For those inside the sport, college football's early signing period is a little like getting married or having a baby. Everyone involved knows a lot is about to change, but nobody's exactly sure how or what will change or how to be fully prepared.
College football introduced the new wrinkle into the sport's recruiting calendar back in the spring. Now, from Wednesday morning until Friday night, any prospect can sign their letter of intent and officially become a member of their chosen school's 2018 recruiting class. When the traditional national signing day rolls around on Feb. 7, it'll be just another Wednesday for players who have already signed.
We've already seen it make an impact, but who will it benefit and who will it hurt?
Impact: It can interfere with bowl prep.
Who it helps: Teams that do well in early bowls and teams that play their bowls late in the postseason.
Who it hurts: Teams that do poorly in early bowls and play bowls early.
We have some bad news, Oregon. Any player who signs with the Ducks will do so after having watched new coach Mario Cristobal get pasted by Boise State in his debut in last Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl. One game isn't a huge deal, but if you're trying to corral a few more signees in last few days before the window opens, a loss like that couldn't be more poorly timed. Several coaches whose teams had seasons conclude in bowls last Saturday had plans to hit the road on Sunday and recruit. And some, like Alabama's Nick Saban, are preparing for playoff games.
"I don't think it's in the players' best interest," Saban said. "I don't see how it benefits anybody. I think it's really stressful for everyone. We're all trying to get ready for bowl games and playoff games and we have a signing day right in the middle of when we're going to be practicing for a playoff game."
USC coach Clay Helton told the Orange County Register he coached his team for a Cotton Bowl practice last on Monday, flew to Utah for an in-home visit with a recruit, then flew back early morning on Tuesday to return to the facility and go to work.
It's asking a lot of coaches, who are always balancing their current and future teams. This year, the level of urgency is far different with signatures at stake in December.
Impact: It can throw a wrench into coaching searches.
Who it helps: Teams that had searches that were smooth and quick.
Who it hurts: Teams that land on their eighth candidate and fall behind schedule.
Well, Tennessee, we can't all be UCLA. Trying to piece together a recruiting class in less than two months was already a monumental task. Now, some coaches have less than two weeks to make sure they don't fall behind before they coach their first game. UCLA fired Jim Mora on Nov. 19, a day after a loss to USC. It hired Chip Kelly on Nov. 25, a day after its regular-season finale. That gave Kelly almost a month to organize the first part of his class, retaining players he wanted and trying to flip others he coveted.
Meanwhile, Tennessee fired Butch Jones on Nov. 12 and didn't hire Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt until Dec. 7, giving him less than two weeks to recruit before the early signing period began. That's a clear advantage for schools that have coaching searches go smoothly, but the impact won't be known until we know how many prospects actually sign this week.
Time was always of the essence in coaching searches, but more schools already fired coaches as early as possible this year to expedite the process. That part of an athletic director's job has never meant more than it does now.
And for players who do sign this week, there's no clause to let them out of their signed letter if a coach leaves for another job. All 20 FBS job openings have been filled, but with the NFL season winding down, other openings are still possible. If any coaches do leave players who sign this week would be stuck playing for a new coach just days after signing with a different one.
Impact: It will take some drama out of national signing day.
Who it helps: Teams with highly rated recruiting classes stocked with firm commits and recruits who already have their minds made up.
Who it hurts: Coaches, especially new ones, trying to make late moves on uncommitted prospects.
National signing day has been a slow crescendo, building to the absurd rituals like hat ceremonies, puppies and the presence of Derek Jeter. There's no telling exactly how much of the hoopla the early signing day will suck out of February, but if half the class or more has already signed and enjoyed they're announcements, we'll see less of it, for sure.
Coaches will have to walk the line of pressing commits to sign in December without pushing hard enough to turn them off the school.
"From our perspective, it has allowed us to really identify those who really want to be at Notre Dame," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said in a news conference. "It's taxing, but it's doable."
Meanwhile, for a coach like Texas A&M's Jimbo Fisher, who's spent his first few weeks as the Aggies coach making the rounds in Texas, it's less time to try to sell a bright future in College Station to other committed prospects in Texas, and less time to try to build a relationship before many of them have signed with other teams and are off limits from being recruited.
Impact: Waffling prospects will have their true colors revealed.
Who it helps: Coaches looking for clarity for their classes.
Who it hurts: Prospects still waiting out other opportunities or those uncertain of their intentions.
In this aspect, coaches have all the leverage. If a committed player doesn't sign, some coaches won't consider them committed anymore, and don't be surprised if it costs some lesser-rated prospects a scholarship offer.
"Back in the summertime we tried to figure out through information gathering through prospects," Saban said. "Were you going to be an early signing guy? What's your plan? Or will you go to the February signing date like always? It was very difficult because a lot of players weren't really ready to make a commitment to that. They hadn't decided what they were going to do."
Sometimes, it's just as simple as not being sure. But sometimes, a player might be committed to a team like Pitt but waiting on an offer from Penn State or Ohio State. Sometimes, if a bigger program misses on a four- or five-star recruit, a scholarship can come open and a late offer can arrive. For players waiting on those, awkward conversations await. Players want to make sure they have a spot, but they're also rightly looking out for themselves and trying to make sure they end up in the best place for them. Loyalty means something, but for players who have dreamed of wearing a particular uniform since they were a kid, they'll want to wait. Some will have that luxury. Some won't. But nobody's quite sure how this will work.
"I would expect anyone that's committed to us to sign with us in the early signing period," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Otherwise they probably aren't really committed, is the reality of it."
In some cases, coaches may be inclined to wait for a prospect to sign if they're not sure he'll officially qualify academically. Each prospect is a case-by-case basis.
Dantonio's not technically wrong, but ending this week with 20-plus signatures might be a tough ask. Those who do have that luxury, though, can get a jump start on work toward 2019 classes. The golden rule of college football is simple: ABC.
And it's worth noting: The "Can we do better?" game works on both ends. A mini-version of what we see in February is likely to happen this week. If a team misses out on a highly rated prospect, they may reach out to their backup plan and gauge his interest on signing later in the week or postponing his decision to sign until February. There are enough moving parts to make identifying every variable more difficult than keeping Alabama out of the playoff.
Bottom line: It's still a guessing game.
The numbers especially complicate the first early signing period. Nobody knows how many will sign and who will. Coaches are guessing. Players are unsure and many have publicly announced their plans -- either to sign or wait -- in just the last week. Until the window shuts on Friday, nobody knows exactly how it will shape February's traditional signing day.
This is only the beginning, too. Whatever unforeseen happenings go down this week could produce a whole new round of questions for next year's early signing period.