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Top-flight recruits and the early signing period

How is football’s early signing date affecting when the blue chippers sign?

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Texas vs Missouri
Missouri’s 21 commits by the early signing period had Barry Odom and Co. out ahead of their pace in years past. Did the rest of the SEC follow suit?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This year, for the first time, college football teams were able to sign recruits to national letters of intent before the first Wednesday in February.

It was a three-day span, from Dec. 20-22, a full seven weeks out from traditional signing day. The thinking behind it was, ostensibly, to let recruits who had already made their minds up sign, so that they didn’t have to deal with nearly two extra months of pressure, guilt-tripping, cash under the table or whatever coaches employ nowadays to try to turn top-flight football prospects from one FBS program to another.

Basically, schools wanted the chance to get most of their classes definitively locked down earlier in the process than ever before.

(No word yet on where these binding agreements before most of bowl season has taken place leaves the players who are still vulnerable to the head and position coaches who recruited them jetting for other programs but, hey, that’s what a skewed balance of power is for, right?)

An ancillary effect, the thinking went, was to give the “little guys” more of a shot at some of the most highly recruited talents and possibly lock in a signature before one of the blue bloods gets too hot on a recruit’s trail.

Missouri knows the pain all too well. You go into someone else’s state (or, in the case of Jafar Armstrong, your own backyard) and put in all this work on a late-rising prospect, only to have a Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Georgia, Miami, Alabama, etc. throw their hat into the ring as the weeks tick down before signing day.

Notre Dame didn’t offer Armstrong until three weeks before signing day 2017, after all. Might he have signed with the Tigers if he was able to in mid-December 2016?

Anyway, I looked at the 247Sports’ composite top 100 prospects from the classes of 2012-18 (all the years Missouri has been in the SEC) to see whether this early signing period has accelerated the timeframe for commitments from top prospects, as well as whether it has democratized the process in any demonstrable fashion.

For this year’s class, I used commits by Dec. 22, not just signees. For 2012-17, I used all players who had committed to the teams they ended up signing with by the Friday of the seventh week before that year’s signing day (for example: Dec. 16, 2016 for last year’s Feb. 1 signing day).

Short answers: yes, the commitment timeline is speeding up. No, it’s not really offering more opportunities for other teams besides the usual suspects. In fact, it appears to be shutting them down a little bit.

For the long answer, you can read on...

247Sports Composite Top-100 Recruits Who Committed By 7 Weeks Out

  • 2018: 74 prospects, 22 teams represented (3.36 per team)
  • 2017: 68 prospects, 25 teams (2.72 per)
  • 2016: 54 prospects, 24 teams (2.25 per)
  • 2015: 59 prospects, 26 teams (2.27 per)
  • 2014: 61 prospects, 23 teams (2.65 per)
  • 2013: 65 prospects, 26 teams (2.50 per)
  • 2012: 56 prospects, 22 teams (2.55 per)
  • 2012-17 average: 60.5 prospects, 24.3 teams (2.49 per)

The amount of teams represented in the top-100 prospects who were committed by seven weeks out is at its lowest level since 2012 and two under the average for the period from 2012-17.

Those teams are also snapping up most prospects than the average from those six years. The 74 already-committed prospects is 22 percent above the 2012-17 average, and the average committed prospects per team is up 35 percent from the average.

Georgia and Ohio State each got 10 commits from the top 100. Texas got seven. Clemson got six.

Moreover, only one of the 22 schools represented had failed to pull in a top-100 commit in that timeframe for the six years previous: NC State, who signed in-state linebacker Payton Wilson after he committed Dec. 1. (The 247 composite has him 76th in the class. Rivals isn’t quite as bullish...).

Where is this land of opportunity? Where is Houston getting an Ed Oliver commitment for 2016 in May 2015? Or Missouri getting a Drew Lock commitment for 2015 in April 2014?

The rich, it appears, just keep getting richer with the new system. But that’s only one year of data. Maybe we should keep checking back with this.

Until then, here’s something else to consider. I also looked at how this new system has affected the recruiting timeline of SEC teams.

The league’s 14 teams had an average of 17.6 commits by the end of the early signing period in December, ranging from Georgia and South Carolina’s high of 22 to Arkansas’ low of nine.

Coaching stability, predictably, has a little something to say about that figure. The five schools that are going through coaching changes right now — Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M -- had only pulled in an average of 13.6 commits, while the nine schools who are not averaged 19.8.

When you look at similar time periods from 2012-17, that 17.6 figure is about 6 percent above the average (16.6). Not that much of a difference.

But when you split it up into the teams going through and not going through coaching changes, the difference is a little more stark: 19.8 for the continuity teams is 12 percent above the 2012-17 average (17.7). The 13.6 for change teams is 47 percent above the 2012-17 average (9.27).

So why is the overall change only 6 percent? Keep in mind that the change teams make up a greater proportion of the sample for 2018 than they had in any of the previous years. The SEC welcomed in zero new coaches in 2017, three in 2016, one each in 2015 and 2014 and two in 2012.

I didn’t count Ed Orgeron (LSU) and Matt Luke (Ole Miss) as “new” coaches in 2017, since Luke took over Ole Miss after the signing class was already on campus, and Orgeron had a full four months as head coach at LSU before signing day 2017 hit. Similarly, I didn’t count John L. Smith as a “new” coach at Arkansas in 2012, since he didn’t take over for Bobby Petrino until after that year’s signing class had been completed.

From 2012-17, the average SEC school had 16.6 members of its 24.2-member signing class — or 68.6 percent — committed. Schools that didn’t go through coaching changes had 17.7 of 24.5 signees (72.2 percent) committed, and schools that did had 9.27 of 22.1 signees (42.0 percent).

Texas A&M (80.1 percent) had the most of its signing class committed by seven weeks out during the period of the study, while Ole Miss (60.1 percent) had the least.

Missouri (65.0 percent) was a relatively late closer. Their early commit rate went all the way from 50.0 percent (11 of 22 in 2016, the transition to Barry Odom) to 85.7 percent (24 of 28 in 2014). If Missouri, with its 21 commits by Dec. 22 this year, has only 65 percent of its class in place, that means we’re looking for a 34-player Tigers signing class this year.

Not terribly likely.

Across the league, it looks like the new early signing period has sped up the recruiting timeline a little bit, but not in any sort earth-shattering fashion.

If you want to take a look at the numbers on the SEC, they’re presented below. Coaching turnover year output is bolded.