisher early on, consistently signing at least four of the top 10 recruits from the Sunshine State. Taggart never got there, though, signing just one top-15 recruit from Florida in each of the previous two years and leaving the 'Noles with just one top-20 commit from Florida in this year's class.
Nine of the top 10 guys on that list have already committed somewhere other than FSU, but maybe Norvell can flip someone now that the Seminoles coaching staff is more stable. If not, hopefully he can at least pick up a couple of the uncommitted top-100 overall in-state recruits, namely safety Avantae Williams, wide receivers Xzavier Henderson and Arian Smith and offensive tackle Marcus Dumervil.
Last year's class was Florida State's worst in over a decade. It ranked 19th nationally, which was the first time outside the top 11 since ranking 12th in 2008. And if Norvell is going to get things moving back in the right direction, it starts with bumping this class back up to its usual spot in the top 11. Otherwise, Clemson is going to further separate itself from the pack, making this an even more arduous trek back to relevance.
Michigan State Spartans
Current Ranking: 43
As far as recruiting hauls are concerned, Michigan State has rarely been able to compete with the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Even when the Spartans were putting together the 22nd-best class in both 2009 and 2010, they were still more than a stone's throw behind those other three Big Ten schools.
For a while, they were able to thrive despite that talent gap. But things are trending severely in the wrong direction in East Lansing, both in terms of recruiting and on-field success. (Not to mention the off-field scandals that have shaken that university to its core in recent years.)
Since putting together five 11-win seasons in the span of six years (2010-15), the Spartans will enter the Pinstripe Bowl with a 26-24 record over the past four seasons. And that's with players predominantly hailing from the 2014-16 recruiting classes, each of which ranked top 26 nationally.
From 2017-19, Mark Dantonio's class ranked outside the top 30 each year, and its current spot at No. 43 would be the program's worst ranking since placing 53rd in Dantonio's first year more than a decade ago (2007).
Michigan State does not currently have a top-400 recruit, nor is there a single top-900 overall recruit from the state of Michigan who is uncommitted. If the Spartans are unable to flip anyone, this could get ugly.
Getting 4-star wide receiver Alante Brown—the highest-ranked prep school recruit in this year's class—would be a big help. 247 Sports has Michigan State listed as one of five "warm" teams on Brown's list of interests. And tough to say whether it helps or hurts matters, but Brown originally committed to Michigan State at this time last year before de-committing and landing at St. Thomas More Prep.
If the Spartans don't get him, they may well remain outside the top 40 without a single 4-star or 5-star signee and with a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds.
Current Ranking: 98
If not now, then when?
SMU will never get back to its pre-death sentence glory days of the Pony Express, but the Mustangs just went 10-2, finishing a regular season with more than seven wins for the first time since 1984. The energy surrounding this program is unlike anything seen in more than three decades, and Sonny Dykes and his staff need to strike while that iron is hot.
Thus far, however, they have not.
We're not expecting a top-25 class or anything, but this is worse than usual for the Mustangs, who have consistently ranked in the Nos. 66-87 range in each of the past 13 recruiting cycles.
That is bad news for a program that is going to need to replenish its talent pool in a big way this offseason. Top two running backs Xavier Jones and Ke'Mon Freeman, leading receiver James Proche and more than half a dozen key defenders will all be leaving after the Boca Raton Bowl.
What's curious is how little SMU has been able to accomplish in Dallas this year.
Per Joseph Hoyt of the Dallas Morning News, eight of SMU's 19 signees last year were from the greater Dallas area, but only two of its 11 commitments this year are from that region. Could the Mustangs be gearing up for a major nearby pickup like top-150 overall running back Kevontre Bradford, or are they going to squander all the positive momentum from their 8-0 start to this season?
Current Ranking: 80
It's no surprise that USC has struggled early in this recruiting cycle, considering Clay Helton has been perpetually situated on one of the hottest seats in the country since October 2018.
Because of that uncertainty on the sideline, USC's 2019 class ranked 20th—its worst finish since 2001—and its 2020 class is an atrocity compared to its usual standards. But in early December, USC's new AD Mike Bohn committed to keeping Helton around for the 2020 season, and now it's time to sign some skill-position players. (Eight of the 10 commits are linemen.)
One big thing to keep in mind when evaluating this class is that USC isn't losing much. Leading receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and leading tackler John Houston Jr. are big losses, but that's about it for a team predominantly made up of freshmen and sophomores. As a result, this will likely be one of the nation's smallest classes.
But the Trojans had an 18-player class in 2018 that ranked fourth overall thanks to four 5-star recruits and a total of eight top-100 guys. They also ranked 13th in 2013 with just 12 signees, again with four 5-stars and eight top-100 guys. Every player in that class ranked 210th or better. A small class can still be a great class when done properly.
Thus far this year, USC has no 5-star commits and only one 4-star player, who ranks 350th nationally. If the Trojans don't land No. 4 overall recruit Justin Flowe (inside linebacker from Upland, California), they might end up without a single top-50 signee.
Either way, unless they make a few huge splashes, this is going to be USC's worst class in more than two decades, and by a wide margin. It might not immediately hurt the Trojans, who have 18 starters eligible to return in 2020, but completely flopping in this cycle—one year after a worse-than-usual class, no less—could be a major problem starting in 2021.
Current Ranking: 70
In six years, Derek Mason has yet to produce a winning record at Vanderbilt. This year was particularly ugly, going 3-9 with all nine losses coming by at least 17 points. The Commodores did shock then-No. 22 Missouri in mid-October, but that was the lone bright spot in an ocean of disappointment.
But Mason will get at least one more year to try to turn things around, and improving this recruiting class is the first step on that journey.
Since taking the job vacated by James Franklin after the 2013 season, Mason's recruiting classes have ranked dead last in the SEC in five out of six years. Most of the time, it wasn't even a close race, either. Last year, Missouri had the second-worst SEC class in 37th place nationally. Vanderbilt was No. 57.
That isn't a problem unique to Mason. Recruiting has been a challenge for decades. Vanderbilt's stadium and facilities are ancient compared to most of its SEC brethren. Coupled with the program's general lack of on-field success over the past 60 years, it has been almost impossible to attract 4-star and 5-star talent.
The Commodores should at least be able to get the occasional 3-star player from just down the road, though, and they haven't done so yet this year.
One name to watch who could change that is LB Devyn Curtis from nearby Brentwood, Tennessee. The 'Dores have already lost 3-star guys from Brentwood to Duke and Ole Miss, but Curtis is uncommitted and a primary target for Mason's staff. He's not even a top-500 overall recruit, so it's not like his commitment would vault Vandy into the top 50. However, it would be a nice step in the right direction.
Virginia Tech Hokies
Current Ranking: 97
This one is just mind-boggling.
Virginia Tech never has top-10 classes, but it almost always has top-35 classes. The only exceptions in the past two decades were the No. 42 class in 2016 and when it placed 43rd in 2002. Finding the Hokies barely inside the top 100 is difficult to process.
This isn't going to be a large class for Virginia Tech, as there were only five seniors on this year's roster. But you'd think there would be more focus on quality because of the lack of quantity.
The Hokies don't have a single commitment from a player ranked in the top 800, and they have only picked up one player from the state of Virginia, both of which are highly unusual. The Hokies signed at least one 4-star recruit from Virginia in 16 of the past 17 years, but that won't be happening this time unless Justin Fuente and his staff can flip one of the top six guys—or unless they sign a high 3-star talent who later gets reevaluated into a higher rating.
In lieu of securing Virginia's top players, it should be Texas that makes or breaks this VT class.
In the past month, the Hokies had QB Chandler Morris (Dallas), DE Alec Bryant (Pearland) and DE Robert Wooten (Stafford) in for visits. Morris and Bryant are both 4-star players rated in the top 400 overall. Wooten is a bit lower with a 3-star rating, but he is more highly touted than any current VT commit. All three have "warm" interest levels in Virginia Tech, so there's a good chance that some portion of that Texas trio helps improve this class.
If all three choose Virginia Tech, the Hokies will be in good shape. If none of them do, this will be one of the worst Power Five recruiting classes in 2020.
Recruit rankings via 247Sports Composite
Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.