Burning questions for 2013 National Signing Day
It's that time of year again. It's a time for faxes, baseball caps and stuffy gymnasium assemblies. It's a time for 17 and 18 year olds to take center stage, with fan bases across the country clinging to their every word. And with the prospect of actual games still months in the distance, it's a time to focus on the future of college football -- namely, determining where the stars of tomorrow will come into their own.
This year's Signing Day is shaping up to be a good one, beginning with the much-anticipated commitment of the country's No. 1 recruit at 7:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday. Here are seven burning questions to monitor throughout the day.
Where will Robert Nkemdiche land?
Every recruiting class is defined by its top prospect, and 2013 is no exception. Just one year after No. 1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham signed with Missouri, defensive end Nkemdiche appears poised to pledge to another less heralded SEC program: Ole Miss.
Nkemdiche's recruitment has been a highly publicized whirlwind. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder originally committed to Clemson last February, leveraging his scholarship to help teammates land offers. In July, reports surfaced that Nkemdiche had given the Tigers an ultimatum: They could offer Ryan Carter, a two-star defensive back out of Grayson High in Loganville, Ga., or they could let Nkemdiche walk.
Nkemdiche wound up decommitting in November amid family pressure to join older brother Denzel, a rising sophomore linebacker who racked up 82 tackles in 2012, in Oxford, Miss. And though Robert was courted by the likes of Alabama, Florida and Georgia, among others, he has remained a heavy Rebels' lean.
Early Wednesday morning, Nkemdiche will officially announce his decision between Ole Miss and LSU. If he does choose the Rebels as anticipated, he could spark a major momentum boost for Hugh Freeze's squad. Which brings us to ...
Can Ole Miss secure a top-five recruiting class?
It's not just Nkemdiche. Ole Miss -- the same Ole Miss that lost 15 consecutive SEC games from 2010-11 -- has a chance to lock up three top-15 recruits in the class of 2013.
Laquon Treadwell, the Crete, Ill., wideout who amassed 1,450 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior, committed to the Rebels on Jan. 17. He should immediately bolster an aerial attack that came on strong toward the end of last season. Laremy Tunsil, the top-ranked offensive tackle in this year's cycle, will choose Ole Miss, Alabama, Florida State or Georgia. Originally pegged as toss-up between the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs, the Lake City, Fla., product is reportedly favoring the Rebels following his official visit to Oxford on Jan. 25.
And that's not to mention South Panola, Miss., safety Antonio Conner, who will choose between 'Bama and Ole Miss, or Prattville, Ala., offensive tackle Austin Golson, who will pick either Ole Miss or Florida State. The Rebels' 2013 crop currently boasts an average star rating of 3.45; in 2012, it posted a mark of 2.95.
Ole Miss is going head-to-head for kids with perennial recruiting powers Alabama and LSU, and, in some cases, it stands a better than average shot at winning. That, in and of itself, says a great deal about what Freeze and his staff have accomplished over the past several months.
Which touted prospect will flip on Signing Day?
This year, several prized prospects could be the subject of Signing Day drama. But while names like Chris Jones (Mississippi State) and Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State) have sparked message board debate, two players in particular -- cornerback Jalen Ramsey and running back Altee Tenpenny -- should find themselves squarely in the spotlight.
A five-star recruit out of Nashville, Ramsey has been committed to USC since mid-July. He made three interceptions during his senior season at Brentwood Academy, and he wowed scouts during the U.S. Army All-American circuit. Yet given the Trojans' disappointing campaign and the recent firing of defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders, Ramsey seems to be reconsidering his options. He's been heavily targeted by Florida State, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him head south instead of west.
Tenpenny, on the other hand, is the top-ranked prospect in the state of Arkansas. He committed to 'Bama in January 2012, and he seems like an ideal fit for Nick Saban's prolific backfield. Tenpenny rushed for 1,379 yards and 21 scores as a senior at North Little Rock High.
Still, with the stable of backs primed to head to Tuscaloosa -- Derrick Henry and Alvin Kamara could both sign with the Tide on Wednesday -- Tenpenny could elect to play for the in-state Razorbacks instead. Unsurprisingly, new coach Bret Bielema made Tenpenny a top priority as soon as he took the helm on Dec. 4.
Of course, it's worth pointing out that this year's biggest flips might have already happened. Elusive running back Dontre Wilson left Oregon for Ohio State on Monday night, while five-star defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson decommitted from Texas over the weekend and is poised to sign with Alabama.
Can Alabama defend its recruiting reign?
Saban's squad has dominated on the field in recent years, but it's dominated just as heavily on the recruiting trail. The Tide have claimed Rivals' top-ranked class in four of the past five cycles, and they're in great position to defend their crown. They already boast 15 four- and five-star commits (including Reuben Foster's commitment on Monday night, but not including Robinson), and they're in the running for several more big names. Tunsil, defensive tackle Eddie Vanderdoes, linebacker Matthew Thomas, Kamara and defensive tackle Dee Liner all count 'Bama in their final consideration sets.
The latter two seem most likely to join Saban's crew. The ultra-versatile Kamara has gone back-and-forth between Alabama and Georgia, though many pundits have projected him to the Tide down the stretch. Meanwhile, Liner has been tabbed as a 'Bama lean ever since he decommitted from Auburn in the aftermath of Gene Chizik's ouster.
At worst, it's hard to imagine the Tide finishing lower than second or third in Rivals' team rankings. In recruiting, as in winning championships, there's Alabama and there's everyone else.
Which team will win the battle of Los Angeles?
A few months ago, this wouldn't have been a question. USC possessed far-and-away the top recruiting class in the nation. And it's not as if the Trojans' haul has totally fallen apart. Four five-star prospects have already enrolled for Lane Kiffin: Quarterback Max Browne, defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow, safety Su'a Cravens and safety Leon McQuay III.
Still, USC's crop has suffered some recent setbacks, while UCLA's class has continued to gain steam. And depending on how several Signing Day announcements shake out, the Bruins stand a chance at improbably topping the Trojans.
First, there's the aforementioned uncertainty surrounding Ramsey. Then there are the decisions of Vanderdoes and defensive end Kylie Fitts, onetime USC pledges who are now seriously considering UCLA. Finally, there are the other prospects Jim Mora and company could reel in on Feb. 6: Linebacker Isaac Savaiinaea, quarterback Asiantii Woulard and offensive tackle and running back Cornelius Elder all could be poised to take their talents to Westwood.
The smart money says both schools finish with top-10 classes. Yet which ends up with a more highly regarded crop is very much up in the air -- a notion that would've seemed impossible even a few short weeks ago.
Which new coach will make the biggest impact?
Recruiting with a shortened cycle is always difficult. At least, it's always difficult if your name isn't Urban Meyer. Newly hired coaches face the challenge of attracting new prospects while persuading committed ones to stay put, a task that further complicates already trying circumstances.
In the class of 2013, Auburn's Gus Malzahn knows this better than anyone. And on the heels decommitments from Foster and Liner, he was asked to salvage the Tigers' once-acclaimed haul.
Auburn reaffirmed the commitment of five-star defensive end Carl Lawson over the weekend, which eliminates one possible source of Signing Day disaster on the Plains. But Malzahn still has plenty at stake on Wednesday. Coveted cornerback MacKensie Alexander will decide between Auburn, Clemson, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, while Under Armour All-America defensive end Montravius Adams will select Auburn, Clemson, Georgia or Alabama.
Also keep an eye on Arkansas' Bielema, who'll find out if his last-ditch efforts were enough to sway Tenpenny from Tuscaloosa to Fayetteville.
Who will make the best Signing Day announcement?
Isaiah Crowell's 2011 declaration -- when he pulled out a mini-Uga to cement his commitment to Georgia -- remains the Signing Day gold standard. But the possibilities are endless. Here's hoping some valiant young prospect unveils a baby tiger in a show of respect to Auburn, Clemson or LSU. Or, better yet, that a recruit rides to greet fans and media on an elephant wearing a Houndstooth hat.
At the very least, let's hope someone tops last year's best announcement, which incorporated a bowtie and suspenders.