Seven recruiting storylines heading into signing day

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Signing day.

It’s the day recruiting freaks point to all year long, and treat as if it’s a second Christmas.  Or the birth of their first child.  Or the birth of their first child on Christmas.

Yes, National Signing Day is Wednesday.  And, thankfully, most of the announcements are expcted to come earlier rather than later in the day.

Ahead of the bizarro college version of the NFL draft and free agency all rolled into one, here are but a few of the storylines that we will be following on signing day:

Tide still rollin’ on recruiting trail
Three times in the past four years, Alabama has come out of signing day with the top-ranked recruiting class according to Rivals.com.  Coming off their second national title in three seasons, the Tide is poised to land the top recruiting class in the land yet again.

As of Tuesday afternoon, two of the three major recruiting services — Rivals and 247Sports; Scout had them at No. 2 behind Texas — have Alabama ranked as the No. 1 class in the nation.  The Tide has verbal commitments from three five-star recruits — tied with Florida State for the most in this class — as well as 12 four-star recruits.

In fact, perhaps the only drama when it comes to the “team competition” is whether the Tide came climb past the Longhorns in the Scout rankings and make it a consensus No. 1 class.  OK, maybe not the only drama; there’s a chance that Texas or even Ohio State could vault into the top spot in one or more of the rankings, so the chase for No. 1 does indeed bear watching throughout the day as the various official commits roll in.

Check here for the latest team and player rankings from some of the top recruiting sites:

UPDATE: Alabama topped the Rivals.com and 247Sports.com rankings, while Texas landed the No. 1 team according to Scout.com.

Battle of Landon: Nick Saban vs. mom
Above we mentioned that Alabama has already received verbal commitments from three five-star recruits.  One of those is Louisiana high school safety Landon Collins, whose mother’s off-field actions and issues with Nick Saban have arguably made him more (in)famous than have any of his on-field exploits.

Despite mom wanting son to stay in-state and head to LSU, Collins has remained steadfast in his determination to follow through on his verbal commitment to Alabama.  While it appears highly unlikely he would flip back to the Tigers, his signature on a National Letter of Intent bears watching throughout the day, if for nothing more than mom’s reaction to his Tuscaloosa signing becoming official.

UPDATE: Collins did indeed sign his Letter of Intent with Alabama, although he did make the Tide coaching staff sweat a little bit.

Infiltrating the secretive DGB
According to Rivals and Scout, Missouri high school wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is the No. 1 player at any position in the country.  247Sports has him ranked as “just” the No. 2 player, behind Texas high school defensive tackle Mario Edwards.  Regardless, he’s far and away the highest-rated recruit who has yet to give a verbal commitment.

That will change Wednesday, when Green-Beckham is expected to choose between in-state Missouri and Mizzou’s future SEC rival Arkansas, with Oklahoma and Texas still hanging around the periphery.  The buzz of late has been all over the recruiting map as to where the receiver will land, with Mizzou seemingly the guess — and that’s all it is at this point, a guess — of some/most recruiting observers coming out of his final official visit to the Columbia school this past weekend.

At 6-6, 220 pounds, Green-Beckham would be a huge get for any school.  For Mizzou to be able to keep the in-state talent at home as they head into the rough and tumble SEC?  That would be beyond huge for Gary Pinkel‘s program.

UPDATE: Consider it a huge day for Pinkel’s program as Green-Beckham did indeed sign with Mizzou.

Where will the other five-stars shine?
Along with Green-Beckham, there are five other five-star players in 247Sports ranking system who have yet to give a verbal commitment.  Those players are listed below, along with the schools still in the running to land their services:

Stefon Diggs, wide receiver, Olney (Md.) Good Counsel High School — the No. 10 player overall and No. 2 receiver behind Green-Beckham, Diggs is believed to still be considering Auburn, Florida and Ohio State.  A weekend visit to the Buckeyes has many thinking Urban Meyer can land the third five-star recruit in this class, although the home-state Gators are still considered the prohibitive favorite.  The wait for Diggs’ decision will extend beyond signing day, however; at this point, the receiver is expected to announce his future football home Feb. 10.

Kyle Murphy, offensive tackle, San Clemente (Cal.) High School — rated right behind Diggs overall and the No. 2 tackle in the nation.  While he’s still “officially” considering Florida and Oregon, Stanford and USC are believed to be the two prime contenders for his services.

UPDATE: Murphy decided to take his considerable line talents to the Cardinal.

Eddie Goldman, defensive tackle, Washington DC Friendship Collegiate Academy — the No. 3 player at his position and the No. 14 recruit overall, Goldman is involved in an off-field Iron Bowl as Alabama and Auburn are reportedly the leaders (?) headed into signing day, although Florida State has long been considered the favorite and could end up with the 6-5, 305-pounder.  A pair of ACC schools — Clemson and Miami — have also been in the running.

UPDATE: The Seminoles parlayed their front-runner status into Goldman’s signature on a Letter of Intent on signing day.

Ronald Darby, cornerback, Potomac (Md.) Oxon Hill High School — the top-rated corner according to 247Sports and the recruiting service’s No. 16 player at any position, Darby is being heavily pursued by Clemson, Florida State and Notre Dame.  Don’t sleep on Auburn when it comes to Darby, however.

UPDATE: Darby was one of the many huge signing day gets for Jimbo Fisher’s Seminoles..

Darius Hamilton, defensive end, Ramsey (NJ) Don Bosco Prep — prior to Greg Schiano‘s departure, Hamilton (No. 23) was considered a near-lock to stay home and sign with Rutgers.  Now that Schiano is gone, Miami and Florida have suddenly emerged as front-runners, although RU hiring from within and tabbing Kyle Flood as its new coach could keep Hamilton in the fold.

(UPDATED Jan. 31 @ 8:41 p.m. ET: During a televised announcement, Hamilton confirmed that he’s sticking with Rutgers and gave his verbal commitment to the Scarlet Knights.)

Look beyond the most visible numbers
If you looked at where USC stood in the overall rankings on Tuesday afternoon, it’s a rather fair-to-middlin’ class by Trojans standards: from No. 11 (Rivals) through No. 25 (Scout) and all the way down to No. 28 (247Sports).  The recruiting devil, though, is in the details when it comes to USC’s standing.

Thanks to NCAA sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush “situation”, USC won’t be armed with the full complement of scholarships that normally would be at its disposal.  Of course, the recruiting services reward quantity as much as quality, so USC suffers in the overall rankings.  Average out the stars, however, and Lane Kiffin‘s class stacks up with any other program in the nation — their 3.77 star-per-verbal according to Scout’s rankings are second only to Texas (3.86) and Ohio State (3.78).

The size of Kiffin’s class leaves the program less margin for error when it comes to whiffing on a signee, but, when it comes to the 2012 rankings, an asterisk is needed as the final number won’t tell USC’s entire recruiting story.  Or the kind of job Kiffin & Company did on the recruiting trail if they can close out this small but formidable class.

UPDATE: Despite the small quantity, the Trojans ranked as the No. 8 recruiting class according to Rivals.com, No. 11 by 247Sports.com and No. 19 by Scout.com.

Urban development in full effect
Back in October, Ohio State was looking at a rather ho-hum recruiting class in the wake of Jim Tressel‘s departure from the Buckeyes.  Four months later, we’re seeing exactly why “hire Urban Meyer” was first, second and third on tOSU’s head coaching to-do list.

In a matter of months, Meyer has taken a middle-of-the-pack class and turned it into a consensus top-five group, with all three recruiting services placing the Buckeyes at No. 3 heading into signing day.  If Meyer can close as he has in the past and seal the deal on a top-five class, it will be yet another warning shot to the rest of the Big Ten: keep up, or be left in Meyer’s recruiting rear-view.  Michigan’s doing it’s part, pulling in a class that’s currently ranked between fourth and sixth; it’s up to the rest of the conference to ensure that it doesn’t turn into the Big Two & Little Ten yet again.

UPDATE: In addition to pissing off at least a couple of coaches in the Big Ten, Meyer’s two-month recruiting push resulted in a class ranked No. 3 by Scout.com, No. 4 by Rivals.com and No. 5 by 247Sports.com.

SEC, where the recruiting crown rests in perpetuity
If college football in the South is king, recruiting is the royal bloodline that sustains the various gridiron kingdoms littering the area.  And, coming off a sixth straight BcS title, the recruiting sustenance is continuing to flow unabated.

The three major recruiting services have each placed nine teams that will play in the SEC in 2012 inside of its pre-signing day Top 25.  All told, a total of 11 of the 14 SEC schools appear in some form in the Top 25 of those three sites.  Hell, erstwhile conference cellar dweller Vanderbilt comes in at No. 23 in the Rival rankings.

The only conferences within shouting distance of the SEC?  The Pac-12 with five teams in Rivals’ and Scout’s Top 25, and the ACC with the same number according to 247Sports.  Barring a dramatic and unexpected shift, however, teams from the SEC will dominate the top quarter of the final 2012 rankings.  Again.

UPDATE: The final Top-25 tally for the SEC among the various recruiting services are eight conference members in the Rivals.com and 247Sports.com rankings and nine in the Scout.com rankings.

Big Ten pulls plug on fall football amid COVID-19 concerns

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The Big Ten won’t play football this fall because of concerns about COVID-19, becoming the first of college sports’ power conferences to yield to the pandemic.

The move announced Tuesday comes six day after the conference that includes historic programs such as Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State had released a revised conference-only schedule that it hoped would help it navigate a fall season with potential COVID-19 disruptions.

But it was not a surprise. Speculation has run rampant for several days that the Big Ten was moving toward this decision. On Monday, coaches throughout the conference tried to push back the tide, publicly pleading for more time and threatening to look elsewhere for games this fall.

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. “As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

The Big Ten touts itself as the oldest college athletic conference in the country, dating back to 1896 when it was called the Western Conference, and its schools have been playing football ever since. It became the Big Ten in 1918 and grew into a football powerhouse.

The 14 Big Ten schools span from Maryland and Rutgers on the East Coast to Iowa and Nebraska out west. Not only has it been one of the most successful conferences on the field but off the field it has become one of the wealthiest.

The Big Ten, with its lucrative television network, distributes about $50 million per year to its members.

Trump, coaches push for college football as cracks emerge

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President Donald Trump joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches Monday in the push to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown.

There was speculation that two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their seasons. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports and became the first school in the Bowl Subdivison to break from its league in doing so; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.

A Big Ten spokesman said no votes had been taken by its presidents and chancellors on fall sports as of Monday afternoon and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.

“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,’” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. ”Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among the group posting their thoughts on Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantToPla. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” he tweeted.

Old Dominion has stopped trying. The Virginia school canceled football and other fall sports less than a week after Conference USA set out a plan to play a football season.

“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown players can be safe after they return to school.

“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” he wrote. “I am advocating on August 10 that this virus can be controlled and handled because of these facts.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.

“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

“Here’s the reality: Many of you think that football is safer than no football, but you also know that you will be blamed if there is football, whereas you can duck any blame if you cancel football,” added Sasse, a former college president. “This is a moment for leadership. These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”

Players unite in push to save college season, create union

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Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds saw the tweets from Trevor Lawrence and other college football players pushing for the opportunity to play this season despite the pandemic.

Reynolds, one of the organizers behind a players’ rights movement in the Big Ten, didn’t like the way some on social media seemed to be pitting Lawrence’s message against the efforts of #BigTenUnited and #WeAreUnited.

“There was a lot of division,” Reynolds told AP early Monday morning.

Reynolds got on a call with Lawrence and the star quarterback’s Clemson teammate, Darien Rencher, and within a matter of hours the summer of athlete empowerment found another gear.

College football players from across the country united Sunday in an attempt to save their season and ensure they will no longer be left out of the sport’s biggest decisions.

Lawrence, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, Oklahoma State All-America running back Chuba Hubbard, Alabama running back Najee Harris and numerous other players from Florida State to Oregon posted a graphic on social media with #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.

“We came to the conclusion, We Want to Play, their message might have been conveyed differently but at the end of the day the message wasn’t too far off from what Big Ten United wanted to promote,” Reynolds said. “Which is we all want to play sports this fall. Every athlete, I’m pretty sure, wants to play their sports. They just want to do so safely.”

The #WeAreUnited hashtag was used a week ago by a group of Pac-12 players in announcing a movement they say has the support of hundreds of peers within their conference. They have threatened mass opt-outs by players if concerns about COVID-19 protocols, racial injustice in college sports and economic rights for athletes are not addressed.

#BigTenUnited arrived on the scene a couple days later, a movement that claimed the backing off 1,000 Big Ten football players. Their demands were more targeted, strictly related to health and safety in dealing with COVID-19.

Sunday night, the call with Reynolds, Rencher and Lawrence led to a Zoom meeting — of course — with some of the Pac-12 players involved in “WeAreUnited.”

Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs got to work on a graphic and now the movement is officially nationwide.

“Just started bouncing ideas off each others’ heads and kind of discussing where we go from here and we ended up coming up with that statement,” said Reynolds, a senior from South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the logos of each Power Five conference — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the players pronounced their platform:

— We all want to play football this season.

— Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA.

— Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision.

— Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not.

— Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials: Ultimately create a College Football Players Association.

All of this capped a weekend during which the adults who run college sports seemed to be moving toward shutting it all down because of the pandemic.

A day after the Mid-American Conference became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel the fall season, Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday. They discussed mounting concerns about whether a season can be safely conducted with the pandemic still not under control in the United States.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said no decisions on the season have been made, but conceded the outlook has not improved.

“Are we in a better place today than two weeks, ago? No, we’re not,” he said.

Bowlsby cited “growing evidence and the growing pool of data around myocarditis.”

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart and it has been found in some COVID-19 patients. There is concern it could be a long-term complication of contracting the virus even in young, healthy people, a group that has usually avoided severe cardiovascular symptoms.

Also Sunday night, the Big Ten’s university presidents and chancellors held a previously unscheduled meeting, a person with knowledge of the meeting told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was not announced by the conference.

Another person with direct knowledge of the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no votes were taken or decisions made about the college football season.

The final call on whether major college football will played this season rests in the hands of the university presidents who oversee the largest conferences.

With doom and gloom hanging over college football, Lawrence, who has become the face of the sport in a summer of strife, tried to push back the tide with a series of tweets.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence posted. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract covid19.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth had a similar message, and the parents of Ohio State football players weighed in, too.

Reynolds wants athletes to have a say in the meetings that are deciding the fate of their sports — starting now.

”All college athletes through unifying and not being afraid to speak our minds and having social media to kind of mobilize, I think that box on a Zoom call is something that is pretty attainable,” he said. “Especially, in the near future.”

After MAC surrenders to pandemic, will other leagues follow?

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In many ways, the Mid-American Conference has little in common with Power Five leagues that first come to mind when fans think of major college football.

There are no 75,000-seat stadiums in the MAC. Million-dollar per year coaches are rare. In a typical season, NFL scouts might find one or two potential first-round draft picks playing at the 12 MAC schools that dot the Midwest. The MAC’s biggest games — #MACtion, if you will — are often played on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Its television deal with ESPN pays per year only a few million more than the $9 million Clemson pays coach Dabo Swinney.

Still, the MAC is one of 10 conferences that competes in the NCAA’s highest level of football, and Saturday it became the first of those to surrender to the coronavirus pandemic and cancel the fall sports season.

So is the MAC an anomaly, done in by its small budgets or is this a dire sign of things to come in college football?

“I won’t try to judge what other folks are doing,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “I know we’re all in the same place. They all have their advisers. They’re going to make judgments based on the information they are receiving.”

Not long after the MAC announced it would explore second-semester seasons for all fall sports, including soccer and volleyball, the Big Ten made its own announcement that seemed ominous given the timing.

Tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, the Big Ten told its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. All teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The first Big Ten games of the season are scheduled for Sept. 5.

“As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes,” the Big Ten said in a statement.

The MAC’s schools were facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly COVID-19 protocols, while also dealing with the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely.

A move to the spring, however, could also be budget-buster if it means less revenue from the ESPN deal, which pays each school about $1 million per year, and football ticket sales. The MAC also shares about $90 million per year in College Football Playoff money with four other conferences.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications of any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

Steinbrecher said the decision effects only fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership. Northern Illinois athletic director Sean Frazier, supported by NIU President Lisa Freeman, has been a vocal advocate of delaying the season.

“No one wants to have football or sports more than me,” said Frazier, who played football at Alabama in the late 1980s. “Football gave me all the opportunities I have today, but I can’t do it at the expense of people’s lives.”

Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee said he has been feeling a sense of inevitability for two weeks about the MAC canceling fall football, but can’t predict whether this decision trickles up to other conferences.

“Could it? Certainly. There’s certainly a narrative out there that could happen,” Wetherbee said. “No, it wouldn’t shock me if some followed suit. In fact, it would shock me if some didn’t.”

NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline made clear that even though plans for the football season have been adjusted to accommodate potential COVID-19 disruptions like the ones Major League Baseball has had, they are all still aspirational.

“Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to continue moving forward,” Hainline said Friday during the NCAA’s weekly video chat on social media.

As the Power Five conferences re-worked their schedules to play exclusively or mostly within their conferences, another of the MAC’s revenue streams dried up.

MAC schools, with athletic budgets in the $30 million range, rely heavily on payouts from road games against power conference teams. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

“Certainly there was a cost attached to it,” Wetherbee said. “But as a league we were prepared to do it.”

The move to try spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have postponed fall football seasons. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

Now it’s the MAC, which was among the first conferences to limit fan access to its basketball tournament in March as concerns for the virus began to soar across the country. On March 12, the MAC was among many conferences to call off their tournaments hours before the NCAA canceled all of March Madness.

“If you told me in March we’d be here today,” Steinbrecher said, “I’d never have believed it”