The annual circus that is National Signing Day truly outdid itself this year. The nation's No. 1 prospect, Jadeveon Clowney, appeared on national television to discuss why he wasn't actually signing anywhere just yet. The No. 2 player, Cyrus Kouandjio, announced he would sign with Auburn but never put pen to paper. There was a live dog, a forged signature and the most awkward television interview in the history of recruiting.
All of this presumably elicited scoffs and groans from the indignant cynics who like to believe this is all just a bunch of hooey. Who do these teenagers think they are, staging press conferences befitting an NFL All-Pro? Who do these adults think they are, fawning over said kids in the first place? After all, everyone knows those recruiting rankings don't mean squat.
But don't you see? Signing Day has become such a spectacle because the recruiting game is that important. It's arguably more important to college football teams than the draft is to NFL teams. There is no free agency. There are no trades. Your favorite program's fortunes rest almost entirely on the names that come across that fax machine the first Wednesday of February.
We know the rankings aren't an exact science -- but neither are draft projections, weather forecasts or stock outlooks. That doesn't mean they don't deserve our attention. Sure, there will be guys who donned baseball caps Wednesday who you may never hear from again, and there will be guys you didn't hear a word about Wednesday who will one day be All-Americans. But generally speaking, far more often than not, there's a very direct correlation between a team's perceived recruiting success and its actual on-field achievement. And the more stars next to a guy's name, the better the chance he'll pan out.
For whatever reason, it took the advent of the Internet for the media at large to start according recruiting its appropriate level of coverage (and it's still largely underplayed in markets outside of the South). But now that we have, it's no wonder a kid like Clowney might choose to milk the attention. And one can't begin to imagine the pressure hovering over Kouandjio, who's managed to start his own personal Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl all the way from Maryland. He appears to be torn between the allure of the defending national champion (Auburn), the love for his brother (who plays at Alabama) and his relationship with a coach who happens to be at a particularly remote outpost (New Mexico's Mike Locksley).
If there's a mistake we make in glamorizing Signing Day, it's in letting this one day overshadow the importance of the other 364. Recruiting classes take a year or longer to develop. Relationships are formed long before a kid puts on that baseball cap. And now, finally, folks are also starting to pay attention to the often ugly business that takes place after Signing Day -- the callous weeding out of underachieving upperclassmen to make room for the hot-shot newcomers. There's nothing wrong with taking a day in February to celebrate such an important rite in college football, but it does contribute to misperceptions and unduly affect fans' expectations.
Take the case of De'Anthony Thomas, the celebrated five-star running back/cornerback from Los Angeles who pulled an 11th-hour stunner this week. Long considered a locked-in USC pledge, Thomas took an unannounced visit to Oregon last weekend and signed with the school Wednesday night. It's a coup for Chip Kelly and a bummer for Lane Kiffin. Ducks fans will view it as another milestone in their rise to Pac-10 and national prominence, and Trojans fans will lament how a hometown star got away.
But whether or not Thomas winds up becoming a college All-American, the drama surrounding his decision is probably far bigger than the actual ramifications. For one thing, if he'd been pledged to Oregon all along, it'd be a non-event. But more than that, it doesn't tell us the full story of either team's recruiting class.
For the Ducks, the bigger issue may be the ones that got away. Four elite defenders Oregon was targeting when Wednesday began -- defensive lineman Delvon Simmons (North Carolina), defensive end Branden Jackson (Texas Tech), defensive tackle Christian Heyward (USC) and defensive end Roderick Byers (Clemson) -- all went elsewhere. Oregon will still likely celebrate a top 10 class, with Thomas the cherry on top, but one could argue it lost more than it gained on the final day.
"It's been a bad day for Oregon," Scout.com National Editor Allen Wallace said prior to Thomas' signing.
Meanwhile, USC closed with a flurry gaining Signing Day nods from a horde of four-star prospects: linebacker Lamar Dawson (Danville, Ky.), tackle Audrey Walker (from Ohio State pipeline Cleveland Glenville), defensive tackle Christian Heyward (San Diego) and athlete Marquise Lee (Gardena, Calif.) Losing "The Black Mamba" (Thomas) stings, but the Trojans already have speedy skill players galore on their roster. They needed offensive linemen and linebackers, and they got them in bunches.
Speaking of needs, one ought to consider them in giving proper context to the ongoing Kouandjio saga. As if Alabama and Auburn fans needed anything else to lord over each other, the elite tackle's eventual decision (assuming it's not New Mexico) will surely provide more fodder. But for the Tigers, adding Kouandjio would be a luxury; for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, it's more a necessity.
Auburn already has signatures from the nation's top center (Reese Dismukes) and a top-three guard (Christian Westerman) and tackle (Greg Robinson). Its offensive line class is stacked regardless. Alabama on the other hand failed to land two other four-star tackles (Brandon Shell and Aaron Morris). It was counting on Kouandjio, and failing to get him could be the one glaring hole in an otherwise sterling class.
"That franchise left tackle is somehow alluding [Alabama]," said 247Sports.com National Analyst J.C. Shurburtt. "I think it would definitely hurt Alabama more. If Auburn loses Cyrus, it's still one of the top offensive line classes in the country."
Maybe it won't matter. Maybe Kouandjio won't pan out.
Or maybe he'll make the key block on the winning score in the 2013 Iron Bowl. It's entirely possible. Maybe Alabama will lose 28-27, like it did last year, because it couldn't protect its quarterback.
That's why Signing Day matters. Technically, all the thousands of hours and miles the coaches log leading up to it matter more, but those 15-second announcements are far more fun to watch -- especially when live animals are involved.
Recruiting coach of the year: Florida State's Jimbo Fisher. We've known his name for so long now, it's easy to forget that the man responsible for the nation's No. 1 recruiting class just finished his first season as a head coach. While it certainly didn't hurt that rivals Florida and Miami underwent coaching changes in December, Fisher and his staff of renowned recruiters seemed destined to land a monster haul in 2011, and Fisher seems destined to become a fixture. He trained under two of the best, Bobby Bowden and Saban. "He's a nice blend of both," said Shurburtt. "From the organizational standpoint, definitely, he resembles Saban, but Fisher is a little more folksy than Saban. He's more like Bowden in terms of some backslapping, recruiting in the home. The kids just love him." Now FSU fans just hope Fisher will coach more like Bowden circa 1999 than 2009.
Breakout coach of the year: Virginia's Mike London. Virginia is always a talent-rich state, but in recent years its top players have been looking anywhere but Charlottesville. The Cavaliers' second-year coach reversed that trend, landing a Top 25 class highlighted by four-star cornerback Demetrious Nicholson. It marks the first time in four years that UVA landed a higher-ranked class than in-state rival Virginia Tech. Now London, who went 4-8 in his first season, just needs to translate that success to the field. Remember, predecessor Al Groh started out his recruiting tenure in similarly eye-opening fashion.
Comeback coach of the year: Georgia's Mark Richt. A year ago this time, Georgia was a recruiting disappointment. Then the Dawgs followed a poor Signing Day showing with a nightmarish 6-7 season. But a resilient Richt followed through on his pledge last summer to assemble a "Dream Team" of in-state recruits, closing over the past few weeks with Top 50 national prospects defensive end Ray Drew, cornerback Malcolm Mitchell and, on Wednesday, running back Isaiah Crowell (who came equipped with a live bulldog puppy at his announcement). If Richt is on the hot seat, these recruits either don't agree or don't care.
Hapless coach of the year: UCLA's Rick Neuheisel. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, what with the Bruins coming off their second losing season in three years, their coaching staff in complete flux right up until Signing Day and Neuheisel likely entering next season on the hottest seat in the country. Still, the sheer extent of UCLA's recruiting misery this year is staggering. Normally a top 20 fixture, UCLA barely made Scout.com's top 60 as of Wednesday evening. It landed just one player (receiver Devin Lucien) rated among the Top 25 prospects in the state of California. "It's undoubtedly the worst UCLA class I've ever seen," said Scout.com's Wallace.
Best salvage job: Michigan's Brady Hoke. Given that AD Dave Brandon left Rich Rodriguez hanging in the wind until after the Gator Bowl and did not hire his new coach until Jan. 11, Michigan's 2011 class seemed destined for disaster. The Wolverines went more than a month after the regular season without adding a new commitment. But Hoke managed to add nine more players, stealing away quarterback commit Russell Bellomy from Purdue, and fended off other suitors to retain four-star defensive back Blake Countess. This class is still far from the level Michigan will need to contend for Big Ten titles, but given the circumstances, things could have been far worse.
How do they do it?: Clemson. For a program that last won a conference title 20 years ago and hasn't produced a 10-win season this century, Clemson consistently recruits the kind of talent befitting an annual BCS contender. Continuing the trend of adding mega-recruits like C.J. Spiller and Da'Quan Bowers, Dabo Swinney's team landed pledges Wednesday from the nation's top two linebackers, Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, and remains in the hunt for Clowney. The Tigers will likely finish with a top 10 class. Recruits apparently think they can win championships in Clemson despite 20 years of evidence suggesting otherwise.
Most cocksure announcement: Defensive tackle Gabe Wright (Auburn). Minutes after Carver (Ga.) High teammate Crowell broke out a puppy, Wright showed off his own creativity. In announcing he'll be attending Auburn, Wright put on a backwards AU baseball cap with the words "NICK WHO?" After some initial confusion by many who thought the hat meant Saban, Wright clarified that he was in fact referring to Nick Fairley, the departing Auburn star Wright is apparently expecting to replace. While the Lombardi winner himself approved, here's guessing those two words will haunt Wright for four years if he doesn't deliver.
Most likely to play right away: Malcolm Brown (Texas) and Crowell (Georgia). They're not only the top two running backs in the country according to 247Sports.com, they're also joining teams that could desperately use them. New Texas co-offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin is looking to recreate the power running game he employed at Boise State, and the Longhorns simply don't have an elite, every-down guy like Brown on their roster. Meanwhile, Georgia coach Richt -- whose team ranked 73rd in rushing last season -- wasn't shy in expressing Crowell's potential impact as a freshman. "I would not be shocked to see him tote that rock in the [Georgia] Dome against Boise State on the opening play [of the season]," Richt said.
Tip of the hat to: Louisville's Charlie Strong (landed a Top 25 class that includes seven Miami players, most notably quarterback Teddy Bridgewater); Notre Dame's Brian Kelly (inked Rivals.com's three highest-rated defensive ends); Tennessee's Derek Dooley (finished with a splash, highlighted by in-state tackle Antonio Richardson); and Texas Tech's Tommy Tuberville (signed the first top 20 class in school history).
Better luck next year: Miami's Al Golden, Florida's Will Muschamp and West Virginia coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen. Late starts left all three schools with lower-rated classes than usual; don't expect that to continue.