Following Rivals.com's penultimate rankings meetings for the 2013 class, the king retained his crown by the thinnest of hairs. Buzz is starting to build about a change at the top, and Nkemdiche will need to impress at the upcoming Under-Armour All-American Game to maintain his current ranking.
If Nkemdiche deserves to be a wire-to-wire No. 1, he better be ready to prove it.
"It's not that rare for a No. 1 to be unseated in the final evaluation, at least in recent years," Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said. "Ronald Powell pushed ahead of Seantrel Henderson at the end of the 2010 rankings, and Bryce Brown moved to the top of the rankings ahead of Reuben Randle at the end of the 2009 rankings. We don't take this kind of thing lightly, and it will take something special to move past Nkemdiche."
There seem to be two legitimate threats to Nkemdiche's throne. The best options are Skyline (Wash.) quarterback
The senior statistics of each speak for themselves. Browne threw for 4,142 yards and 45 touchdowns while completing 73 percent of his passes. He tossed just four interceptions all season and registered at least one completion of longer than 50 yards in seven games.
The No. 1-like numbers are certainly present, but stats aren't the only force driving Browne's push for the top spot.
"We've now seen him in every imaginable setting, and he's impressed us every time," Rivals.com West Region recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said. "Browne could be a special player with a big future if things go the right way for him."
Lawson's senior stats are just as impressive: 26 sacks and 36 tackles for loss.
The competition level is different, sure. Both players were asked to fight through double-teams every time they strapped on shoulder pads. Still, if a photo finish at the top of the rankings isn't in the works, it sure looks that way for now.
Rivals.com Southeast analyst Woody Wommack has received his share of up-close looks at both prospects and witnessed the closing of the gap firsthand. According to Wommack, when the two defensive ends take the field at the Under-Armour All-American Bowl on Jan. 5 in Orlando, Fla., their closing arguments will be made.
"We were hoping to see another great year out of Nkemdiche, and he was still a disruptive force, but he didn't have the kind of statistical year most expected," Wommack said. "Heading into all-star season, we'll get a chance to see him and Lawson in an even setting against the best players in the country."
So as the final leg of the race to wrap up the billing of top player in the class begins, things stand this way:
"Browne plays the most important position on the football field and has all the tools to be great," Farrell said. "Lawson doesn't have the same size as Nkemdiche, but he's an exceptional pass rusher and is very strong."
Then, there are the sleepers -- the players within numerical striking distance of the top spot who will need to do everything within their power to seize it. Safety
"The biggest hurdle Smith has to overcome is his position" Rivals.com Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt said. "Linebackers just are not valued as high as other positions like offensive tackle, quarterback and defensive end. From a pure talent standpoint, though, Jaylon should absolutely be in consideration for the No. 1 player in the country."
Regardless of differing opinions, the place on the top of the mountain remains Nkemdiche's to lose for the next few months. But now, maybe for the first time, the possibility that he surrenders it seems very real.
"As we looked at Nkemdiche and compared him to other players in this class, as well as other top defensive linemen near the top of our previous rankings, the less we were sold that he was a no-brainer," Farrell said.
And so that whole narrative about all-star games being meaningless seems to be incorrect, at least in this case.