CFB Recruiting: Biggest Storylines Heading into 2020 Early National Signing Day
Remember all of the fun and excitement of February's national signing day, a free-for-all that jam-packed all of the drama into an afternoon in which anything went?
The early signing period has stolen a lot of the thunder, but there will be some major decisions beginning this Wednesday. And though it won't be quite like old times, several programs will be on pins and needles.
While the nation's top two targets in the 2021 class—Korey Foreman and J.T. Tuimoloau—aren't expected to go public with their college commitments until January, several big names are, including 5-star prospects like Xavian Sorey, Maason Smith and Terrence Lewis.
Mississippi head coach Lane Kiffin has continued to surge, while other SEC schools free-fall due to coaching concerns. USC's Clay Helton is putting the finishing touches on a terrific rebound class, and Lincoln Riley's Oklahoma Sooners may make the biggest splash of all unless Georgia's Kirby Smart steals his thunder.
At the top, it's the usual suspects, with Nick Saban's Crimson Tide leading the way, Ohio State surging and Clemson quietly but firmly in the top five.
Here are some of the storylines to watch when the early signing session kicks off Wednesday.
Just How Much Better Can This Alabama Class Get?
This Alabama recruiting class may wind up being one of the program's best, but it's hard to pick between so many elite hauls that have led to five championships under Saban.
The Crimson Tide look like the nation's top program on the field in 2020. And just when you think Saban's class is finished, Alabama brings the drama, like when it flipped Oklahoma running back pledge Jase McClellan last year.
McClellan just had an 80-yard scoring scamper in mop-up duty of a 52-3 beating of Arkansas this weekend.
The Tide get elite players who wait their turns and then dominate. Their 2021 class already includes a stable of superb offensive linemen led by the Brockermeyer brothers, Tommy and James, and JC Latham. There are also 5-star defensive linemen Damon Payne and Dallas Turner and a sensational defensive back corps, with Ga'Quincy McKinstry at the top.
Saban has stars at every position, but the program is trying to outfit its already dynamic class with more playmakers. If they are uncommitted and elite, chances are Alabama is firmly in the mix for them. While the Tide have fallen out of the running for Korey Foreman, they could turn J.T. Tuimoloau their way.
The Ohio State Buckeyes may have their sights set on overtaking UA for the top class, but it's just a matter of whom else the Tide can convince.
Will Ohio State's Juice Be Enough to Overtake the Tide?
Head coach Ryan Day has dealt with plenty of drama in recent weeks. The Buckeyes had three COVID-19 cancellations throughout the shortened season, and the Big Ten changed its rules last week to allow them to compete in the conference title game.
On Saturday, they'll take on Northwestern for the conference title and a likely spot in the College Football Playoff.
Off the field, Ohio State's momentum is evident, and players all over the nation are taking notice.
The first domino fell Friday when the nation's top receiver decided to leave the Pacific Northwest and sign with the Buckeyes. That would be Washington prospect Emeka Egbuka, whose pledge gives OSU commitments from two top-10 prospects.
Though J.T. Tuimoloau isn't expected to announce his decision in December, the Buckeyes are swinging to go 2-for-2 with 5-star prospects from Washington, which speaks to just how strong the Ohio State brand is even after the Urban Meyer days.
If the Buckeyes can convince Tuimoloau to come to Columbus instead of joining one of the Pac-12 programs, Alabama, Oklahoma, Michigan and others, they may just steal the recruiting crown from the Tide. LSU linebacker commit Raesjon Davis is another player to watch.
Regardless, the Buckeyes' class is already loaded with Egbuka, defensive end Jack Sawyer, offensive lineman Donovan Jackson, running back TreVeyon Henderson and quarterback Kyle McCord, and those are just the 5-stars.
This is the kind of class Ohio State needs to stay at the top of college football's food chain and firmly in the race for Tuimoloau.
Who Will Make Headway on Luring the Top 2?
J.T. Tuimoloau and Korey Foreman, the nation's top two prospects in the 247Sports composite rankings, are saving the suspense for the new year, when they are expected to announce their college decisions.
While Foreman's father, Kevin, told 247Sports' Greg Biggins his son will reveal his choice Jan. 2 on the All-American Bowl show, where he's going is anybody's guess.
At one point, Foreman was committed to the Clemson Tigers. But the 6'4", 265-pound defensive end from California decommitted in April, and his recruitment has taken twists and turns since then.
While there have been whispers about his playing with 5-star defensive tackle and friend Maason Smith (which would indicate LSU), Foreman has also been linked with Clemson and Georgia, with USC and Arizona State surging lately.
The Sun Devils are a new addition to the list, but Foreman's father told Biggins they're in serious contention because of the NFL ties of coach Herm Edwards and defensive coordinators Marvin Lewis and Antonio Pierce..
"We visited ASU a month or so ago, and it was eye-opening," he said.
As for Tuimoloau, he has indicated he plans to wait until February to make a decision and named Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, USC and Washington as his top seven in October, according to 247Sports' Brandon Huffman.
OSU, where his former Eastside Catholic teammate Gee Scott Jr. signed last year, should be considered the favorite, but Alabama, Oregon and others shouldn't be counted out.
The next few weeks should give us a clearer picture on the final destinations of Tuimoloau and Foreman.
Flip Watch: Xavier Worthy Leads a Group of Guys Who Could Alter Course
Flip season is already upon us, with elite cornerback Nathaniel Wiggins dumping LSU for Clemson over the weekend and 4-star tight end Hudson Wolfe changing his commitment from Tennessee to Ole Miss last week.
They won't be the last big names to alter their destinations.
The biggest name on flip watch is LSU outside linebacker commitment Raesjon Davis, who has at least flirted with programs like USC and Ohio State.
Head coach Ed Orgeron should desperately want the potential immediate-impact difference-maker to stick with the Bayou Bengals, and while the Buckeyes may be a long shot, playing for the close-to-home Trojans may be enticing for the Mater Dei High School product.
That program has been a USC pipeline in the past, and Amon-Ra St. Brown is a superstar alumnus. If Davis waits to sign, this could get interesting.
There are plenty of other guys to keep a close watch on. Perhaps the biggest name in that group is electrifying Michigan receiver pledge Xavier Worthy, who unofficially visited Alabama in November. With all of the issues surrounding the 2-4 Wolverines and the tenure of coach Jim Harbaugh, the Tide could benefit.
MLive.com's Ryan Zuke thinks Alabama could lure him away.
Another prospect who could leave the Wolverines is linebacker Branden Jennings, who flipped from Florida State to Michigan in October. Maryland coach Mike Locksley trying to sway him to the Terrapins.
The biggest pledge for Mel Tucker in his first full class with Michigan State is running back Audric Estime, but he's in a fight to keep him. If Estime doesn't sign in the early period, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Rutgers and others could pluck him away.
Will SEC Programs Stop the Free-Fall?
While Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida all have top-10 recruiting classes and Lane Kiffin's Ole Miss Rebels and Sam Pittman's Arkansas Razorbacks are surging, two teams are spiraling downward.
Those squads would be Tennessee and Auburn, which are dealing with angry fanbases ready to fire embattled coaches. Auburn got its wish Sunday when Gus Malzahn was let go. The Vols beat Vanderbilt on Saturday to ease a little pressure on Jeremy Pruitt, but the situation is tenuous at best.
Prospects are taking notice.
The Vols were one of the hottest recruiting teams at the beginning of the year, but they're free-falling amid a frustrating season. Elite cornerback Damarius McGhee and in-state star tight end Hudson Wolfe have left the 2021 class.
Wolfe committed to Ole Miss, and McGhee may head to the Bayou. Terrence Lewis also backed off his commitment and is considering Texas A&M and Auburn, among others.
If Lewis pledges to the Tigers, it would be a much-needed boost to an uncharacteristically bad class. Malzahn was making excuses about the recruiting struggles before he was fired.
"One of our advantages at Auburn is getting guys on campus and getting that family feel and those relationships," Malzahn told AL.com's Tom Green. "So, we're not able to do that, so we have to be creative with some different things."
Auburn has just 12 commitments in a class that ranks 42nd nationally. They have five 4-stars, led by defensive tackle Lee Hunter, but this year has included some major misses such as Ga'Quincy "Kool-Aid" McKinstry, who is heading to rival Alabama.
The Tigers need a strong finish, and without a coach, who knows what's going to happen?
Where Will Maason Smith Wind Up?
During the Ed Orgeron regime, there has always been a lot of movement in LSU's recruiting class.
Even after the Bayou Bengals won the national championship last season, there were players who jumped ship and others who were added. With the rumors freshman tight end Arik Gilbert may transfer after opting out of the rest of the 2020 campaign, the class could get more interesting.
Will the Tigers' sub-.500 record, the defections and Gilbert's decision affect this class? Will Saturday night's upset of Florida provide a spark, or will frustrations with Orgeron's awful follow-up year spill over?
One player the Tigers cannot miss on is in-state 5-star defensive tackle Maason Smith. The 6'5", 316-pound Houma product is an instant-impact difference-maker who is arguably the best interior defensive line prospect in the class. He is actually the nation's No. 1 player overall on Rivals.com.
Getting Smith could give LSU the key to winning over Korey Foreman, the nation's top-rated player on the 247Sports composite. But this is nowhere near a done deal.
"Honestly, I think it's going to come down to the last day," Smith told 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong recently.
LSU must be considered the favorite. Orgeron has done a good job of keeping elite players in-state. While Foreman could wind up anywhere in the nation, Smith is not expected to leave the South. Alabama, Georgia and Miami are among his finalists, and the biggest contenders in that group are the Bulldogs.
But anybody who has watched Saban in recruiting knows the Tide cannot be counted out. If you want suspense in the early session, watch Smith. This one is going to be interesting.
Can Oklahoma Close Out What Looks Like a Major Noisemaker Finale?
Oklahoma didn't get off to the start it wanted after last year's College Football Playoff flameout, but the Sooners have rebounded and are one of the two hottest teams in the Big 12 along with Iowa State.
It's paying off in recruiting too.
Head coach Lincoln Riley has never had any issues luring top talent to Norman, especially on offense. And though the Sooners lost out on Emeka Egbuka to Ohio State, which could have given them another star receiver for top-ranked quarterback Caleb Williams, plenty big names remain.
The Sooners are setting up for what could be a torrid early signing session.
The biggest name on the list is longtime lean and top target Camar Wheaton. The 5-star running back from Texas had a huge senior season. Much like the Jase McClellan situation a year ago, though, Alabama is coming hard.
If the Sooners can hold off the Tide and sign Wheaton on Wednesday, it will be huge. He's a key piece to the class, and adding him to an offensive haul with Williams would give Riley his next generation of star prospects.
But Wheaton isn't the only big name set to decide.
Five-star offensive lineman Tristan Leigh is going to announce his decision Jan. 2, but it's unclear if Virginia native will sign during the early session. Though Florida, Clemson, Ohio State and LSU are in the mix, the Sooners are the favorite.
Then there is Savion Byrd, who is picking between Oklahoma and SMU. It's incredible for the Mustangs to even be in this race, but Byrd could give Riley a trio of great offensive linemen. No, those are not the sexiest pledges in a class, but they are necessary.
With elite defenders like Clayton Smith, Kelvin Gilliam, Ethan Downs and perhaps even athlete Billy Bowman, who flipped from Texas and could play on either side of the ball, this could be Riley's best class. He needs to close with Wheaton and the linemen, though.
Will Georgia's Splash Finish Include Xavian Sorey?
Last year, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart landed the nation's top-ranked recruiting class full of difference-makers who have found the field in this year's COVID-altered season, including Darnell Washington and Daijun Edwards.
Others, like Korey Foreman and Maason Smith, could wind up in red and black too. Other than Smith, perhaps the two biggest, most realistic prospects on the big board would be 5-star outside linebacker Xavian Sorey and 4-star speedy defensive back Terrion Arnold.
Jeff Sentell of DawgNation.com loves Arnold's potential.
"DawgNation feels that Arnold is one of the most impressive defensive backs, if not the most, that Georgia has recruited in the Kirby Smart era," Sentell wrote recently. "The All-American Bowl selection is capable of playing any position in the secondary and performing at a very high level."
Sorey and Arnold have both visited Athens, and they are the primary targets of Smart and Co. Sorey has narrowed his choices to Alabama, Florida and UGA and is one of the two or three biggest players to watch in the early session.
What if UGA could sign Sorey, Arnold and then shock everybody with either Smith or Foreman (or both)? While that huge of a finish is probably unlikely, you can't ever count out Smart.
The Dawgs are a force that can hang with anybody in the nation, and this is shaping up to be another possible big-time finish.
Who's Going to Win the Jake Garcia Sweepstakes?
The recruitment of quarterback Jake Garcia mirrors the uncertainty of this past year.
He left California when the state decided not to play the high school season as scheduled, moving to high school football hotbed Valdosta, Georgia. But he was ruled ineligible there, so he transferred again.
The 6'2½", 195-pound signal-caller ended up in Loganville, Georgia, and played the final few games with prep powerhouse Grayson.
Now, the big question is: Where will the nation's top uncommitted quarterback wind up?
Garcia decommitted from the USC Trojans earlier this month with Miller Moss already in the fold, and his recruitment opened up even more when he left for Georgia.
The two biggest contenders for his services now are the Miami Hurricanes and Florida State Seminoles.
Many analysts believed once USC lost Garcia, he would quickly commit to head coach Manny Diaz's Hurricanes and try to replace D'Eriq King at The U. While the Hurricanes are still believed to be in good shape, FSU's Mike Norvell has come on strong.
The Seminoles have struggled under center this year, and while Chubba Purdy (collarbone injury) looks like he could be the signal-caller of the future, FSU needs impact players. Garcia is familiar with the area after originally moving to Valdosta, which isn't that far from Tallahassee.
But Miami still may be the team to beat.
Andrew Ivins of 247Sports believes Miami is in a "very good spot" to land Garcia. It's going to be interesting to see if the signal-caller does what everybody expects or if he's going to surprise everybody.
All Won't Be Quiet on the Western Front
The Oregon Ducks are still the class of the Pac-12 when it comes to recruiting despite a difficult start to the season that included a lot of opt-outs amid the pandemic after the conference champions lost Justin Herbert and other difference-makers to the NFL.
Head coach Mario Cristobal has assembled a class with offensive playmakers like quarterback Ty Thompson and receiver Troy Franklin.
But they're not the story of the recruiting cycle in the Pac-12.
That would be Clay Helton's rebound at USC. The Trojans finished an embarrassing 64th nationally last year, and there is no way a program with that prestige should ever finish that low. The embattled coach couldn't let it happen again, and he isn't.
USC is 14th nationally, and that success is mirroring the Trojans' unbeaten record on the field. The fact that they're the favorite to win the conference championship game is only going to help them land additional top talent.
Guys like Los Angeles cornerback Ceyair Wright and late-blooming quarterback Jaxson Dart of Utah could provide another couple of huge commits. Dart has a bunch of suitors, and he could help ease the sting of missing out on Jake Garcia.
Of course, the biggest remaining target for anybody is the nation's No. 1-ranked prospect, Korey Foreman. The Trojans are firmly in the mix for the defender, and there would be no bigger recruiting statement for Helton than proving he can keep elite prospects like Foreman from leaving the state.
In recent years, programs like Oregon and Alabama have poached USC's top targets from the Golden State, and getting Foreman could help stop that. It's a major storyline to watch.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.