Two weeks after Ohio State beat Oregon for the national championship, we are nearing the unofficial start of the 2015 college football season: National Signing Day. The 2015 recruiting process has being going on for a few years now, of course, but everything is about to be final, with several top prospects still uncommitted and several new coaches trying to make a quick impact with limited time to secure classes.
Next Wednesday, Feb. 4, represents both an end point and a beginning, as we get to discuss what this year's classes mean for the upcoming season and beyond. With just over a week left until the signing day fax machine circus, these are 10 recruiting storylines to follow.
Note: All rankings come from 247Sports' composite rankings, which combine the rankings of multiple recruiting services.
1. Alabama is on the verge of its fifth straight No. 1 class.
We can overanalyze any possible cracks in the foundation of Alabama, and think about when Nick Saban might lose his fastball, but here we are again. Not only is Saban as good or better than anyone at developing players, but he's better than everyone at recruiting too.
Saban's recruiting machine is showing no signs of slowing down, even though it's been an impossibly long two-year national championship drought in Tuscaloosa. The 247Sports composite rankings show the Crimson Tide with a commanding lead, one that they're highly unlikely to give up by signing day. Assuming they do hold on, that means they'll have signed the top rated class every year since 2011. Before that, all Alabama could manage was a fifth-place finish in '10, a class that featured key contributors Dee Milliner, Blake Sims, Adrian Hubbard, Arie Kouandjio, Jalston Fowler, Brian Vogler, Nick Perry, Austin Shepherd, Brandon Ivory and DeAndrew White. The last non-Alabama team to finish first? Florida, in Urban Meyer's final season.
The Tide's 2015 class currently has six five-star commitments, including early enrollee QB Blake Barnett, plus verbals WR Calvin Ridley, CB Kendall Sheffield, DT Daron Payne, CB Minkah Fitzpatrick and RB Damien Harris. As the quarterback who is enrolled for spring ball, Barnett is the biggest name to watch, as he'll have a chance to compete with senior Jacob Coker, sophomore Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman David Cornwell and junior Alec Morris to replace Sims. But Ridley also has a chance to play a role as Bama loses its top three receivers, and landing two five-star cornerbacks is big, given that it's the one area where Alabama has struggled, relatively speaking, the last few years as up-tempo spread offenses have infiltrated the SEC.
2. USC battles Florida State for No. 2.
The Trojans have hardly lacked star power, even through a tumultuous Lane Kiffin era in which they dealt with scholarship restrictions. Kiffin recruited well, and Sarkisian is continuing the trend, which should be no surprise, considering USC's prestige and location. Sarkisian signed the nation's No. 10 class with 20 players last year, and now he's pushed the Trojans near the top with a full allotment of scholarships available. Over the weekend, USC received a verbal commitment from five-star linebacker Osa Masina, bumping it up to No. 3 in 247Sports' composite rankings, behind Alabama and Florida State.
Both USC (20 commitments) and Florida State (21) still have room, and they're still in the mix with undecided blue-chip recruits, meaning they stand a good chance of holding their ground in the top three with Tennessee and Clemson lurking behind them. That Florida State continues to bring in impressive recruiting hauls is no surprise. It isn't a surprise for USC, either, but Sarkisian has a chance to make a big impression as USC starts moving to full strength. It's a matter of him actually meeting high expectations over the next few years, starting right now in 2015. We know USC can recruit with Alabama and Florida State; now we wait for the results.
3. The uncommitted five-star prospects
Eight five-star prospects remain uncommitted, including a bunch at the top of the 247Sports composite rankings: DT Martez Ivy (No. 2), DE Byron Cowart (No. 3), CB Iman Marshall (No. 4), DE CeCe Jefferson (No. 7), DT Terry Beckner (No. 13), DT Daylon Mack (No. 14), DT Rasheem Green (No. 23) and RB Soso Jamabo (No. 32). Highly rated players who are making last-minute decisions have been faced with months and even years of questions about where they'll attend football, something that can drive 17- and 18-year-olds crazy, unless they're Jamabo and can playfully answer by saying either University of Phoenix or ITT Tech. Not surprisingly, all undecided five-star prospects but Beckner (Illinois) are from either Florida, Texas or California.
4. Jim Harbaugh plays catch-up.
Harbaugh didn't inherit much on the recruiting trail, which is the type of thing that can happen when everyone assumes a coach is a lame duck, and when those assumptions turn out to be accurate, as in the case of Brady Hoke. Hoke recruited fairly well in Michigan, but Harbaugh entered a messy situation that not even he, one of the most hyped coaching hires ever, can save in this short amount of time. That doesn't mean he can't make progress.
With just nine commitments, Michigan sits 69th in 247Sports' composite rankings, but the Wolverines at least are back on track after Harbaugh flipped four-star QB Zach Gentry, a 6-foot-7 pocket passer from New Mexico, from his verbal commitment to Texas. It should come as no surprise. Harbaugh has a reputation as a program builder, and a big part of that is his work with quarterbacks, a position that Michigan has really struggled with adapting to its power football approach. Gentry is a nice step forward for Harbaugh, and while there's no chance of recovering to sign a top class, there's little doubt that Harbaugh can get the ball rolling toward becoming a dominant recruiter in Ann Arbor.
5. Jim McElwain plays an even bigger game of catch-up.
Florida dealt with the same situation as Michigan, as Will Muschamp was clearly on the hot seat entering 2014, and that never changed. Despite occupying much more fertile recruiting ground than Michigan, McElwain faces a more dire situation. Florida currently also has nine commitments, and it ranks 81st, with no five-stars and only one four-star. That places the Gators last among Power Five teams. Florida has landed two players since McElwain took over, with the biggest news being the addition of former Miami head coach Randy Shannon as co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. McElwain did a great job as head coach at Colorado State and has SEC experience as offensive coordinator at Alabama, but he's also not an immediately known name who can shake up the recruiting trail immediately upon moving to Gainesville. Shannon, however, provides an instant pipeline to South Florida.
6. Will Kyler Murray stick with Texas A&M?
Allen High School has won three straight Texas state championships with Murray at quarterback, a period in which he has gone 42-0 as starter. Needless to say, his recruitment has been highly publicized for a long, long time, even if he's listed at only 5-foot-11, 178 pounds. There are reasons why that size isn't going to prevent everyone from being one of the most coveted players:
Then again, it's hard not to have some concerns about his size in relation to a future at quarterback. Nevertheless, he's been committed to Texas A&M since May, when he chose the home-state Aggies over Oregon. Murray is the son of former Texas A&M quarterback Kevin Murray. If he ends up at Texas A&M, he could potentially provide more of a Manziel-ian option for the Aggies in competition with incumbent Kyle Allen, the top pro-style passer of the class of 2014, and the quarterback who took over for Kenny Hill by the end of the season.
Of course, despite being a Texas A&M verbal for months, Murray made waves with a surprise visit to Texas last week, with the Longhorns in dire need of a quarterback, especially now after Gentry flipped to Michigan. There is another possibility, though: While Murray will sign with one of these two schools, he is also a coveted baseball prospect who could be drafted in the first round next summer. For all the attention given to his football recruitment, the possibility of signing a baseball contract before the 2015 football season remains. At the moment, we're left simply speculating. Or, if you're the operator of a Texas or Texas A&M message board, you're left challenging each other to a duel over the decision of a high school senior.
7. Ohio State and Oregon move forward.
Coming off their appearances in the national championship game, neither Ohio State nor Oregon is receiving an appreciable recruiting bump, but perhaps that's not surprising. Ohio State occupies its usual place, currently ranked seventh and poised to land its fifth straight top 10 class. Oregon typically ends up in the top 20, and the Ducks are 16th right now. It's business as usual for both teams, as the Buckeyes continue to dominate the Big Ten -- at least before Harbaugh gets a full year on the recruiting trail -- and Oregon continues to haul in solid classes rated as well or better than anyone in the Pac-12 outside of USC. While the Ducks lost out on Murray last spring, they did get a commitment from four-star dual-threat quarterback Travis Waller, who will attempt to be a freshman contender for the starting job in place of Marcus Mariota, with junior Jeff Lockie as the frontrunner.
8. Tennessee closes out another big class.
Last year, in his first full recruiting year at Tennessee, Butch Jones signed 32 players in the nation's seventh-ranked class, with a ridiculous 14 enrolling early to participate in spring practice. This year, Tennessee has a national-high 28 commitments, with 10 already on campus early. With a five-star (DT Kahlil McKenzie) and 13 four-stars, the Vols again are poised to sign a top-10 class under Jones, injecting much-needed young talent after the struggles of the Derek Dooley era. Last year, the team was too young to overcome a brutal schedule, and a 7-6 season with a bowl win was a step in the right direction. In 2015, the Vols will likely be a trendy sleeper pick as they build on that influx of talent from last winter.
9. Penn State gets its scholarships back.
While Penn State's scholarship sanctions were rolled back each of the last two falls, that didn't mean the trouble was over. The Nittany Lions were perilously thin in the 2014 season, and it will take a while to get back to full strength. Everything is certainly trending upward, though. James Franklin is known as one of most energetic recruiters in the sport, and he has the Nittany Lions just outside the top 10 nationally -- a clear second in the Big Ten -- with three more commitments added to the mix since the beginning of the weekend, including a Monday steal from Pittsburgh. Six of the top seven players in the state of Pennsylvania are committed to Penn State, and the Nittany Lions are wisely heavily emphasizing the offensive line: juco transfer Paris Palmer and four-star freshman Sterling Jenkins are already enrolled, and four-star OT Ryan Bates is on the way. Much attention will justifiably be paid to the Meyer-Harbaugh dynamic, but Franklin's presence provides a bit of a wild card in the Big Ten East.
10. Yes, Snoop Dogg's son is still deciding.
The most famous recruit of the class of 2015 has yet to make his decision, although you may have seen ESPN's five-part documentary, Snoop & Son: A Dad's Dream, give him plenty of publicity in advance. Snoop Dogg's son is Cordell Broadus, a four-star receiver who played his senior season on the nation's top team, Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas (UNLV just hired Bishop Gorman's Tony Sanchez as its head coach in the rare preps-to-Division-I move). Not surprisingly, his dad has expressed desire for him to go to USC, but Broadus has attracted interest from many schools, with USC rivals UCLA, Notre Dame and Arizona State in the mix too.