Early National Signing Day 2021: Winners and Losers for Every Power Conference
Although it might feel untrue, No. 1 overall prospect Travis Hunter flipping to Jackson State is not the only headline that matters from college football's early signing period.
Yes, that sport-shaking decision is incredibly newsworthy. We'll be discussing that as part of Florida State's miserable day, too.
But across the Power Five conferences—the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC—standout teams emerged on both the positive and negative sides of the recruiting aisle.
The choices are both comprehensive and Wednesday-specific. Oklahoma and Florida, for example, endured a string of decommitments that hammered the class overall, while FSU would probably like to remove Dec. 15, 2021, from history.
ACC Winner: North Carolina Tar Heels
As things stand, only three ACC programs—North Carolina, Clemson and Florida State—have reeled in top-25 classes. And the latter two are closer to "losers" on this sliding scale.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels cleaned up locally. Mack Brown's staff landed signatures from the top-rated prospects in both North Carolina and Virginia, landing 5-star defensive lineman Travis Shaw and 5-star offensive tackle Zach Rice, respectively.
UNC also secured four of North Carolina's top-six players and four of Virginia's top five prospects. All eight of those commitments held a 4- or 5-star billing.
That is how you build a program. Big W for the Tar Heels.
ACC Loser: Florida State Seminoles
Early in the morning, offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham reportedly left for Oregon. And it never got better from there.
Florida State looked like the choice for 4-star offensive tackle Julian Armella, but he decided to not sign in the early window. Four-star receiver Kevin Coleman had been trending toward FSU, but Miami has risen in his recruitment since hiring Mario Cristobal. Dillingham's departure likely won't help, either.
And then, that happened.
No. 1 overall prospect Travis Hunter—who'd been committed to FSU since March 2020—tossed a Seminoles hat in favor of Jackson State. Hunter's departure to a lower-division program sent shockwaves through the sport. And it preceded 4-star wide receiver Devaughn Mortimer flipping to Louisville.
Sure, it's still a top-20 class right now. Four-star athlete Azareyeh Thomas committed later in the day. But there's no way to spin Wednesday as a good day for Mike Norvell and Florida State.
Big 12 Winner: Texas Longhorns
It's called "spatula season" for good reason.
Wednesday alone, the Longhorns nabbed three in-state talents who had been committed elsewhere. They swiped 4-star cornerback Terrance Brooks from Ohio State, 3-star edge-rusher Ethan Burke from Michigan and 3-star athlete Xavion Brice from Oklahoma.
Suddenly, the Longhorns have a top-five haul. And after a disastrous season, they absolutely needed this off-field momentum.
Big 12 Loser: Oklahoma Sooners
Considering his 10-day timeline, Brent Venables put together an admirable finish to Oklahoma's recruiting class. This is a measured disappointment for the Sooners.
But, look, the 2022 cycle featured a stronger group of top-level prospects just three weeks ago.
Lincoln Riley's departure to USC understandably fractured this class. Five-star running back Raleek Brown followed Riley to USC, and 5-star defensive lineman Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy chose Texas A&M. Three more blue-chip prospects decommitted, and Xavion Brice flipped to Texas on Wednesday.
Big Ten Winner: The East Division
So far, Ohio State has pulled in the nation's No. 4 class. Penn State is close behind at No. 6, and current Big Ten champion Michigan is barely off the pace at No. 9.
That's not unexpected, though. Each of those programs has recruited at a high level for a half-decade at worst.
Behind them, though, the rest of the East Division signed top-30 classes. Indiana and Michigan State both added five 4-star prospects, checking in 20th and 21st, respectively. Rutgers (26) and Maryland (28) are just outside the coveted top-25 mark.
On the negative side, the talent gap between those four programs and the "Big Three" of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan isn't shrinking. That shouldn't be overlooked.
Still, these intra-division road trips are likely to provide a few more obstacles for the East's powers in future years.
Big Ten Loser: The West Division
Recruiting rankings do not mean everything. But if, despite two decades of evidence, you still don't believe they're highly impactful, remember the Big Ten in the 2022 cycle.
After the opening day of the December window, Iowa is the lone West division school that is ranked ahead of an East division team. And the Hawkeyes are narrowly ahead of just Rutgers and Maryland, so they're not even a top-five class in the conference.
Yes, some qualifiers are necessary.
Iowa and Wisconsin are known for in-house development. Northwestern has a similar reputation, and both Purdue and Minnesota have put together fine seasons recently. Illinois is positioned to sign its highest-ranked class since 2011, and Nebraska—well, maybe I don't have a pleasantry for Nebraska.
While this division has some quality programs, that doesn't make any of them championship-worthy. It's not a coincidence that the West is currently 0-8 in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Pac-12 Winner: The Worst Teams in 2021
This is nothing short of bizarre.
On-field success tends to drive excitement in recruiting, but the Pac-12 is defying that tendency in 2022. Stanford and Arizona—which both finished at the bottom of their divisions this season—have the league's top-ranked and No. 3 class, respectively.
Stanford is a prestigious university and has recruited well in the past, so it's not shocking. However, the Cardinal mustered the No. 43 haul last cycle and just posted the program's worst record since 2006—the year before Jim Harbaugh arrived. Forget that trend; Stanford has seven 4-stars in the nation's No. 15 class.
Arizona, meanwhile, trudged to a 1-11 mark in Jedd Fisch's debut season and last reached a bowl in 2017. Yet here are the Wildcats, owning a top-35 class for the first time in eight recruiting years.
What a strange year for Pac-12 recruiting.
Pac-12 Loser: Arizona State Sun Devils
Arizona State has a miserable outlook. That is the unfortunate truth of a frustrating situation.
While the NCAA investigates the program for recruiting violations, the Sun Devils are stuck. They can sell optimism and brighter days ahead, but that uncertainty is crushing. And it's given every recruiting rival a chance to capitalize on those questions.
As a result, Arizona State announced a six-player recruiting class that ranks 84th nationally.
Three-star safety Tristan Dunn and 3-star defensive lineman Dylan Hall are committed, though unsigned. Herm Edwards and his staff will undoubtedly be invested in transfers, too. ASU already has three additions from the portal, and more are expected.
But that investigation, one that has no timeline, is dramatically slowing the Sun Devils' efforts.
SEC Winner: Texas A&M Aggies
Let's be clear: You could pick any of a half-dozen other SEC programs and label them a definite winner. Alabama and Georgia cleaned up, as usual, while Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Auburn all surged to the finish and signed top-15 classes.
But, seriously, Texas A&M. My word.
The nation's No. 1 class features 5-star signees in defensive linemen Walter Nolen and Brownlow-Dindy, along with quarterback Conner Weigman. The Aggies are also hopeful to keep 5-star wideout Evan Stewart, who is verbally pledged but unsigned.
As if that's not enough, A&M added four top-100 players on Wednesday. Edge-rusher Enai White and defensive lineman Anthony Lucas bolstered a stellar D-line group, while tight end Jake Johnson and interior lineman Kam Dewberry join Weigman on offense.
Even if the Aggies don't formally keep the No. 1 class, 2022 is unquestionably the best recruiting cycle in program history.
SEC Loser: Florida Gators
Wednesday went great!
Five-star safety Kamari Wilson chose Florida over rival Georgia, and 4-star linebacker Shemar James—who decommitted in October—rejoined the Gators' class. They also plucked 4-star safety Devin Moore thanks to his late departure from Notre Dame.
And that terrific day allowed Florida to sign the SEC's lowest-ranked class. Yeah, the Gators are still behind Vanderbilt.
Now, would you rather have UF's haul than Vandy's? Definitely. However, that comparison shows just how significantly the inevitable coaching change hurt the program, which lost six 4-star prospects in the last two months—even excluding James—and eight players overall after dismissing Dan Mullen.
Florida has a few potential February signees on the radar, but Billy Napier will be busy exploring the transfer portal this offseason.