Many programs have already filled a majority of the spots in their 2016 recruiting classes. But plenty of high-profile prospects won’t make their college decisions until the weeks leading into National Signing Day in early February. While fans, for the most part, have shifted their attention to their favorite programs’ recruiting efforts, learning how other programs are faring on the trail will provide context. With the 2015 college football season kicking off in less than a week, here are 10 storylines to track:
Ohio State’s bid for the nation’s top class
Ohio State has had plenty of success on the recruiting trail since it hired Urban Meyer as head coach in November 2011, but winning the national championship—after dealing a major blow to the five-star-hoarding SEC with a win over Alabama in the playoff semifinals—makes Columbus an even more attractive option for the nation’s top prospects.
The Buckeyes currently lead Rivals.com’s 2016 team rankings. Their class comprises verbal commitments from 19 players, including two five-star prospects (defensive end Nick Bosa and running back Kareem Walker) and 13 four-stars.
For the purposes of Ohio State’s roster, whether or not it finishes with the No. 1 recruiting class is immaterial. The Buckeyes are going to bring in a talented group of players this cycle—even if that group ultimately registers below, say, what LSU or USC adds. Still, if Ohio State remains atop the recruiting rankings, this would mark the first time in Rivals.com’s history that a Big Ten team lands the nation’s best class.
Every top QB has already made his college decision
If you were holding out hope that the team you root for could add a top-flight quarterback in the class of 2016, here’s some bad news: There are zero passers ranked in the Rivals250 who have yet to issue a verbal commitment. From Ole Miss pledge Shea Patterson, the no. 1 overall prospect in the class, to four-star Stanford commit K.J. Costello to Kansas State-bound dual-threat prospect Skylar Thompson, all 17 signal callers in that distinguished group are off the board.
Any of those QBs could decide to decommit between now and Signing Day, but without some reconsideration, programs hoping to land a quality prospect at the most important position on the field will either need to find an under-the-radar stud who other programs passed on or wait until 2017. If choosing the latter route, they better move quickly. The three top rising junior quarterbacks in the country have already pledged to attend schools: Hunter Johnson, Tate Martell and Shawn Robinson.
Can Miami keep its class intact?
The Hurricanes were stringing together a strong recruiting class last year, only to watch more than 10 players renounce their pledges to the program before the turn of the new year. Miami currently checks in at No. 6 in Rivals.com’s 2016 team rankings with 22 verbal commitments, including seven from four-star prospects. Will all of those players—many of whom have drawn scholarship offers from programs with stronger on-field track records of late—sign with the Hurricanes this February? That will depend in part on how Miami fares in the ACC this fall, as well as whether the program decides to make a coaching change.
Yes, those two factors are connected: If the Hurricanes crash and burn during conference play, their commits could begin warming up to alternative options. The most highly touted player who has announced his intentions to play for Miami, top-50 wide receiver Sam Bruce, recently said his recruiting process is “over unless something happens at Miami.”
Can Michigan continue its summer surge?
New coaches often benefit from a first-year “bump” on the recruiting trail. Jim Harbaugh was expected to inject a particularly strong charge into Michigan’s recruiting efforts because of his charisma, celebrity and NFL background. Remember last year when five-star tight end Chris Clark compared Harbaugh to LeBron James? Yet the Wolverines’ 2016 class didn’t really begin to take shape until this summer. Between June 2 and July 3, when Harbaugh wasn’t throwing out first pitches at MLB games or running around shirtless at satellite camps, he helped Michigan secure verbal commitments from 15 players—including the most highly regarded prospect in the class, offensive lineman Ben Bredeson, and five other prospects given four-star ratings by Rivals.com. That’s an impressive stretch that could yield several quality starters. The Wolverines look likely to finish this cycle well behind rival Ohio State on the recruiting scoreboard, but Michigan should begin making up ground if it show signs of improvement in the Big Ten this fall.
Can Florida recruit well without on-field progress?
The Gators have finished among the nation’s top five in Rivals.com’s team recruiting rankings seven times since 2003. But Florida’s ’15 class lagged amid wariness over former coach (and now Auburn defensive coordinator) Will Muschamp’s future before checking in at No. 23.
First year coach Jim McElwain has pulled in enough ’16 talent—including four four-star recruits, among them top-60 cornerback Chauncey Gardner—to position Florida at No. 12 heading into the fall. But the Gators will have to try to add to (and keep together) that haul even though they probably won’t contend in the SEC East.
It’s encouraging that Florida was able to sign two key prospects in offensive tackle Martez Ivey and defensive end CeCe Jefferson last February even though McElwain had yet to coach a game in The Swamp. But the Gators could flop in McElwain’s first season due to uncertainty under center and a shaky offensive line. That definitely won’t help them compete with Florida State, Miami, SEC heavyweights and other programs for top in-state talents like five-star defensive end Shavar Manuel.
Where will Rashan Gary end up?
The nation’s top uncommitted prospect has visited schools in the SEC, ACC and Big Ten, and he plans to take officials visits this fall. Some have viewed Michigan as the favorite to land Gary, a five-star defensive tackle, since the program hired his former coach at Paramus Catholic, Chris Partridge, to a recruiting operations position in January. But a lot could change between now and whenever Gary announces his decision.
The recent history of New Jersey’s top recruits doesn’t offer any hints, either. Between 2002—the first year Rivals.com ranked recruiting classes—and ’16, the Garden State has produced 18 prospects ranked in the nation’s top 50. Among that group, four chose Big East schools, three opted for the Pac-10/Pac-12 schools, three picked ACC schools, three chose SEC schools, two picked Notre Dame and two chose Big Ten schools.
Gary, of course, is undecided. New Jersey’s other top-50 prospect in the class of 2016, running back Kareem Walker, is committed to Ohio State.
Top recruits who could flip before Signing Day
It happens every year. Many of the nation’s top recruits who have already issued verbal commitments decide they want to start looking around. Who from the class of 2016 is a candidate to renege on an earlier pledge this fall?
If Golden doesn’t get things turned around, don’t be surprised to see a handful of the players who have pledged to Miami, including Bruce, open up their recruitments.
Linebacker Mique Juarez (No. 5 overall) is the second-highest-ranked prospect—behind Patterson—who is currently committed to a school. Though the North Torrance (Calif.) High standout announced his intentions to attend USC in January, he’s still considering other programs, including cross-town rival UCLA.
Schools off to fast starts for 2017
With less than six months before Signing Day 2016, most programs are spending a lot of time filling out and/or holding together their recruiting classes for February. But some are getting a head start on 2017.
Ohio State has already earned verbal commitments from 10 players in that class, among them five-star offensive lineman Josh Myers and top-60 defensive backs Shaun Wade and Isaiah Pryor. Miami has secured nine verbal pledges from rising juniors, and six have declared their intentions to attend Alabama.
It’s hard to put too much stock into those recruits’ proclamations this early in the cycle; some of them are bound to change their minds before February 2017. But the programs having success with ’17 recruits are, at the very least, showing they inspire confidence about their on-field futures. Were that not the case, those prospects might think twice before committing, even though they know they can always reverse course sometime next year.
Coaching uncertainty in South Carolina
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier called a press conference this summer to fire back at the “enemies” who believe his program is on the decline. The 70-year-old coach wanted to tell anyone who would listen that he wasn’t close to hanging it up even though he indicated last December that he thought he would only coach for two or three more years. That timeline provided ammunition for negative recruiting against the Gamecocks, which probably explains why Spurrier felt he needed to get his message out a few days before the program’s big Gamecock Cookout recruiting event.
How is South Carolina’s 2016 class shaping up so far? It’s ranked 40th by Rivals.com, 11th in the SEC. Among the 14 prospects to have given the Gamecocks verbal commitments so far, four were assessed four-star ratings and three are ranked in the Rivals250. One of those four-stars is heralded dual-threat quarterback Brandon McIlwain.
Still, if the Gamecocks turn in another mediocre season, expect the Spurrier retirement talk to resurface, which will only make it more difficult for him to fend off other programs for recruits.
The Big 12’s lack of momentum
The college football world spent the off-season debating whether the Big 12 should A) add a conference championship game, B) expand to 12 teams or C) both, after it was excluded from the inaugural College Football Playoff field. Falling to attract top prospects won't help the Big 12 win its perception battle.
At No. 21, Texas Tech tops all Big 12 squads in Rivals.com’s 2016 rankings. While the Red Raiders should be pleased that they’re recruiting well despite their win total dropping from eight in 2013 to four last season, the results for the entire Big 12 are less promising. The two programs the conference has historically relied upon remain relevant nationally, Oklahoma and Texas, are slotted 52nd and 58th, respectively, with 18 combined commitments.
No, the rankings don’t paint a complete picture; the Longhorns, for instance, lead the Big 12 with a 3.38 average star rating. And there’s plenty of time for the league’s teams to bolster their hauls this fall. But many of them have quite a bit of work to do before Signing Day.