College Football Recruiting: Winners and Losers of 2020 Early Signing Period

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2020

College Football Recruiting: Winners and Losers of 2020 Early Signing Period

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    In a year like no other, plenty of twists and turns took place during college football's Early Signing Period.

    A number of players flipped, several prospects are still patiently waiting to see how coaching decisions turn out, and Alabama recruited the top overall class again, putting enough arm's length between itself and No. 2 Ohio State.

    It's a virtual guarantee Nick Saban is going to pull yet another No. 1 recruiting haul. Not even a pandemic-plagued signing session that kept countless prospects from officially visiting could stop the Crimson Tide.

    Who'd have thought it?

    For some programs like Auburn and Minnesota, it was a forgettable showing. For others like Maryland and TCU, it could have been the beginning of a resurgence. The usual suspects showed up and a couple of old names resurfaced, as well as some newcomers to the positive signing-day vibes.

    Several big-time prospects made their school of choice public, as well.

    Let's take a look at the biggest winners and losers of college football's early signing session.

Winner: The Crimson Kings

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    JoJo Earle gave Alabama another star in a class full of them.
    JoJo Earle gave Alabama another star in a class full of them.Credit: 247Sports

    Just when you thought Alabama's recruiting class couldn't get any better, the Crimson Tide pulled off some of Wednesday's biggest news when they flipped LSU athlete commitment Jojo Earle seemingly out of nowhere.

    Nick Saban isn't done, either.

    Somebody must have shown Jaylen Waddle's film to Earle as the electrifying offensive athlete who returned kicks and punts and can play receiver and running back decided to turn his back on Ed Orgeron and the Bayou Bengals at the last minute.

    The Tide have an amazing 19 commitments from the composite rating's Top 250, including 5-stars JC Latham (offensive tackle), Tommy Brockermeyer (offensive tackle), Dallas Turner (defensive end), Damon Payne (defensive tackle), Ga'Quincy McKinstry (cornerback) and Jacorey Brooks (receiver).

    Earle isn't far behind that group, and after offensive lineman Jaeden Roberts decommitted from Auburn, he glowed about Bama to 247Sports' Hank South. UA would have to be considered the favorite for him at this point.

    Most importantly for this brilliant class, all 24 players have signed, which means Alabama can focus on fighting for another national championship and concentrate its recruiting efforts on any remaining unsigned prospects it covets in the late session.

    The class is deep and loaded on both lines of scrimmage, in the secondary and in the receiving corps, where some exceptional athletes will help ease the loss of DeVonta Smith, Waddle and others.

    From top to bottom, this is the nation's top class, and that's what we've come to expect from Saban.

Loser: Auburn Tigers (and Other Bama Rivals)

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    It was already shaping up to be a very un-Auburn-like recruiting cycle with the Tigers striking out on a bunch of top targets.

    Then the Auburn administration decided to fire Gus Malzahn, and things got even worse. Jaeden Roberts announced his decommitment from the Tigers when everybody else across the nation was committing to teams Wednesday. It will be a free-for-all to wind up with his signature in the late session.

    The good news is the Tigers were able to hang onto commits like Lee Hunter, Ahmari Harvey, Marquis Robinson and Dematrius Davis despite the coaching uncertainty. They also added Armani Diamond and Ian Mathews.

    But the Tigers' group of 13 prospects (11 signees) is good enough for just 41st nationally and 12th in the SEC. Malzahn obviously never adapted to pandemic recruiting by building relationships via Skype or Zoom, as mentioned to 247Sports' Sam Marsdale, and it hurt the Tigers' "family" selling point not to get players on campus. 

    If they can make a dynamic head coaching hire, they're a good bet to be one of the biggest stories of the late signing period. They need to sign more difference-makers before February.

    Though you'll hear more about the major-impact positives of LSU's Wednesday, losing Earle to the hated rivals was a big blow. But the Tigers' class was still outstanding.

    The Tennessee Vols, on the other hand, had more downs than ups. One of the hottest recruiting teams early in the year wound up with 10 decommitments. While some were mutual partings, four losses stood out.

    Tennessee signed a top-15 class, but star linebackers Dylan Brooks and Terrence Lewis are waiting to sign until the late session given the uncertainty around head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Standout cornerback Damarius McGhee decommitted a couple of weeks ago and signed with LSU, and Ole Miss flipped Hudson Wolfe, too.

    Overall, Alabama got stronger while its rivals had some tough moments.

Winner: Deion Sanders

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Don't ever doubt Prime Time.

    This is Deion Sanders we're talking about, a dude who was one of the biggest stars in the NFL and just happened to moonlight as a Major League Baseball star.

    He once suited up in the National League Championship Series and an NFL football game in the same day, was a treasure as a commentator on NFL Network and is now set to be a college football coach at Jackson State. 

    On Wednesday, he made the biggest "Say what?" splash of the day when he flipped the nation's No. 4-ranked JUCO cornerback, De'Jahn Warren, from Georgia to the Tigers to learn from one of the greatest of all time.

    Though that was the biggest recruiting news for Sanders, it's also massive that his son, Shilo, is leaving South Carolina to join his brother, Shedeur, and play for Deion, according to 247Sports' Chance Linton.

    Jackson State has a long way to go, but the Tigers also have multiple 3-star commitments, and Sanders is proving himself an elite recruiter who can lure prospects away from the SEC to an HBCU.

    There's never been any doubting Sanders' confidence, and he is doling out scholarship offers to some of the best players in the country. Some are eventually going to bite, and Warren's flip was just the type of hype and publicity the Tigers needed.

    If they could land another couple of national prospects, it would be a big deal, too. After 5-star Makur Maker signed with Howard University's basketball program in the last signing session, it isn't too far out of the norm for that to happen anymore.

    With Sanders at head coach, watch out.

Loser: Mike Norvell

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    Phil Sears/Associated Press

    One commitment isn't going to make or break the head coaching chapter of Deion Sanders' life. But if he can perform as well on the sideline as he can in living rooms, his alma mater, Florida State, will pay close attention.

    That's not the reason Mike Norvell is sweating right now, though.

    After yet another dismal season on the gridiron, the Seminoles are trying to find a way to return to the dominance they most recently enjoyed during the Jimbo Fisher era. But the ill-fated, short tenure of Willie Taggart gave way to Norvell, who hasn't performed any better and is struggling to lure elite prospects, too.

    Thankfully for FSU, Malik McClain jumped back in the boat and wound up signing with the 'Noles, pushing their ranking all the way up from 31st to 22nd in the nation. That allows for some relief and also gives Florida State a big playmaker at receiver.

    But Florida State's class features just six 4-star prospects, and it's much lower-ranked than usual. Also, it was hoping to get a major boost by landing star quarterback Jake Garcia, who decommitted from USC. Instead, Garcia did the expected and signed with rival Miami.

    It helps that FSU is going to be the destination of UCF transfer McKenzie Milton, who hopes to return from a gruesome leg injury to his Heisman Trophy-contending form of two years ago.

    The depth of talent is where the issues lie, but ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill told the Orlando Sentinel's Mike Murschel this is not a bad start in the attempted return to the program's former status.

    "From a high school perspective, considering the image issues they've got right now. You've heard me use the phrase perception ... they've got an uphill battle," Luginbill said. "But I think with the on-field performance you have to be pretty fired up about the caliber of player. I look at the top half of this class and these are Florida State-caliber players."

    Norvell needs time to work and build his program. But he also needs a Florida State-esque class, and this wasn't it.

Winner: LSU Signing an Elite Class Sans Earle

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    Maason Smith may be the best player in the class.
    Maason Smith may be the best player in the class.Credit: 247Sports

    Is it possible to be both a winner and a loser?

    The LSU Tigers made a cameo appearance in the Auburn write-up, but only because they lost JoJo Earle, a do-it-all, immediate-impact future star, to rival Alabama.

    They made up for it the rest of Wednesday, capped by signing arguably the most talented player in the entire 2021 class: defensive tackle Maason Smith, who told Rivals.com's Sam Spiegelman he couldn't refuse another "Bayou boy."

    After Tyler Shelvin opted out this year, the interior of LSU's defensive line was one of the biggest problems in a year full of them. Smith will help solve that right away.

    Flipping elite cornerback Damarius McGhee from Tennessee, signing the nation's No. 1 JUCO linebacker, Navonteque Strong, who was committed to Mississippi State the day before, flipping Bulldogs receiver Malik Nabers and signing other star players like Armoni Goodwin was huge.

    Though Raesjon Davis didn't sign in the early session, he's still committed to Orgeron. If they can keep him in the fold, this is going to be another program-changing class. There's nothing wrong with the nation's third-ranked haul, and it could get even better.

    Keeping Davis is the top priority, but the Tigers also have several other big-time prospects they will try to lure in the late session. 

    Orgeron's program endured some tough times on the field this year, but beating Florida before the early signing session perhaps provided a bedrock for future recruits. This class is just what it needed to turn things around. 

Loser: Minnesota's Boat Sank

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    Nati Harnik/Associated Press

    This Minnesota Golden Gophers' recruiting class is not bad. As a matter of fact, P.J. Fleck may have assembled the school's top overall class numbers-wise.

    The average star ranking per recruit is the highest since 247Sports has existed, and five 4-star prospects committed to Fleck, including quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis. Minnesota's No. 28 recruiting class is a quality haul.

    Cornerback Steven Ortiz looks like a future star, and it was a big deal he ended up signing his scholarship papers. But the Gophers are going to have to fight to keep their biggest commitment, Avante Dickerson, who delivered one of the most shocking surprises Wednesday when he announced he wasn't going to sign with Fleck's program.

    Dickerson is one of the top 130 players in the country and a potentially elite 6'0", 170-pound defensive back from Omaha, Nebraska. He wrote on Twitter he was "simply not ready to make a final decision."

    Fleck, for what it's worth, handled the situation with the expected class and dignity.

    "We have one [non-signee] and that's OK," he said. "That's part of the process. You support him. You love him. You are there for him him. It's a year to be able to have incredible empathy."

    Dickerson's decision was one of the biggest disappointments of the day for a committed player, and the home-state Nebraska Cornhuskers are going to push him hard to come to Lincoln. But if Fleck can convince him to stick in the class, it will turn this around and allow it to become an ideal situation.

Winner: Lane Kiffin's "Flip-Mas"

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    Bruce Newman/Associated Press

    When Ole Miss first-year head coach Lane Kiffin came to a press conference last week in full-troll mode with a "Merry Flipmas" shirt on, you knew there were big things on the horizon.

    In typical Kiffin style, he saved his flair for the end of the signing period and finished with a flurry. The Rebels went from having one of the worst classes in the SEC to the nation's No. 18-ranked class.

    In December alone, Kiffin received 10 verbal commitments, and all signed scholarship papers. He took aim at teams like Mississippi State, Tennessee and Florida State, and it didn't stop until Wednesday's drama.

    Getting Hudson Wolfe to flip from Tennessee was a major win, giving Kiffin an in-line tight end with the athleticism to catch passes. Alabama and Ohio State wanted him, too.

    The big get on early signing day was MJ Daniels, who was committed to rival Mississippi State for a long time but signed with the Rebels. Ole Miss also landed 3-star wide receiver JJ Henry, and then 4-star cornerback Markevious Brown elected to go to Oxford instead of Auburn or Miami.

    Most importantly, a defense that was in shambles much of the year got a lot better in this recruiting class. Ole Miss signed six defensive backs and five defensive linemen, and that's a huge need met.

    Now, it's all about development.

    "I just tell them 'Watch the game,'" Kiffin told the Mississippi Clarion Ledger's Nick Suss, discussing his recruiting strategy with defensive prospects. "Whenever you are performing not well on a side of the ball, you don't like that but there's a recruiting side to it too. Just like if you're a really bad team on both sides period. Kids will go ahead and say 'I can go there and play quicker.' Luckily that's just the case on defense right now here. I think these guys saw that."

    The rest of the SEC is seeing Kiffin knows how to rebuild a program.

Loser: That Other Egg Bowl Participant

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    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Almost every program deals with decommitments, but it's a major deal when they go to your rivals. 

    The SEC is a war zone in recruiting, and Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach found that out the hard way in this cycle. The biggest hits came from players who decided not to play in Starkville and are instead going to Ole Miss or LSU.

    Leach is left with some Egg Bowl egg on his face.

    The Rebels flipped MJ Daniels, who seemed solid in several interviews at the Mississippi/Alabama All-Star Game. But Lane Kiffin must have gotten in his ear, and he decided to go to Oxford and play for a prolific, budding offense.

    In terms of perception, that's a big loss for the Mississippi State program, too.

    The Bayou Bengals also preyed on Mississippi State by poaching Malik Nabers and JUCO linebacker Navonteque Strong. The latter, in particular, looks like an instant-impact star who could be a one-and-done-type college player, treating it as a pit stop to the NFL.

    All in all, six players decommitted from the Bulldogs in December, so it was the opposite of the work Kiffin did. Yes, Leach convinced 4-star receiver Antonio Harmon to sign, giving him a major weapon in Starkville. Additionally, 3-star athlete Simeon Price has the potential to boost a depleted defense right away.

    But the No. 37-ranked recruiting class in the country (10th in the SEC) isn't quite good enough to get things done. If Leach is going to rebuild the Bulldogs, he is going to have to do it on the field first and then convince prospects to join him.

    He didn't do a bad job convincing players on the direction of the program this year, but he didn't close. In SEC recruiting, failing to play to the whistle leads to getting ear-holed by decommitments. 

Winner: USC's Rebound Class

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    Jaxson Dart's signing gave the Trojans two excellent quarterback prospects.
    Jaxson Dart's signing gave the Trojans two excellent quarterback prospects.Credit: 247Sports

    In no universe should a proud, prestigious program located in beautiful Southern California and with all the resources of USC ever finish 64th in recruiting.

    It's inexplicable, and it's a fireable offense. So when the pressure cooker turned up on head coach Clay Helton last year, the 2020 class wasn't the only reason, but it played a part. 

    Though the Trojans came up just short of a Pac-12 championship this year, they did go 5-1, and they corrected things on the trail, too. They currently have the nation's 13th-ranked class, and they grabbed some exceptional players on both sides of the ball.

    If they can somehow convince the nation's top-ranked player, Korey Foreman, to stay in California in the late period, this would be a grand-slam class that can continue the upward trend.

    Though Helton and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell already had long-time pledge Miller Moss in the fold, they were the beneficiary of late-surging 4-star quarterback Jaxson Dart inking on the dotted line on early signing day, choosing USC over UCLA, Arizona State and others.

    That's big news for a program that needed a pair of quarterbacks after the departure of JT Daniels to Georgia and Jake Garcia's decommitment. 

    Getting Joseph Manjack out of Texas in the early session was big, too. The Trojans have a lot of impact players in this class like outside linebacker Julien Simon, receiver Kyron Ware-Hudson, tight end Michael Trigg and cornerback Prophet Brown.

    There are quality players on both sides of the ball, and no matter who is coaching USC over the next few years, the pantry is going to be restocked after last year's recruiting debacle.

Loser: Pac-12 Recruiting Outside of Oregon and USC

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The talent gap isn't closing in the Pac-12.

    Last year, the conference placed four teams in the top 25 of 247Sports' composite team rankings. But this year, that number has shrunk to two. Both years, the league has had seven top-50 teams, but the difference at the top is staggering.

    Oregon is recruiting at an elite level, currently ranked sixth nationally, and the Trojans come in at No. 13. But it's crickets after that. You've got to go all the way down to California at No. 26 to find the next Pac-12 team.

    Noticeably absent is long-time stalwart Washington, which is currently ranked 32nd nationally after striking out on in-state 5-star Emeka Egbuka. It would also be an upset if the Huskies kept No. 2 overall player JT Tuimoloau, though he hasn't made a decision.

    Jimmy Lake hasn't had the same magic touch as a head coach he did as the U-Dub defensive coordinator.

    The big concern for Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards is hanging on to his commitments. The Sun Devils are struggling on the trail, and two of their best prospects, Isaiah Johnson and Ezra Dotson-Ovetade, didn't sign on the dotted line in the early session.

    Arizona State could still get them to sign, obviously, but the Devils have to keep recruiting them.

    UCLA head coach Chip Kelly is by no means making a lot of noise on the recruiting trail. But on a positive note for a "loser" slide, they were able to hang onto Devin Kirkwood, who decommitted from them earlier in the month, despite losing out on the Jaxson Dart race. Kirkwood stuck with the Bruins rather than head to USC.

    They also flipped Michigan defensive lineman/linebacker Quintin Somerville to give them another difference-maker. Furthermore, they added Josh Moore, and getting those three players helped them move up to 35th nationally. That's better than where they've been, but is it enough?

    That's the question the entire Pac-12, outside of USC and Oregon, must ask.

Winner: Xavian Sorey

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    Credit: 247Sports

    With his finalists, 5-star IMG Academy playmaking linebacker Xavian Sorey couldn't have made a poor choice. But the one he made is going to wind up being a mutually terrific decision for him and the Georgia Bulldogs.

    Though UGA again fell short of competing for its first national title since 1980, the Bulldogs have a ton of talent on defense and keep loading up on that side of the ball. They've also been a different team since JT Daniels took over at quarterback, so there will be a lot of optimism in 2021 if he stays in school.

    Adding an elite athlete like Sorey to the linebacking corps will help UGA take it up a notch on that side of the ball.

    Though Monty Rice hasn't made a decision on his NFL future yet, he has played much of the season with a foot injury. UGASports.com's Anthony Dasher reported the Butkus Award finalist is going to skip the team's bowl game, which would indicate he's probably leaning toward entering the draft.

    That could open a spot for a fast, athletic 'backer like Sorey who could team up with Nakobe Dean to give the Bulldogs one of the nation's best duos in its 3-4 scheme. Plenty of other elite players are back there, too, thanks to head coach Kirby Smart's impressive recruiting the last few years.

    Given the way defensive coordinator Dan Lanning is developing defenders, especially on the second level, this was a no-brainer for Sorey. He would have been just another 5-star in Alabama's elite class, and though he would have been a headliner for the Florida Gators, his decision made a lot of sense.

    Lanning is a better defensive coordinator than Todd Grantham at UF or Pete Golding at Alabama, so Sorey is going to get the best development he can unless Lanning leaves for another gig. He, Smael Mondon and Jamon Dumas-Johnson are going to form a formidable corps for the next three or four years.

    Sorey will be a future star, and he should work his way firmly into the mix for the Dawgs in 2021. He's that good.

Loser: Michigan Defensive Coordinator Don Brown

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Don Brown is one of the greatest defensive coordinators in college football, and he has done nothing wrong. But the veteran was the victim of two tough decisions that went against the Michigan Wolverines in the early signing period.

    With all the questions surrounding head coach Jim Harbaugh's future and the disappointing season on the field, there was always going to be some movement in Big Blue's class.

    Though they grabbed an offensive playmaker in running back Donovan Edwards and kept wide receiver Xavier Worthy, an electrifying difference-maker who was committed to the Wolverines but flirted with Alabama late in the cycle, it wasn't all positive.

    The defensive side lost two pivotal prospects.

    It suffered a major blow when 4-star linebacker Branden Jennings flipped to Maryland, yet another late-cycle win for Terrapins head coach Mike Locksley that came at the expense of his Big Ten counterpart. The Wolverines needed Jennings' playmaking ability on the second level.

    Another shocker was defensive end/edge rusher Quintin Somerville backing off his long-time commitment to Harbaugh and instead signing with UCLA. 

    There's nothing wrong with Michigan's No. 12 class, and anybody saying this class is worthy of an overall "loser" label is incorrect. But the defensive class is a little below the program's lofty standards. Just three of the 11 4-star and 5-star prospects project on the defensive side of the ball, and Michigan needs standouts there.

    Edwards and Worthy should generate excitement, but the pair of losses on the defensive side will sting for a long time. Both will be great players for other programs.

Winner: The Steady Superlatives

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    Ken Ruinard/Associated Press

    Boring can sometimes be beautiful.

    There was absolutely zero drama during the early signing period for three programs we're all used to seeing at the top of the rankings. That was a good thing.

    When players commit to the Clemson Tigers, Ohio State Buckeyes and Oklahoma Sooners, they normally stay. That was the case again this year.

    Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley received an expected signing from offensive lineman Savion Byrd, who chose the Big 12 powerhouse over SMU and LSU on Wednesday, but there really wasn't much doubt where he would go. He was always going to be a part of Riley's exceptional offensive front.

    Ohio State won't overtake Alabama for the recruiting crown, but it still has a class virtually anybody else in the nation would be proud of, and it should finish second overall. Its drama was over the week before the early signing period when the nation's top receiver, Emeka Egbuka, pledged.

    As for Clemson, it wants one-time commitment Korey Foreman to come back into the fold, but it's been a long time since anybody has heard of Dabo Swinney's team during the 2021 recruiting cycle. The Tigers' fifth-ranked class has been in the barn for a while.

    Clemson is waiting on star offensive tackle Tristan Leigh and Foreman to make their decisions, but the way it has recruited this year has enabled it to go big-game hunting in the late cycle.

    Look for Ohio State and Oklahoma to follow suit. But even if they strike out with the other top prospects (hint: They won't), they're still going to put together elite recruiting classes.

    None of these three made any headlines Wednesday, but the lack of surprises is a good thing.

        

    All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter at @Brad_Shepard.