B/R Recruiting: Top College Football Storylines Before Early Signing Period
For those of us who pine for the wild-and-wacky halcyon days of a college football national signing day in all its chaos and glory, well, 2021 is for us. In fact, everything's already been turned upside down heading into the Dec. 15-17 early signing period.
This year's silly season has already provided coaching turmoil surrounding elite programs like Oklahoma, USC, Notre Dame, LSU, Oregon, Miami and Florida. Toss in more than 2,600 players in the transfer portal looking to take advantage of the one-time, penalty-free transfer option and that the Oregon job is still open, and who knows what's going to happen during the last week before the early signing period.
It's going to be interesting to watch all these chaotic storylines.
Will more players than normal sign in the late period after it became trendy to make things official in December the past few years? Will elite teams stop short of signing a full allotment of prospects because of the numerous options in the portal?
Here are some of the top situations to watch leading up to next week's start of the early signing period.
Who Will Stumble?
It's going to be difficult for any team to spiral out of control as much as Oklahoma did when Lincoln Riley shockingly bolted for USC.
For a while there, it seemed like things were falling apart in Norman. You could argue that's still the case with tons of recruits and current players either electing to decommit or enter the transfer portal. There's no real way for the Sooners to stabilize this year's class with so many important defections.
Guys like athlete/running back Raleek Brown (committed to USC), defensive tackle Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy (Texas A&M), defensive end Derrick Moore, offensive lineman Demetrius Hunter and linebacker Kobie McKinzie (committed to Texas) are massive losses to an Oklahoma class that tumbled out of the top 20.
The 2023 haul for the Sooners took some major shrapnel, too, as 5-star quarterback Malachi Nelson bolted for Los Angeles with Riley. New coach Brent Venables can still salvage a quality class with a good finish, and Rivals' Sam Spiegelman noted a few guys the former Clemson defensive coordinator should target.
Still, this has been a tough go for the Sooners. So, who is there with them?
It's hard to imagine Oregon's class staying steady after coach Mario Cristobal left the Ducks to head home to the Miami Hurricanes. Oregon's class currently ranks 12th nationally, but with the decommitment of 4-star quarterback Tyler Bailey and offensive lineman Kelvin Banks on Monday, it feels like more are coming.
After all, these guys have no idea who their coach is going to be. The Ducks need to move fast to find Cristobal's replacement. LSU is struggling, too, down to 11 commitments after Jake Johnson decommitted Tuesday.
Everybody is going to start jumping on these newly available prospects with no time to spare.
Who Will Stabilize and Surge?
There's already evidence recruits are more than receptive to Lincoln Riley at USC. Quite simply, he's going to crush it there, and the Trojans are going to be elite again before long. The only Pac-12 coach who could hang with him on the trail (Mario Cristobal) bolted.
But just how much of an impact can Riley have this year on a class that was completely deconstructed and currently ranks 90th with five commits? The answer may surprise you. Raleek Brown (5-star) and Fabian Ross (4-star) are already in the boat, and there are some massive fish left in the ocean (more on that later).
While Florida's Billy Napier (40th-ranked class) and Cristobal (55th-ranked class) are sitting on recruiting gold mines in the Sunshine State, they don't have enough time to turn things around this year.
Look for them to have some nice wins in the living room to show their recruiting prowess, but the real impact will come in the '23 class and beyond. That's especially true for Cristobal, an elite recruiter who is finally back in South Florida.
According to 247Sports' Andrew Ivins, "[critics] need to understand what exactly the Hurricanes are getting in Cristobal and that's a battle-tested recruiter that's going to get the best talent to Coral Gables."
Another couple of coaches who could stabilize the tenuous recruiting situations at their respective schools are Brian Kelly at LSU (No. 15 class), and Kelly's replacement at Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman.
"Freeman will recruit there, no doubt, as he is young, energetic and can relate to players having been so close to his own playing days," Rivals' Mike Farrell wrote about the Irish, who have the nation's fifth-ranked class.
Guys like Jimbo Fisher, Steve Sarkisian, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart may poach elite decommitments from programs this year, but the recruiting heat is going to be turned up several places in the very near future.
Transfer Portal Will Play a Bigger Role Than Ever Before in Class Size
The transfer portal is going to become the great equalizer for recruiting misses, and the players there are going to outfit rosters and make major impacts immediately.
A perfect example of that may be at Ole Miss, where coach Lane Kiffin has struck out this recruiting cycle in landing a quarterback. Even so, it may not wind up being a big deal, thanks to the portal. According to 247Sports' Brandon Marcello, former UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel is set to visit Oxford, where his former offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is now Kiffin's play-caller (unless he heads back to his alma mater to call plays for Brent Venables at Oklahoma).
The Rebels also already have hosted star running back and TCU transfer Zach Evans. Additionally, they have been mentioned along with Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech as a possible landing spot for '21 top prospect Quinn Ewers, who reclassified to last year's class and signed with Ohio State before transferring.
With star quarterback prospects like Ewers, Gabriel, Michael Penix Jr., Adrian Martinez and preseason Heisman Trophy favorite Spencer Rattler in the portal, there are plenty of potentially elite options.
Running backs like Evans and Jahmyr Gibbs, receivers such as Theo Wease and many more are among the 2,600 players currently in the transfer portal.
How are all the transfers going to affect the bottom line of 25 players teams can sign in recruiting versus a roster limit of 85? Which teams are going to sign full classes and which ones are going to stop short in order to be more aggressive in the portal? It's something every program is having to balance.
Pair of Elite DBs Domani Jackson and Kamari Wilson in the Spotlight
Arguably the best, most college-ready prospect in the entire 2022 recruiting class is still on the board.
That would be 6'1", 185-pound defensive back prospect Domani Jackson, a former USC commit who pledged to the Trojans in January when Clay Helton was still coach and decommitted in November in the midst of all the turmoil.
Though he flirted with Michigan for a while, Jackson announced last week he's down to the Trojans and Alabama, where he's visited multiple times. The Mater Dei High School star is being recruited heavily by everybody, including former USC Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart.
If Lincoln Riley can somehow pull the nation's fourth-rated player back away from Nick Saban and the Tide, it'll truly be a massive win.
Jackson is the biggest remaining uncommitted recruiting prize, but he's far from the only one.
The nation's top-rated safety, 5-star Kamari Wilson, is announcing on Dec. 15, with Georgia, Florida State, LSU and Texas A&M as the finalists. The Bulldogs hold all the 247Sports Crystal Ball projections.
This is a year for elite defensive backs, and it's only fitting the No. 2-rated cornerback (Jackson) and top-rated safety (Wilson) remain without final destinations secured.
All eyes are going to be on these two players, and their pledges could hold immediate ramifications, not only for the present, like Georgia's and Alabama's recruiting dominance, but also the future if Riley can convince Jackson to stay home.
Merry Flip-Mas, Anyone?
It would be a massive, unexpected turn of events if 5-star defensive tackle Walter Nolen wound up anywhere but Texas A&M.
But that hasn't stopped Tennessee coach Josh Heupel from trying to keep the Knoxville product home and play for the Vols, who hosted him on an official visit a week ago.
"Coach Heupel is very ... genuine and down to earth, very straightforward," Nolen's mother, Yolunda told 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong. "I appreciate those things about him. He seems to be very honest. I appreciate all that about him."
Jimbo Fisher is probably going to hang on to the jumbo defensive stalwart to be the centerpiece of his class, but Nolen is one of several players worth watching who could be on flip watch.
While the nation's top-ranked player, Travis Hunter, seems solid to Florida State despite the Seminoles' on-field struggles, he did visit home-state Georgia a couple of times this fall, so it's at least something to consider.
Kelvin Banks wouldn't be considered a "flip" per se after decommitting from Oregon, but Texas and Texas A&M could hop in the picture now that he's no longer pledged to the Ducks.
Other realistic flip candidates are 5-star defensive tackle Tyre West, who has been committed to Georgia but visited Florida State last week and will be in Knoxville to see Tennessee this weekend.
Elite offensive tackle and Kentucky commit Kiyaunta Goodwin already has visited Alabama and Florida State with trips to Michigan, Michigan State and Texas A&M on the horizon. Khamauri Rogers (Miami), Sam McCall (Florida State) and C.J. Williams (Notre Dame) are among others looking.
Decommitments and flips happen every year, and there are going to be more than usual with all the coaching turnover this offseason. Don't be surprised if there are other out-of-nowhere shockers, too.
Can Texas A&M Close the Rankings Gap with 2 SEC Opponents?
There is perhaps no team with as much potential upward trajectory in this class as Texas A&M. Jimbo Fisher's Aggies are already ranked second in the nation, passing Alabama with the massive flip of former Oklahoma 5-star defensive tackle pledge Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy on Monday.
While Georgia (ahead of them) and Alabama (just behind) aren't finished, there are plenty of star pledges left on Fisher's radar.
Five-star defensive backs Jacoby Mathews and Denver Harris are down to Texas A&M and LSU, and it seems like they may wind up in different places. Harris seems closest to committing to A&M, so that's going to be interesting to watch if the Aggies can get one or even both.
Elite linebacker Harold Perkins is the nation's 11th-rated overall player, and like Stewart (No. 8), all the Crystal Ball projections point him to Texas A&M.
With offensive lineman Kelvin Banks, edge-rusher Enai White and Anthony Lucas all heavily considering Texas A&M, it could be a huge close. Some of those dominoes could fall in the early signing period, too. Will they have a big enough finish to overtake Georgia or Bama?
Obviously, if the Crimson Tide snag Domani Jackson and Isaiah Bond and Georgia lands Kamari Wilson and others, they'll continue to stay at the top. But the Aggies are right there among the most elite teams in the country this year with prospects.
Elite edge-rusher Marvin Jones Jr. is still a huge piece of the puzzle who has Georgia, Alabama and Florida State in the mix. Where will the big three in the SEC finish in recruiting?
Tanner Bailey Suddenly Becomes 1 of the Hottest Names on the Market
You simply don't see quarterbacks on the market this time of year.
Longtime USC commit Devin Brown's decision to flip to Ohio State last week took the big-name signal-callers off the board.
The nation's fifth-rated quarterback was a huge pull for the Buckeyes, who lost Quinn Ewers to the transfer portal after Jack Miller and the program parted ways. For a little while, there were no headline-making quarterbacks available.
But you knew 2021 wouldn't let that go for long.
After Mario Cristobal left Oregon for Miami on Monday, Ducks quarterback commit Tanner Bailey followed closely behind. The 4-star signal-caller now will start his recruitment over.
With offers from virtually every SEC program, including home-state Alabama and Auburn, will Bailey be hotly pursued by either of those teams? Bailey told AL.com's Ben Thomas he still hopes to sign Dec. 15.
"Honestly, it is just a wait-and-see game right now," he said. "I'm open to everyone. I've just got to let it play out. I don't have any answers right now. In the next few days as schools start contacting me, maybe I can get more of an idea where it might lead. Right now, I don't know too much."
Making a decision in nine days seems like a bold hope for a player who mentioned he was at "square A" of his recruitment. It's also possible he could head to Coral Gables, where the Hurricanes have just eight commitments (though one is a quarterback in 4-star Jacurri Brown).
Nick Evers followed suit with a decommitment from Florida late Tuesday night, and Texas, Notre Dame and Kansas State were mentioned as possible destinations. Now, two top signal-callers are on the market late in the game.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.