Consider this your alarm clock. This may be Conference Championship Week in college football. In the case of the Pac-12, the season basically just started. But the third Wednesday in December marks the arrival of something much more important than most of the games being played this weekend. Dec. 16 is Early Signing Day, or perhaps it would be more apt to simply call it Signing Day.
While the college football season has been disjointed and the recruiting cycle totally disrupted, the early signing period remains unchanged. Dec. 16-19 offers prospects the first opportunity to sign their letters of intent, locking themselves into the school of their choice. A more old-fashioned signing period kicks off on the first Wednesday of February but by then, most of the prospects will be off the board. Here are a few of the major storylines to follow this week in the lead up to Wednesday's action.
Watch National Signing Day 2020 streaming LIVE on CBS Sports HQ -- Wednesday, Dec. 16 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.
How many players will sign?
In 2017, the first year of the early signing period implementation, 74% of FBS prospects signed in December. In 2018 and 2019, that number crept up to 81% and 82%, respectively. In a typical year, we would have expected those numbers to stabilize and stay consistent with 2020, where just over 80% of prospects signed. But this isn't a typical year and there are all kinds of reasons to believe that things could be very different.
There is uncertainty on both sides of aisle as prospects and coaches formalize their relationships. For coaches, there is an evaluation element missing in this process like never before. There were no college camps this summer, no spring evaluation period, and since last March, no junior days or unofficial visits to collect data and measurements. That has resulted in taking more commitments with less verification and certainty.
All of those things are true on the player side as well. A large percentage of signees will have never visited the school they are signing with. Even more have visited without any coach interaction. This predicament could lead to more cold feet than ever on both sides of the table.
There are also the COVID-related roster predicaments. One Group of Five coach mentioned to me that many of his potential signees are keeping a close eye on how many upperclassmen will be returning to the roster due to COVID-waivers and how that may affect playing time and opportunity before they make their final decision.
These things are tough to predict but with the early signing day approaching, a complex and uncertain outlook could push players towards taking more time to sift through it all.
Coaching carousel spins on
Since the early signing period implementation, the coaching carousel has been an awkward nuisance to assembling a signing class. Typically, some end-of-year firings take place in late November or early December and new coaches may have less than 14 days to hold things together before players can sign. This year's carousel participants would love such a luxury. Just three days before the early signing period, Auburn, Arizona and Illinois have fired their head coaches. Shane Beamer is one week into the job at South Carolina. As of this writing, Vanderbilt has yet to find a replacement for Derek Mason. Could more jobs open up before Wednesday?
Auburn is clearly the biggest domino to fall. With the departure of Gus Malzahn, it's open season on the Tigers commit list in addition to some trending prospects like four-star linebackers Trevin Wallace and Terrence Lewis as well as DE George Wilson. If any buzz starts to materialize in the coming days for someone like Oregon's Mario Cristobal, Liberty's Hugh Freeze, Louisiana's Billy Napier or another sitting head coach, we could see some wavering on those commit lists. With coordinators like Notre Dame's Clark Lea in play at Vanderbilt, Wisconsin's Jim Leonhard at Illinois or perhaps Oregon's Andy Avalos or USC's Graham Harrell at Arizona, there is more uncertainty that teams will have to navigate with signing day approaching.
The strong closers
We'll see some flips. We'll see some surprises. But Wednesday is really about who closes strong. That's what will win the headlines and the narrative. A slow day may be exactly what most coaches are hoping for, but a flurry of activity will deliver the exclamation point on the 2021 cycle for somebody.
If you're looking for strong closer candidates, USC is a good place to start. The Trojans traditionally have a knack for it, but that reputation has taken a hit in recent years. USC enters this week as the No. 14 class in the country, but there are some big names teed up that could change that. Quarterback Jaxson Dart would be big. Four-star athlete Devin Kirkwood looks likely to sign. Can the Trojans also flip California native and LSU commit Raesjon Davis? What about uncommitted four-star Ceyair Wright or the No. 1 prospect in the country Korey Foreman? Both Wright and Foreman don't plan on publicizing their decisions until Jan. 2, but if USC can land the whole lot, it can start pushing for a top-five finish.
Georgia is always a threat to close strong and with names like linebacker Xavian Sorey and defensive lineman Maason Smith out there, it's possible again. If Georgia lands Smith, it will be a blow to LSU. But if the Tigers land the in-state four-star lineman, it could be part of a furious finish of their own. Some of LSU's biggest decisions may have to wait until Jan. 2 or February, but the decisions of Smith, CB Damarius McGhee, RBs Logan Diggs and Armoni Goodwin could all be part of a strong close.