College football national signing day: Key movers, potential surprises

It’s time once again to fire up those dusty fax machines, brush up on geography and refresh those rankings pages every 20 minutes.

Yes, the early signing period in college football starts Wednesday and with it comes a chance to infuse rosters across the country with the very lifeblood that every one of them needs to be successful. If not, you can trace a few failures on Wednesday’s opening salvo to a couple of coaching changes down the road.

For coaches in this wild enterprise, their festive mood amid the holiday season of mid-December largely comes down to seeing if they got the John Hancock of a blue-chipper or whether they can convince everybody who will listen that they’ve got a diamond in the rough signed, sealed and delivered.

While a handful of recruits will still wait until the traditional February window that most people are accustomed to, the early signing period is where the bulk of the action happens nowadays and one that often leads to some fireworks from the early hours of Wednesday morning until late in the evening on the West Coast.

What are the biggest things to keep an eye on when it comes to the Class of 2023? Here are several major storylines to monitor as several years’ worth of hard work get distilled down to one mostly chaotic day for programs coast-to-coast.

The portal’s impact

If you ask any coach where their biggest frustration with the sport lies nowadays, it’s not with the College Football Playoff nor defending the Air Raid or scheming against the 3-3-5.

No, it will come down to the simple term of roster management. The progression of managing your way to 85 scholarship players by fall camp used to be a relatively straightforward process. In 2022? Not so much.

Players are leaving for the NFL earlier than ever, being recruited out of the high school ranks to sign this week or entering the NCAA transfer portal to either upgrade their playing time or find a better situation on and off the field.

[College football transfer portal tracker: Latest updates]

It makes for a complicated situation when it comes to who will actually be there for spring ball and beyond (to say nothing of throwing NIL on top of it all).

As a result, building a modern college football team for next season is far different from seeing a senior safety or right guard on the depth chart and knowing you need a young replacement in the coming recruiting class to fill his spot. Now, coaches are often recruiting fewer players out of high school and simply going portal shopping for more established players they can count on.

Take Big Ten champ Michigan, which needed reinforcements along the offensive line after last year but signed just two three-star offensive tackles in the Class of 2022. At the same time, the Wolverines brought Olusegun Oluwatimi over from Virginia. The grad transfer wound up becoming a key cog in the Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line in Ann Arbor and netted the Outland and Rimington Trophies too.

Then, there’s the even more extreme case out in Los Angeles where Lincoln Riley reshuffled a roster that had gone 4-8 with a whopping 26 transfers. USC nearly made the playoff doing so and one of those players who came via the portal wound up winning the Heisman Trophy: Caleb Williams.

It also means there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to those recruiting rankings focused only on the high school ranks. Riley’s initial Class of 2022 was ranked 70th by 247Sports – one spot below Coastal Carolina and fractionally better than Fresno State. Those transfers more than made the difference when it came to overall roster talent in the end, obviously.

So don’t be surprised to see some shocking names in surprising places on all those rankings pages on Wednesday and beyond if they’re only looking at those youngsters who will be freshmen next fall. As we’ve seen recently, things have changed quite a bit thanks to this new era of the portal.

Prime and sign

Deion Sanders came up just short in last week’s Celebration Bowl for his swan song at Jackson State but Coach Prime can win the day with a huge signing day in his new locale in Boulder.

Keep in mind, it was Sanders who pulled off the biggest story of the past couple of recruiting cycles when he inked the No. 1 overall recruit Travis Hunter to the HBCU last year and many are expecting a similar sort of national impact despite only being hired at Colorado a few weeks ago.

Deion Sanders on his move to Colorado, recruiting strategyNotre Dame commitment Dylan Edwards and have been making a hard sell to recent visitors like four-star edge rusher Tausili Akana out of Utah (considered an Oklahoma lean) and former Nebraska commit/four-star athlete Malachi Coleman. Throw in a number of players who have expressed interest from either the high school or college ranks, and it could be quite the talent infusion set to take place starting on Wednesday.

Sanders did tell his new team that he would be bringing his “Louis” luggage with him to CU and we’re all about to find out just who he was referring to soon enough.

Deion Sanders’ recruiting power for Colorado

Deion Sanders' recruiting power for Colorado

New coaches, new places

In addition to Sanders, 23 other head coaches will be taking the podium at new schools for a signing day news conference and it always will be worth tracking to see just how each made the most of the short time between their hire and the window for signatures opening up.

A few, like Matt Rhule at Nebraska, had a little more time than others and have been bringing in wave after wave of visitors to campus to meet the new staff and potentially land a surprise commitment or two. Someone like Jeff Brohm taking over at Louisville will need to balance keeping highly regarded players in the Cardinals class in the fold while making sure those previously committed to him at Purdue like his new spot if they wish to tag along.

[Deion Sanders, Matt Rhules and beyond: Grading every college football coach hire of 2022]

Then there’s Biff Poggi, who is navigating trying to sign his first recruiting class at Charlotte while also making hires with the 49ers and balancing his duties as an assistant on a Michigan team prepping for a CFP semifinal.

It’s really hard to judge head coaches by their initial class, given the difficulting of developing relationships in such a short time frame, but those that have really attacked the process the past few weeks will likely have something to show for it starting on Wednesday.

The Big Ten Coaching Carousel

The Big Ten Coaching Carousel

Pac-12 competitiveness

It wasn’t too long ago that national signing day was a spotlight Pac-12 schools didn’t enjoy. Arizona and Arizona State were lagging locally, USC was struggling amid the dying embers of the Clay Helton era, and Jimmy Lake wasn’t quite keeping things going after being handed the keys at Washington by Chris Petersen.

At least for now, things have changed and recruiting on the West Coast has become significantly more interesting.

Lincoln Riley obviously has things rolling ahead of schedule at USC and is getting to sell playing with a Heisman Trophy winner to this incoming crop of recruits for 2023. The Trojans have a number of highly regarded playmakers set to make things official like QB of the future Malachi Nelson but will also be one to keep an eye on as a potential landing spot for a host of others with plenty of stars next to their name too. They have a chance to make a splash if they can reel in five-star defensive end Matayo Uiagalelei and may be the favorites to land top tight ends Duce Robinson and Walker Lyons, among others.

USC has typically made a late splash on signing day to climb up the ranks and it sure looks like that could be the case once again, as Riley and his staff have had time to put down more roots out West.

Across town, UCLA is poised to have one of their best high school classes under the notoriously picky Chip Kelly and Oregon’s Dan Lanning has been taking an impressive national approach to land four-star players from nine different states. Stability has helped UW make inroads to having a top-25 class and even Stanford has withstood the coaching change to have a small but impactful group set to sign. Reigning conference champion Utah is also operating at a level it never really has been, as Kyle Whittingham could finish in the top 20 of the team rankings after generally hanging out a dozen spots lower.

It often feels like signing day is nearly over by the time many fans out West even wake up but this year could give them plenty to track as the signing period opens to a flurry of activity by Pac-12 schools from top to bottom.

Big Ten’s big dogs

The usual suspects dot the top of the team rankings in the Big Ten so it’s not a shock to see Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all set to bring in a haul of talented players and create even more distance between them and the rest of the conference when it comes to overall talent.

The Buckeyes have a chance at finishing in the top five nationally as they usually do but will need a big closing kick on signing day. They’re in the mix for a pair of five-star pass rushers in Matayo Uiagalelei and Damon Wilson, plus have been trying hard to flip Alabama commitment Caleb Downs, considered by most the top safety in the class. Ryan Day recently brought four-star QB Lincoln Keinholz into the fold and seems primed to keep things rolling.

For their rival to the north, the transfer portal has been a big focus but Jim Harbaugh and company can add to Michigan’s efforts on Wednesday too. They’re firmly in the mix for four-star corner Jyaire Hill and wideout Karmello English, but will be holding their breath mostly for five-star athlete Nyckoles Harbor.

Then there’s Penn State, which has really done well in the region thanks to commitments from five-star offensive tackle J’ven Williams and four-star edge rusher Jameial Lyons. James Franklin doesn’t seem done just yet and could be looking to add one or two more names to a very good group for the Nittany Lions.

Sunshine State jockeying

The past decade has made Florida one of the most active states in the country when it comes to recruiting, both because of the elite talent coming out of all areas and the sheer volume.

What’s made things interesting is that each of the Big Three programs (Florida, Florida State and Miami) all have had their ups and downs the past few seasons and plenty of coaching turnover amid their ranks. Things seem to be a little more stable at the moment and that’s resulting in a fascinating mix between the three in the Class of 2023.

The Hurricanes are not letting first-year struggles under Mario Cristobal impact them on the recruiting trail and could end up overtaking Georgia for the No. 2 class, depending on how things go this week. Billy Napier’s Gators recently flipped five-star QB Jaden Rashada from their neighbors to the south and are on track for a top-10 class of their own, while FSU has a smaller class that will likely still end up in the top 20 by the time the window closes.

Throw in a host of big-name four- and five-star players from the Sunshine State set to make their commitments, and it will be a very active day from the panhandle to Key West once again.

Conference realignment’s impact

Keep in mind that many coaches have been selling a different future to recruits than what they just experienced this past fall with their own programs thanks to a wave of realignment moves set to take place over the next two years.

Highly touted five-star QB Dante Moore just flipped his commitment from Oregon to UCLA and cited the Bruins’ move to the Big Ten as a factor in his decision (he’s from Detroit, so will actually play closer to home more often). Those signing with Texas or Oklahoma may see their first extended playing time in the SEC, while BYU, Houston and others are selling the opportunity to be in their first class under the Big 12 banner.

Further down the food chain, UTSA, Florida Atlantic and several others know they have to step things up to be more competitive in the AAC. Sam Houston and Jacksonville State are among those entering the FBS ranks and all that come with recruiting to that big step up.

It’s going to take some getting used to for many fans out there, but it’s worth taking note as to who might be doing better (or worse) on the recruiting trail as a result of conference realignment this cycle.

To the top

Nick Saban’s rant last summer after finishing second to Texas A&M in the team recruiting rankings seemed to have struck a chord, because Alabama is closing in on what should be the No. 1 overall class this cycle by a decent margin.

Nearly a dozen top-100 players are already committed to the Tide and will make things official this week – but the program isn’t done yet. Iowa commit and top-ranked offensive tackle Kadyn Proctor recently visited Tuscaloosa and is a player many believe could be flipped while five-star tight end Duce Robinson has Bama on the shortlist of options.

Throw in another four or five highly regarded prospects like LB Jaquavious Russaw and DT James Smith who will have that script A hat on the table and college football’s greatest coach appears to be back in a familiar position come signing day even if this most recent on-field campaign didn’t end in the playoff.

Elsewhere, it’s worth keeping an eye on the pecking order atop several conference races too.

Can USC hold off Oregon to be the Pac-12’s top class or will Michigan get enough surprises to scoot past Penn State in the Big Ten? Among the current and future Big 12 schools, TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor are all duking it out just as hard as Oklahoma and Texas are too.

Tamper tantrum

It used to be in recruiting that the old Ricky Bobby saying was apt: If you’re not first, you’re last.

In the age of the transfer portal, that is less of the case.

Many coaches know that if they keep good relationships with players, even if they ultimately sign elsewhere, there’s still an opportunity to re-engage down the road if things don’t work out and somebody is on the hunt for a new landing spot as a sophomore, junior or beyond.

Still, this is college football and emotions run high – especially given the amount of time spent on trying to get impressionable 18-year-olds to come to one place and one place only. Between the normal recruiting shenanigans and the opaque whispers about NIL deals, there’s plenty of chatter going on behind the scenes, and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see some of it spill out into the public this window if a few decisions fail to go as expected.

When that happens, grab some popcorn, sit back and enjoy the show.

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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