When No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson meet in the national championship game on Monday night, the fruits of the programs’ recruiting efforts will compete on college football’s biggest stage. The Crimson Tide and the Tigers are loaded with some of the nation’s top high school players, and that concentration of talent is the biggest reason why Alabama and Clemson are squaring off in the first title game rematch of the BCS/College Football Playoff era. The Crimson Tide and Tigers are set up to dominate in the future, too, as both programs have assembled stellar 2017 recruiting classes. While National Signing Day is still a month away, SI.com is highlighting three of the most important things to know about the groups of highly coveted prospects Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney will add to their programs next season. All rankings and ratings are via Scout.com.
1. The Crimson Tide’s top QB is from Hawaii
Alabama didn’t mine the SEC footprint or even the contiguous United States for its top quarterback recruit. The Crimson Tide landed Tua Tagovailoa from Saint Louis School in Honolulu, the same program that produced 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Tagovailoa issued a verbal commitment to Alabama last May, and he’s honored his pledge despite overtures from programs closer to home, including Oregon after it hired Willie Taggart from South Florida in December. Tagovailoa is rated the nation’s No. 4 quarterback, and he broke former Hawaii standout Timmy Chang’s career high school passing record of 8,001 yards while also adding 1,727 rushing yards, according to Hawaii Prep World. Neither Tagovailoa nor fellow 2017 four-star quarterback commit Mac Jones seem likely to compete for playing time right away at Alabama after Jalen Hurts’ standout true freshman season, but both should be in the running to succeed Hurts as the starter after he leaves Tuscaloosa.
2. The Crimson Tide’s top commit is ending his recruitment in an interesting way
Eleventh-hour decisions are standard fare in recruiting, but that sort of late drama typically takes place on National Signing Day. Najee Harris, however, has ensured his choice to enroll early at a school this month is anything but ordinary. Harris has been committed to Alabama since April 2015, but that hasn’t stopped other programs from pursuing him. While the Antioch (Calif.) High standout has stuck with the Crimson Tide and probably will sign with them, that possibility seemed uncertain as recently as a few days ago. Harris reportedly said this week that he will not publicly announce his final decision, opting instead to simply show up at his school of choice, which is expected to be either Alabama or Michigan. After participating in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Saturday, Harris reportedly was set to fly home before appearing in Ann Arbor or Tuscaloosa. But a report yesterday said Harris has asked to change his flight from California to Birmingham, Ala. Alabama fans obviously wish Harris would have been more forthcoming about his intentions, but they’ll be thrilled once he makes his choice official. Harris, a 6’ 3’’, 225-pound running back, rates as the nation’s top overall prospect.
3. The Crimson Tide are loading up on the offensive line
Alabama’s offensive line will face its stiffest challenge of the season in trying to stuff Clemson’s loaded front seven on Monday night. The star of that position unit, left tackle Cameron Robinson, is expected to enter the NFL draft this spring, but the Crimson Tide are set to bring in an impressive crop of reinforcements for the position unit Robinson would leave behind. Alex Leatherwood, a five-star tackle out of Booker T. Washington (Fla.) High; Kendall Randolph, a four-star tackle out of Bob Jones (Ala.) High; Jedrick Wills, a four-star tackle out of Lafayette (Ky.) High; Elliot Baker, a four-star tackle out of City College of San Francisco; and Hunter Brannon, a three-star guard out of Cullman (Ala.) High will join the Crimson Tide in 2017. Alabama may have missed out on two highly coveted targets at tackle, five-star Tennessee commit Trey Smith and four-star Georgia commit Isaiah Wilson, but this group has the potential to be one of the best offensive line classes of Saban’s tenure.
1. The Tigers’ succession plan at quarterback is promising
Two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson will play his final game in a Clemson uniform on Monday night, but the Tigers are bringing in the type of talent at Watson’s position that should ensure their quarterback play doesn’t drop off in a big way. Clemson landed two highly regarded passers in its 2017 class, four-star Brownsburg (Ind.) High product Hunter Johnson and four-star Grayson (Ga.) standout Chase Brice. Johnson, a former Tennessee commit, is the more esteemed of the two, but both are talented enough to challenge for snaps during their careers at Clemson, as Brice propelled the Rams to a state championship and the No. 4 spot in MaxPreps’ composite national rankings as a senior this season. Johnson and Brice will enter the fray with sophomore Kelly Bryant and freshmen Tucker Israel and Zerrick Cooper. Also, the Tigers have already landed a commitment from the top quarterback in the 2018 class, Cartersville (Ga.) High’s Trevor Lawrence.
2. The Tigers’ succession plan for Mike Williams is also promising
Finding a capable replacement for Watson will rank as Clemson’s biggest personnel priority this off-season, but the Tigers also will bid farewell to top receiver and projected first-round NFL draft pick Mike Williams (as well as fellow receiver Artavis Scott). Fortunately for Clemson, it’s set to enroll a player who has the potential to develop into a wideout of Williams’s caliber. Higgins, a 6’ 4,’’ 188-pound prospect from Oak Ridge (Tenn.) High, committed to the Tigers in July after initially pledging to Tennessee the previous August (he then backed off that pledge last February). Higgins has drawn comparisons to former Georgia and current Cincinnati Bengals star A.J. Green, and Scout.com describes Higgins as “what you look for in a No. 1 wide receiver” thanks to his combination of height, length and speed. Higgins seems capable of excelling in the deep-threat role in which Williams has thrived for three seasons with the Tigers. He’s the most intriguing addition to a loaded Clemson receiving corps that brings back sophomores Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow.
3. A Tigers commit is responsible for 2017’s best decision video
At the risk of a prospect pulling off something wild between now and signing day, it’s time to hand out the Best Decision Video award for 2017. Congratulations, Logan Rudolph, a four-star prospect from Northwestern High in Rock Hill, S.C., who committed to Clemson in May. In the video Rudolph posted to Twitter announcing the commitment (which has since been removed from the internet), Rudolph is cutting down a tree shirtless and wearing short cut-off jeans and boots, with the Top Gun soundtrack blaring in the background.
Rudolph deserves credit for not conforming to the typical baseball cap reveal, and SI.com appreciates both the fashion statement and pop culture reference, but there is one complaint: Where’s the tiger, or at least the tiger mascot, watching Rudolph chop away? Still, it seems unlikely another recruit will top this over the next month. Rudolph, the brother of Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph, is rated the nation’s No. 6 tight end, but he could play defensive end for Clemson.