The college football season hasn't begun yet, but fans are already fixated on how their favorite programs will perform this fall. For the next few months, they will spend a significant amount of their time railing against pundits, analyzing matchups and obsessing over various polls and rankings. Before the games begin, though, let's assess which programs are set up to succeed beyond 2016. While recruiting will come into focus around National Signing Day in early February, here are five storylines to track in the meantime.
Ohio State's loaded class
Ohio State has recruited extremely well since Urban Meyer took over as head coach in November 2011, but the Buckeyes' 2017 class is shaping up as one of the most decorated in recent memory—for any program. Ohio State counts 16 commitments, including a nation-high four from five-star prospects and 13 from prospects invited in July to The Opening Finals, a prestigious event hosted by Nike at the company's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. Fourteen of the Buckeyes' pledges made the latest Scout 300, seven are ranked among the top five at their respective positions. The Buckeyes' lone three-star pledge, Canisius (N.Y.) High's Blake Haubeil, is considered the nation's top kicker.
Ohio State has already compiled a ridiculous amount of talent, but it's not done. There's a good chance the Buckeyes will add a few more elite prospects before signing day. They're viewed as strong contenders for five-star St. Thomas (Fla.) High wide receiver Trevon Grimes, five-star South Grand Prairie (Texas) High athlete Jeffrey Okudah and five-star Clinton (Miss.) High running back Cam Akers, among others. However many of them decide to sign with Ohio State, this class as currently constructed features the kind of elite players required to fuel College Football Playoff bids.
Shakeup in Texas
No program generated more optimism about its future on signing day this year than Texas. Yet the Longhorns' capacity to lure top-notch talent within the Lone Star State was aided by a revolting scandal at another program about 100 miles from campus. Baylor fired coach Art Briles as part of a house cleaning in the wake of revelations about the school's systematic dysfunction in handling sexual assault allegations against football players. Four of the Bears' 2016 signees (four-star wide receiver Devin Duvernay, four-star offensive lineman Patrick Hudson, four-star offensive tackle J.P. Urquidez and three-star athlete Donovan Duvernay) decamped to Austin, and Baylor also watched a handful of highly regarded prospects in its 2017 class renounce their commitments.
The mess at Baylor will benefit Texas and other programs in the state as they pursue prospects who previously would have considered (or signed with) the Bears. Which programs will take advantage is unclear. Both Longhorns coach Charlie Strong and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin will enter the season under some pressure to win. TCU could slip a bit after losing star quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson. And Houston—fresh off winning 13 games under a coach (Tom Herman) who likely will draw interest from more high-profile schools again this off-season—could receive an invitation to the Big 12. One thing is clear: There is plenty of talent to go around in the state.
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Quarterbacks (maybe) off the board
Last month Campus Rushdove into quarterback commitment patterns. The main takeaway was that QBs announce their college decisions much earlier than prospects at other positions in a given recruiting cycle. The class of 2017's crop of QBs is conforming to a remarkable degree: 28 of the top 29 passers, according to Scout.com, have already issued a verbal pledge to a program. Among the top 10, only three (No. 2 Tate Martell, No. 3 Tua Tagovailoa and No. 9 Kellen Mond) have committed since the beginning of May, and two of them (Martell and Mond) had previously committed to at least one other program.
The number of pledges suggests there won't be much QB drama leading into signing day, but don't underestimate the potential for chaos. Look no further than last year, when four-star Wakulla (Fla.) High standout Feleipe Franks revoked a longstanding commitment to LSU and then committed to Florida in November or when five-star Lake Stevens (Wash.) High star Jacob Eason had Georgia fans sweating until making a final decision to stick with the Bulldogs in December. The other notable example was four-star Bullis (Md.) School product Dwayne Haskins Jr. flipping to Ohio State from Maryland in January.
The best quarterbacks in the class of 2017 appear to have their minds made up right now, but that could change.
What's going on at USC?
If Texas was the biggest winner on signing day this year, USC was not far behind. The Trojans closed with a flourish, landing five-star athlete Jack Jones, four-star safety Jamel Cook and four-star offensive tackle E.J. Price, and flipping four-star running back Vavae Malepeai from Oregon. USC may need a similar finish in 2017 to assemble the type of class Trojans fans expect from the marquee program in one of the most talent-rich states in the country.
Scout.com currently pegs USC at No. 32 in its 2017 team rankings. The Trojans count 10 commitments with an average star rating of 3.2, including only two recruits—Leone (AS) High linebacker Juliano Falaniko and Summit (Calif.) High running back Stephen Carr*—who have been assessed more than three stars. USC has yet to earn a pledge from a quarterback—though it's still reportedly pursuing four-star Alabama commit Tagovailoa—and only one of the California-based prospects ranked in the Scout 300 has pledged to the Trojans.
Of course, USC has a lot of time to make up ground, and the appeal of its brand among local recruits is such that the Trojans can sign a strong class (and deliver in a big way on signing day) even if they don't have a particularly great season. But it wouldn't hurt to get some more talent in the fold now.
*Carr is technically committed to USC, but Scout.com lists him as a "soft verbal" and he's made clear that he's open to pitches from other programs.
The last time Oklahoma signed a class ranked in the top 10 nationally by Scout.com was 2012. That group, which checked in at No. 10, counted 26 players and an average star rating of 3.40. In the four-plus years since then, as the Sooners ranged from 13th to 19th in the rankings, Baylor, TCU and Kansas State all claimed shares of conference championships and Bob Stoops entered the fringe of the hot seat speculation conversation. It took one good season—11 wins and a trip to the playoff—for Stoops to reaffirm Oklahoma's status in college football's top tier. It's not surprising that some of the nation's best recruits are taking notice: The class the Sooners are compiling for 2017 is the sort they need to ensure a return to where they ended 2016.
Oklahoma is on pace to sign a more highly regarded haul than it did in 2012. The Sooners' class ranks fifth nationally, with 16 commitments and a 3.75 average star rating. Twelve of their pledges are listed in the latest Scout 300, including Collinsville (Okla.) High linebacker Levi Draper (No. 76) and John Horn (Texas) High quarterback Chris Robison (No. 88).
One state has been particularly fruitful for Oklahoma: Texas. As noted above, there's some uncertainty surrounding some of the Lone Star State's best programs right now. That presents an opportunity for out-of-state programs, and Oklahoma is capitalizing on it. The Sooners have secured seven commitments from the Lone Star State, five of whom have been assessed four-star ratings by Scout.com.