This Saturday, the premier game of the weekend will be No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. It's the same matchup we saw in last year's national title game. The winner is in the playoff. The loser may be in, too. But don't get Georgia-Alabama fatigue just yet because you've got a long few years ahead.
Not only are Alabama and Georgia No. 1 and No. 4 respectively in the national rankings heading into the weekend's tilt, they're also Nos. 1 and 3 respectively in the national recruiting rankings according to 247Sports. They're ranked No. 2 and No. 3 respectively in the 247Sports Team Talent Composite, which quantifies the most talented teams based on who is actually on the roster accounting for attrition. In the 2018 cycle, Georgia became the first team to jump Alabama for the No. 1 class in seven years.
Even on the current rosters, the best players are returning. While Alabama has first-round locks like Quinnen Williams and Jonah Williams as likely early departures, most of the firepower in the most potent offense of Nick Saban's tenure returns in 2019, led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his fleet of receivers. Georgia also returns its quarterback in Jake Fromm while it sits a sophomore behind him in Justin Fields that is likely the most talented backup in college football. Its running backs will be back, its massive offensive line is almost entirely back and some of its most talented defenders are just getting their feet wet this fall.
With Dec. 19 and the early signing day rapidly approaching, the Georgia and Alabama talent assembly line extends as far as the eye can see. No less than 13 of the 247Sports Composite top 50 players are either committed or likely to land at either Alabama or Georgia.
Last year, Georgia's ability to more effectively navigate the early signing period than Alabama is what powered its No. 1 class and Alabama's slip to No. 5. This year, with three weeks remaining, that navigation will entail the two programs battling for many of the same players. There are five players inside the top 25 alone that will be worth watching closely over the next few weeks.
Nolan Smith, No. 1 weakside defensive end, No. 1 overall (Georgia commit): The mantra in recruiting has always been to 'follow the visits.' No matter what a prospect says or tweets, it's the visits that will tell the story. Smith has never wavered from the pledge he made to Georgia two years ago, but he has taken visits and Alabama has hosted him as much as anyone outside of Georgia. A recent official visit to the Iron Bowl is the latest data point to suggest that the Tide have a puncher's chance here, especially with dogged recruiter Tosh Lupoi chasing, but the Georgia native still feels like a longshot to flip.
Darnell Wright, No. 2 offensive tackle, No. 11 overall: Saban and Smart are both jockeying for Wright, but they may both be chasing Jeremy Pruitt and Tennessee on this one. Wright's Crystal Ball is reading Tennessee of late, but Georgia is going to get the first crack at him for an official visit in December. This one will extend beyond the early signing period so both Alabama and Georgia will have some time to cut into Tennessee's lead and perhaps more time to impress the West Virginia-native depending on what happens this weekend and in the weeks to come.
Clay Webb, No. 1 center, No. 19 overall: An Oxford, Alabama native, Webb has been considered an Alabama lean for a long time. But the longer his recruitment has played out, the more it has felt feasible that he lands elsewhere. Georgia has emerged as maybe the top contender. It's starting to feel similar to the Bulldogs pulling Tennessee legacy Cade Mays out of Knoxville late last year. While Georgia and Alabama appear neck-and-neck in this one, Auburn and Clemson are also in play for a prospect that has kept things close to the vest throughout his recruitment. You can't just 'follow the visits' for Webb as he's been to each of the four contenders multiple times this fall. A potential three or four-year starter, Webb has everyone's attention in advance of a likely Dec. 10 decision.
Nakobe Dean, No. 1 inside linebacker, No. 21 overall: An announcement is coming on Dec. 19 for Dean. The rare Mississippi prospect likely to head out of state, Dean is athletic, extremely physical and very intelligent so he's got all of the SEC heavyweights dialed in. Georgia has most of the Crystal Ball predictions at this point in the process, but Alabama made a strong impression on his recent unofficial visit to the Iron Bowl. An LSU official visit is still coming in December but it feels like the herd is chasing Smart and Saban here. First year assistants Pete Golding of Alabama and Dan Lanning of Georgia are looking to land their most important target to date in their new roles.
Evan Neal, No. 5 offensive tackle, No. 25 overall: Alabama has had Neal committed before and it's battling a lot of other blue bloods to pull him back into the fold, but things are looking good. Neal took an official visit to Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl and the trip had the intended effect. Next up is a Georgia official visit in early December. We've learned at this point to never count out Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman when it comes to landing high end offensive line talent and the 6-foot-7, 360-pound Neal is certainly that.
With the coaching carousel in full spin mode, here are the toughest current recruiting situations for head coaches to navigate considering the rapidly approaching early signing day.
1. Clay Helton at USC. Let's start with the good news. USC's brand is strong. Kids are always going to want to come to USC and that won't change even with Helton on shaky ground. USC always closes strong and that possibility remains as it sits No. 29 nationally late in November with plenty of interested parties remaining. While UCLA's late season surge and win over USC indicates positive momentum at the crosstown rival under Chip Kelly, that doesn't change the fact that Kelly is off to a sluggish start in recruiting (ranked 77th nationally with only nine commits). Now for the bad news: Helton will have a hard time selling recruits on any job security beyond next year. He just fired his two best recruiters in Tee Martin and Kenechi Udeze. He's got no offensive coordinator. He's got an increasingly competitive Pac-12 recruiting landscape with Oregon putting together a historic class powered by southern California talent, and Washington is leveling up. USC is notoriously understaffed in recruiting, so it's hard to envision that prototypical Trojan strong finish this cycle.
2. Mack Brown at North Carolina. If you watched Brown's introductory press conference on Tuesday, you understand that the guy can still sell. He can still win a room. But you also probably noticed that he is by his own admission totally ignorant of the North Carolina recruiting efforts. He's not an acting coach with existing relationships to lean on. There is no geographical footprint in place that Brown has been tapping into. The 67-year old coming off of a five-year hiatus and will be totally dependent on the existing Tar Heel coaches and support staff to give him the guided tour of the 2019 recruiting cycle. Point him towards the right commits and he looks equipped to close on a few, but it will be a challenge for Brown to stick his own personal stamp on the 2019 efforts.
3. Gus Malzahn at Auburn. I'm writing this story and you're reading this story. Based on those two facts, we are more dialed in to the coaching rumor mill and hot seat talk than most high school seniors, regardless of their recruitment status. That said, the Malzahn job security noise is deafening and parents, trainers, coaches and handlers that are influencing prospect decisions are undoubtedly paying close attention to the situation at Auburn. The never-ending saga concerning Malzhan's coaching status hasn't crippled Auburn in the past and it likely won't cripple it this year either, but it certainly lowers the ceiling on best case scenarios for a close.