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The big reveal is set for Wednesday afternoon. If all goes as planned, it will be televised nationally. Will it be LSU, Alabama or maybe Oregon for Ishmael Sopsher, the big defensive tackle from Amite (La.) High School? Will his teammate Devonta Lee choose LSU, Texas A&M or Kentucky?
The moment promises to be that perfect mesh of shtick and dramatic tension – much of it real, some of it manufactured, all of it over the top – that not so long ago was a nearly ubiquitous feature, nonstop, of national signing day.
Now, though? Most of the drama played out back in December, when the vast majority of football recruits signed their letters during the early signing period. The first Wednesday in February has become essentially supplemental.
“A lot of programs truly have their entire class built,” says Barton Simmons, the director of scouting for 247Sports. “There’s just nothing for them to do. There’s no press conference. There’s no signing day party. In that sense, it is a very different feel.”
In recent years, national signing day had become an unofficial national holiday. Fans waited anxiously to see whether teenagers would sign with their school – like Sopsher and Lee, often live on various TV channels – and then celebrated wildly like someone had scored a touchdown. And then it was on to the next recruit’s announcement. Rinse. Repeat.
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“You kick it off,” Kansas coach Les Miles told USA TODAY Sports in 2015, back when he was LSU’s coach, describing how a typical national signing day went. “You know how you want it to play out. You know the plays that you want called and you want to run. You see how the game can finish and be. But there’s some fluidity to it. You’re not quite sure.”
All of that still happens, only now it’s mostly in December. Eighty-eight of the top 100 players as ranked by Rivals signed national letters of intent during the early signing period. Of the remaining 12, five have given nonbinding, verbal commitments to schools; only seven are undecided. On Tuesday afternoon, only 12 of Rivals’ top 250 players were listed as undecided.
And although this was not necessarily the intention of the NCAA, the move to December has dialed back some of the hype. Where ESPN’s coverage on various channels once began at breakfast and ran nonstop until around dinnertime, its coverage will start at midday, with 4 1/2 hours split between ESPN2 and ESPNU (the SEC Network and the Longhorn Network will also have comprehensive coverage) and seven announcements broadcast live including offensive lineman Darnell Wright from Huntington, West Virginia, the No. 10 overall recruit in 247Sports’ composite rankings. ESPN does not plan to have embedded reporters at schools, as it once did, providing immediate updates and behind-the-scenes glimpses.
“I still think there’s enough drama, there’s enough unknown to keep people engaged,” Simmons says.
Among the story lines: Alabama will finish with the No. 1 class for the eighth year in the last nine. But a year ago, the Crimson Tide ranked No. 5, so this is a return to supremacy. And for suspense, there’s the question of whether ‘Bama could finish with what Simmons says would be, by the rankings, the second-highest rated class in history – or just, say, “one of the top five classes of all time,” he says. “They’re sort of battling with themselves.”
But there’s also that battle for Sopsher, who’s rated No. 47 overall by 247Sports. Can Nick Saban pull Sopsher away from Ed Orgeron and in-state LSU? The suspense will have Tide and Tiger fans on the edge of their seats, just like always.
But times have clearly changed. Some schools have dialed back or even cut out those signing day bashes for fans. And while Simmons says that on national signing day in 2018 – the first year with an early signing period – his website recorded its highest traffic day, ever, he also noted that the record was surpassed on Dec. 19, the first day of this year’s early signing period.
What will Wednesday be like?
Some schools will still hold events. Diehard recruit-niks will show up. Others will constantly update their favorite recruiting site, wondering if their school can reel in one last gem and how it will finish in the national rankings. Out of habit they’ll keep the TV on to watch kids pick a ball cap or pull a bulldog out of a duffel bag.
But the unofficial holiday has largely morphed back into something more like a typical weekday.
“One thing that’s unique about the February date,” Simmons says, “is it’s a time to kind of just check in and see, and sort of get your final results for the future. Whereas in December there’s bowls, there’s the NFL, there’s the Christmas holidays. It’s a more frenetic season in general. I still think there’s some value in letting the dust settle and see where everything landed in February. We’ll see if the casual fan agrees with that.”