The teams: Florida and USC.
The buildup for this clash has been tremendous. The schools have been dominating both on the field and in recruiting since the mid-2000s, but are meeting on the field for the first time in 30 years. On one sideline stands Lane Kiffin, back for a third stint with the Trojans after briefly bolting to the Detroit Lions for one season. On the other, Urban Meyer, who returned from his fourth leave of absence in the last three years just in time for the SEC Championship Game.
Each has paid his conference $40,000 in fines since this matchup was announced.
USC enters the contest averaging a staggering 55 points per game on offense. Heisman quarterback Matt Barkley (who, for the convenient purposes of this hypothetical, didn't turn pro early) is joined by 1,500-yard rusher Dillon Baxter and a trio of 1,000-yard receivers, Kyle Prater, Robert Woods and Markeith Ambles. Outland Trophy winner Seantrel Henderson anchors the offensive line.
On the other side, Florida's record-setting defense has allowed fewer than seven points per game. Behind a dominant defensive front led by All-Americas Ronald Powell, Sharif Floyd, Leon Orr and Dominique Easley, the Gators lead the nation in sacks and rushing defense.
It is the ultimate clash of offense vs. defense. And it's the first-ever, long-overdue SEC vs. Pac-10 BCS Championship matchup.
Now, flash sideways to this alternate reality: Jan. 7, 2014 in Pasadena. Once upon a time, UCLA and Tennessee played an ugly Labor Day evening game here that marked a low point for both programs; now, five years later, they're meeting in a national championship matchup serving as the coronation of these two fallen powers' return to national prominence.
It wasn't easy getting here, but both coaches -- the Bruins' Rick Neuheisel and the Vols' Derek Dooley -- can point to a single turning point: Signing Day, Feb. 3, 2010, when they showed they weren't going to let their rivals run away with things anymore. Some of the fruits of their labor that winter are on the field tonight.
There is UCLA's All-America safety Dietrich Riley, one of several UCLA signees who figured to be a shoe-in for USC before its then-legendary coach, Pete Carroll, bolted for the NFL. He'll have the challenge of defending Tennessee's Biletnikoff receiver, Da'Rick Rogers, who, ironically, may never have become a Vol if Kiffin hadn't left for USC.
On which path will the Class of 2010 lead us? Are we boarding another familiar flight with the same, tried-and-true characters? Or will the sport soon come to know a whole other set of leaders?
In this year's annual recruiting derby, Florida and USC finished with the nation's two best classes, according to Rivals.com. We've seen this show before. Over the past five years, these same two schools hold the highest cumulative rankings
The interesting twist, however, was the absurd collection of talent each power assembled on opposite sides of the ball.
Florida's defensive haul included Rivals.com's No. 1 (Powell), No. 3 (Floyd) and No. 7 (Easley) overall prospects, as well as five-star defensive back Matt Elam and eight other four-star defenders. Longtime recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called it "the best defensive group I've seen put together" in the New York Times.
USC, meanwhile, brought in three of the nation's four highest-rated receivers (Prater, Woods and Ambles), the top offensive lineman (Henderson) and the No. 1 all-purpose back (Baxter). "You would be hard-pressed to ever find a greater collection of athletes at the skills positions," said SuperPrep's Allen Wallace. "It's the best wide receiver class ever assembled by a single school."
You'll have to excuse the recruiting analysts for being prone to hyperbole and/or lacking in long-term memory -- because it sure seems like we've seen this before. In 2003, USC recruited a similar collection of offensive talent -- running backs Reggie Bush and LenDale White, receiver Steve Smith and tackle Sam Baker (not to mention five-star washout Whitney Lewis) -- that would form the core of the 2004 and 2005 Trojans teams that reached the BCS Championship Game.
And Florida's latest binge of defensive superstars serves mainly to replenish a similar one from 2007, which brought lineman Carlos Dunlap, defensive backs Ahmad Black, Joe Haden and Major Wright (and their own five-star washout, Torrey Davis) and helped deliver 22 straight wins the past two years.
If history is any indication, we'll be seeing one or the other -- and maybe, finally, both -- back on the big stage in the very near future.
"I give it up to Florida for their recruiting class," the monstrous Henderson (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) told SI.com following his nationally televised announcement Wednesday, "but I think it's going to be Florida-USC for the next three national title games."
Don't go pushing buttons just yet, Seantrel. There will be plenty of others who have a say in that --- including the Gators' and Trojans' chief rivals.
Meyer and Kiffin certainly deserve proper due for their spoils (especially considering one semi-resigned in the middle of it and the other got a late start), but they already had more to sell than most. Tennessee and UCLA, though, were two of Wednesday's more surprising victors.
Dooley arrived in Knoxville on Jan. 16 in the wake of fans rioting in the streets following Kiffin's abrupt departure and a group of jilted early enrollees being pulled in two directions. Two-and-a-half weeks later, he landed a top 10 class.
"What he accomplished is pretty darn extraordinary," said Rivals.com analyst Jamie Newberg. "They filled needs, got big time players, kept early enrollees there. It's one of the most impressive things this entire recruiting season."
Dooley not only retained all eight committed players already on campus when he arrived, he added a slew of players previously thought to be headed elsewhere -- five-star receiver Rogers (a longstanding Georgia commit) and quarterback Nash Nance (Vanderbilt), high school teammates from Calhoun, Ga., joined the fold, as did four-star receiver Justin Hunter, four-star DB Eddrick Loften and four-star guard James Stone, who spurned national champion Alabama.
If Dooley can pull that off in less than three weeks, what might he accomplish over the next three years?
"It was an easy sell," said the former Louisiana Tech coach. "All I had to do was make them feel confident about the direction of the program."
UCLA's Neuheisel has been on the job two years longer, during which time the Bruins have gone just 11-14 -- but you'd never know it by the deluge of youngsters donning UCLA caps Wednesday. Within the span of about two hours, the Bruins landed Portland, Ore. defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, Rivals' No. 8 overall prospect (who many expected to sign with Nebraska); four-star receiver Anthony Jefferson; four-star linebacker Josh Shirley and four-star safety Riley.
It was arguably the strongest finish of any team in the country, lifting UCLA to a top 10 class and putting the Bruins in better position to "end the football monopoly" in L.A., as Neuheisel famously pledged upon his arrival.
"The USC and UCLA programs as they exist now are not very friendly [toward each other]," said Wallace. "UCLA is doing a very good job of taking USC head on. They're taking recruits away from USC for the first time in a while."
Even then, it's no certainty that we're even talking about the strongest programs going forward within their own conferences.
As always, the SEC dominated the recruiting rankings, landing four of Rivals.com's top six classes. Auburn added to what was already one of the most remarkable classes of the season by staving off Miami and Alabama to retain five-star tackle Shon Coleman while adding four-star defensive back Corey Lemonier. LSU closed in typical LSU fashion, stealing four-star defensive end J.C. Copeland from Tennessee, beating Miami and others for four-star defensive tackle Ego Ferguson and adding four-star Florida receiver Kadron Boone.
But we've come to expect late pushes from the SEC's recruiting juggernauts. What we don't necessarily expect is to see four Pac-10 teams (USC, UCLA, Cal and Oregon) in Rivals' top 15, with Scout.com listing Washington just outside the top 10.
Jeff Tedford's Cal team pulled an 11th hour stunner by luring Rivals.com's No. 5 overall prospect, defensive back Keenan Allen, a former Alabama commit. Allen wanted to join his brother, quarterback Zach Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo. And along with them came Allen's Greensboro teammate, four-star LB Chris McCain; and former North Carolina buddy and four-star defensive end Gabe King, since relocated to Eugene, Ore.
Cal had previously landed five-star defensive end Chris Martin from Aurora, Colo. Not bad for a Poinsettia Bowl team.
"[Allen] is a huge get for Tedford," said Newberg. "You could make a case for him as the top prospect in the country. He's an Eric Berry type."
While USC landed its customary star-studded class, its ascension back to the top of the Pac-10 no longer seems as certain as it did under Carroll. Kiffin is walking into a much tougher conference than the one he left in 2006, just as Meyer's SEC competition isn't getting any easier.
So which will it be? Is the continued dominance of Florida and USC predetermined? Or can suddenly renewed figures like Auburn and Tennessee, Cal or UCLA, change the coming course of history?
Check back in three or four years to find out.
• Strongest finish (not previously mentioned): Florida State. Just how Bobby Bowden used to do it in his prime, Jimbo Fisher saved some of his biggest fish for last -- four-star receiver Christian Green, four-star linebacker Christian Jones -- to slip into the top 10.
Fisher truly began closing the class upon his official ascension in late November, when he immediately landed commitments from five-star cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and similarly heralded linebacker Jeff Luc. "We may look back on Luc and Joyner and say they started the whole thing," said Fisher. "They understand the importance of what they did."
• Biggest disappointments:Georgia and Miami. For whatever reasons -- last year's down season; a defensive staff overhaul; the buzz at rivals Tennessee and Auburn -- prospects seemed to be running away from Athens. Tennessee defector Rogers, four-star linebacker Telvin Smith (Florida State), four-star DB Nickell Robey (USC) and several others either decommitted or spurned the Bulldogs' 11th-hour overtures. Mark Richt's team finished outside Rivals.com's top 10 for the first time since 2001 and toward the middle of the SEC pack.
The 'Canes, meanwhile, "have got to be the biggest story nobody's talking about," said Newberg. "We had 28 players ranked four stars or higher in Dade or Broward Counties. How many [signed] with Miami? Two. It's a head-scratcher." Fourth-year coach Randy Shannon seemed to be reclaiming the school's backyard in recent years but took a major step backward, barely finishing among Rivals' Top 25 classes.
• Mr. Consistency:Mack Brown. Every year, Brown lands a top five class (this one checks in no lower than No. 3), and every year, he leaves little to talk about because Texas' recruiting is so ridiculously suspense-free. Case in point: According to Brown, Texas offered 30 scholarships, had 25 official visits ... and signed all 25 players.
"Of our 13 classes at Texas, this group addresses every position more so than any other class we've had," said Brown, who clearly gets more time to golf than his counterparts. "We were fortunate enough to sign a talented young player at every position."
•Disappearing act: The Big Ten. Did they have a Signing Day in the Midwest this year? Just one conference team, Penn State, finished among Rivals' top 15, and just one top 40 recruit, defensive end William Gholston (No. 21), signed with a Big Ten school (Michigan State). Usual behemoth Ohio State struck out on its top two remaining targets, Henderson and Cincinnati linebacker Jordan Hicks. (Cleveland safety Latwan Anderson, previously committed to West Virginia, could still defect to the Buckeyes.)
Part of the league's poor showing was unavoidable -- Ohio State and Iowa had fewer scholarships to give this year -- but there's no avoiding the fact that most schools whiffed on their top targets. Most notably, the top players in the states of Illinois (USC's Prater), Indiana (North Carolina OL James Hurst) Minnesota (USC's Henderson), Pennsylvania (Florida's Floyd) and possibly Ohio (Anderson) are headed to other leagues.
• Under the radar surprise: Louisville. New coach Charlie Strong immediately put to use the same recruiting prowess he showed at Florida, landing four-star Miami receiver Michaelee Harris (so that's where the Miami kids went), stealing away linebacker Deon Rogers and defensive end B.J Butler from Georgia and four-star athlete Dominique Brown from Cincinnati
"We want to get back to the top in the Big East," said Strong, "and with the players we have assembled we feel like we can make that run."
• Even more under the radar surprise: Marshall. The school hired former West Virginia assistant Doc Holiday in the hopes he could tap into his South Florida pipeline, and he immediately delivered, landing Boca Raton quarterback Eddie Sullivan (previously committed to Wake Forest) and Pahokee receiver Fred Pickett Jr. (previously West Virginia) among 21 players who committed after his hiring.
• Most intriguing class: Notre Dame. These are not your Charlie Weis-era Irish anymore -- at least based on the recruiting rankings. New coach Brian Kelly didn't snag a Jimmy Clausen or Michael Floyd in this class. His highest-ranked signee on Rivals, defensive tackle Louis Nix, checks in at No. 85. But he did go out and find several under-the-radar types who closely fit the profile of his Cincinnati standouts, like Florida defensive end Bruce Heggie, who had literally no scholarship offers prior to Kelly's late-January discovery.
"At this point in time, you have to give Brian Kelly the benefit of the doubt," said Wallace. "All of us who've watched his career can tell he knows how to evaluate talent. He's doing things his way. I admire it."
• Definitive proof why Illinois stinks now: When Ron Zook's offense imploded last season en route to a 3-9 debacle, many pinned it on offensive coordinator/ace recruiter Mike Locksley's departure to New Mexico. On Wednesday, four-star defensive tackle Calvin Smith from Hialeah, Fla., went on national television and announced his commitment to ... New Mexico. The ESPNU host interviewing him nearly choked on the air.
But hey, give credit where credit is due. Smith, who chose the Lobos over Florida State, credited his close relationship with Locksley. And for his part, Locksley landed one more four-star prospect than Illinois, which, two years after landing consecutive top 20 classes with Locksley on staff, finished ... 69th.