Five-star wide receiver Malachi Dupre will announce his college destination on Signing Day. (Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI)
There isn’t much left to do but sign on the dotted line. After months -- and in some cases, years -- of hype, the country’s top college football recruits will officially pledge their services to programs across the FBS on National Signing Day on Feb. 5. Of course, with all that hype comes questions. Will the SEC bounce back from a BCS title game loss to dominate on the recruiting trail? Can new coaches across the country leave their mark with their initial classes? Are there any surprises left from among the top uncommitted prospects?
Here are a handful of storylines to keep an eye on as National Signing Day unfolds.
Rivals100: The top prospects in 2014 l Rivals250
Could this be Nick Saban’s best class at Alabama?
The Crimson Tide are poised to claim the top signing class in Rivals.com’s team rankings for the sixth time in the last seven seasons. Still, this year's class has a chance to put Saban’s other star-studded hauls to shame. Alabama has landed the commitments of five five-star prospects, more than any other program, and a total that would represent the most blue-chip recruits Saban has secured during his tenure in Tuscaloosa.
The Tide might not be done yet, either. Alabama remains on the short lists of Malachi Dupre (the nation’s No. 2 wide receiver), Damien Mama (No. 1 offensive guard) and Rashaan Evans (No. 1 outside linebacker), all of whom will declare on Signing Day. And, of course, Saban has already grabbed the commitment of the country’s top overall recruit, defensive end Da’Shawn Hand, who pledged to the Crimson Tide back in November. Even coming off back-to-back losses to close out the 2013 campaign, Saban is cleaning up on the recruiting trail.
Which school will secure the surprise class of Signing Day?
Last February, Ole Miss shocked much of the nation by inking Rivals.com’s seventh-rated recruiting class. Coach Hugh Freeze’s bumper crop included two of the country’s top five recruits, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Now, it appears as if the most surprising recruiting class of 2014 could also hail from the SEC.
Kentucky caused a bit of a stir by finishing with the 29th-rated class in 2013; the program hadn’t finished higher than 50th in Rivals.com’s rankings in any of former coach Joker Phillips’ previous three seasons. But the Wildcats’ ‘14 haul is truly showing the kind of talent Mark Stoops can lure to Lexington. Kentucky’s 27-members class currently ranks 13th in the country, and includes 10 four-star prospects. That’s unheard of for the Wildcats. In the 11 seasons before Stoops’ arrival, the program had secured a total of 14 four-star players, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. Heck, defensive tackle Matt Elam selected Kentucky over Alabama last week.
Meanwhile, Tennessee could finish with a top-five class on the heels of a 5-7 season. Miami is on the verge of a top-10 haul despite losing four out of six games following a 7-0 start in 2013. And even with a relatively small 17-member class, Virginia is bouncing back from its worst season since 1981 with two homegrown five-star recruits -- safety Quin Blanding and defensive tackle Andrew Brown -- who are poised to sign with coach Mike London.
JOHNSON: Can Kentucky ride its improved recruiting to SEC success?
Can any team in the ACC catch up to Florida State?
Fresh off a BCS championship victory, the Seminoles appear poised to land the ACC’s premier class. They already have 27 commitments, including two five-star prospects: running back Dalvin Cook, an early enrollee, and wide receiver Travis Rudolph.
On Wednesday, Florida State's class could get even better. The Seminoles remain in the hunt for five-star receivers Dupre and Ermon Lane, and five-star offensive tackle Damian Prince. National Signing Day could make the national champs’ roster even more impressive.
Next to Florida State, two other ACC teams sit in Rivals.com’s top 15 classes: Miami (No. 11) and Clemson (No. 12). Like the Seminoles, the Hurricanes and the Tigers could also snag a few big-name prospects on Signing Day. The ACC -- at least the top half -- is in pretty good shape relative to other conferences. Four of the league’s programs currently rank among Rivals.com’s top 20 classes, second only to the SEC (nine).
How will Texas’ class shape up under Charlie Strong?
It’s not necessarily a surprise that Mack Brown’s final days as the coach of the Longhorns coincided with a dip in recruiting. Brown’s 2012 class finished second nationally with two five-star players and 15 four-star commits. But in '13, Texas dropped all the way to No. 24 in Rivals.com’s rankings. Under Brown, the Longhorns missed out on such in-state talents Johnny Manziel and Andrew Luck. And it didn’t help the coach's case when Jameis Winston, last season’s Heisman Trophy winner, admitted last fall that he wanted to play for Texas coming out of high school.
Enter Strong. The former Louisville coach -- and Florida assistant -- made a name for himself as a tenacious recruiter before he arrived in Austin. That’s unlikely to change now that he’s stationed in a major talent hotbed. Still, the coaching change hasn’t been without challenges. The Longhorns missed out on local standouts Speedy Noil and Otaro Alaka, both of whom committed to Texas A&M. Texas has, however, secured commitments from a number of four-star talents, including running back Donald Catalon and quarterback Jerrod Heard. Strong’s current group ranks 14th in Rivals.com's rankings, but more importantly, it ranks first among Big 12 teams. Several players who are scheduled to announce on Signing Day are keeping the Longhorns on their radar, too.
We won’t know much about what Strong can bring to Austin without a full recruiting cycle under his belt. But it’s not hard to imagine the coach eventually making Texas the class of Big 12 recruiting once again.
Which new coaching hire will make the biggest impact?
It’s difficult to overlook the job James Franklin is doing at Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ recruiting efforts were expected to suffer for years after the NCAA handed down sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. But former coach Bill O’Brien, who replaced the late Joe Paterno before the 2012 season, did an admirable job stabilizing the program during his two seasons at the helm. Now Penn State is looking like a true recruiting power, despite ongoing scholarship reductions and postseason ineligibility.
Franklin, a Pennsylvania native, has experience recruiting the northeast thanks to a past stint at Maryland, and he currently has the Nittany Lions at No. 24 in Rivals.com’s rankings. Of Franklin’s 24 commits, five are early enrollees, including four-star quarterback Michael O’Conner and four-star receiver De’Andre Thompkins. Franklin, formerly the coach at Vanderbilt, has also flipped six former Commodores pledges, as well as a few from other schools, including onetime Rutgers commit Saeed Blacknall, a four-star receiver.
This is the kind of recruiting effort that Penn State's fans should come to expect from Franklin. After all, the coach’s final two classes at Vanderbilt were the highest-ranked hauls in program history.
ELLIS: Recruiting report: Sizing up the state of Vanderbilt's class
What’s going on with the Pac-12?
The Pac-12 was perhaps the deepest conference in the country last season. Nine of its 12 teams made bowl appearances, and five won at least 10 games. That success hasn’t translated to success in the living rooms of recruits, though, as many Pac-12 programs continue to lag behind their nonconference foes as Signing Day approaches.
The Pac-12 boasts four teams in the top 25 of Rivals.com’s current team rankings, but no class is ranked higher than Stanford’s, at No. 16. Arizona State (No. 17), UCLA (No. 18) and Arizona (No. 25) are the others. Still, none of those schools currently lay claim to a five-star prospect. In 2013, the Bruins at least finished with a top-10 class, with USC (No. 13) close behind. The Trojans alone signed five five-star recruits last cycle.
Some of college football’s most respected leaders, such as the Bruins' Jim Mora, Washington’s Chris Petersen and the Cardinal’s David Shaw, have helped define the Pac-12 as a coaches’ conference. One would expect their presence to impact recruiting. Several Pac-12 teams, however, especially USC, are in the running for some high-profile Signing Day commits.
Any Signing Day drama left among uncommitted recruits?
As always, there’s still time for some recruiting drama in 2014. A number of prospects have yet to announce their college destinations, and National Signing Day could have a few more surprises in store.
The country’s top athlete, Adoree’ Jackson, has USC and UCLA high on his list, so that rivalry will likely add an extra spark to Jackson’s decision on Wednesday. Malik McDowell, the No. 2 strongside defensive end in the class, is primed to pick between two rivals in Michigan and Michigan State. But would McDowell spurn both programs for Ohio State, which he visited last weekend? Meanwhile, the No. 1 outside linebacker of 2014, Evans, is likely to pick between Auburn and Alabama. Evans is a native of Auburn and has family ties with the university, but the Crimson Tide supposedly remain in the mix.
The next 24 hours are when coaches finally put all their cards on the table. Only time will tell if any last-ditch recruiting efforts pay off.
JOHNSON: The top uncommitted recruits before Signing Day l Rivals’ predictions
MANDEL: Star prospects better prepared for early playing time than ever before