College football recruiting classes are built over a process that takes years. And yet, as we approach National Signing Day -- which has evolved from an administrative date into a quasi-holiday for rabid fans, complete with media coverage -- so much remains unsettled.
For prospects and coaches, the final days can be chaotic.
"Coaches start taking Red Bulls intravenously, they start wearing slip-on shoes so they can get through the airport faster, they run around with their hair on fire," says Josh Helmholdt, Rivals.com's Midwest Analyst. "It’s one of the most hectic times for the industry.
"So much is happening. ... Prospects start listening to people they’ve never listened to before … you start seeing strange decommitments and recommitments because you’re seeing 18-year-old kids making major life decisions, and the weight of those decisions is starting to be felt."
Not every college football program is in the same boat. Schools like Alabama are sitting pretty with 26 commits, so while a late add or loss is still a possibility, neither result is likely to affect the larger picture all that much.
But others are scrambling. LSU only has 18 verbal commitments, and while 10 of them are four- or five-star talents -- enough to lift the Tigers to No. 13 in the Rivals.com team rankings -- there are plenty of scholarship slots to be filled. Michigan State's impressive bowl win over Baylor hasn't translated to a bevy of commitments, as the program has just 16 commitments on board, and none of them bearing a five-star rating.
The Spartans are in a much better situation than Michigan, though, which replaced Brady Hoke with Jim Harbaugh after the NFL regular season ended. The Wolverines are hurtling toward National Signing Day with just nine verbal commitments -- the eighth-lowest figure out of 128 FBS teams. The class currently ranks a lowly 75th.
NSD is on Feb. 4. For most programs, there is plenty of work to be done between then and now. The last week of the pre-signing day season can be utter chaos for both high school prospects and the programs recruiting them: offers are made, sales pitches are given, prospects narrow down their choices and commit -- if they haven't done so already.
In some cases, players with standing commitments to one school will make secret visits or listen to coaches from other schools. Coaches don't respect verbal commitments as binding deals, and they're eager to poach a talented player when the opportunity arises. When players do say no to a program, those coaches turn their attentions elsewhere, scouting new options and zeroing in on strange targets.
It's not a pretty process, but it works itself out in the end. And Signing Day is the day of reckoning for each program's year of recruiting.
"The last week and week and a half, and even Signing Day, it makes a huge difference on how a recruiting class can be viewed," says Blair Angulo, the Rivals.com West Coast Analyst.
Angulo uses USC for an example of what a strong finish can do for a school. Last year, the Trojans brought in Steve Sarkisian from Washington as their new head coach. Sarkisian essentially had a month-and-a-half to cobble together a recruiting class -- an uphill battle for any coach.
Entering Signing Day, the class looked ho-hum. Then the Trojans picked up two five-star commits and two more four-star signings, launching their recruiting class to No. 10 overall, according to Rivals.
— TrojanSports.com (@USC_Rivals) January 23, 2015
The victory of those signings is more than the caliber of the athletes themselves. USC dominated on the most visible day of the recruiting season, when every major sports outlet is dedicated to recruiting coverage.
The momentum from that class has carried over into 2015: USC currently has 20 verbal commitments and ranks as the No. 2 class overall.
USC's early success hasn't diminished the important of this year's Signing Day, though. The Trojans have as many as four major targets that won't announce their commitments until signing day, creating a likely surplus of players.
The numbers crunch, though, is well worth the headache -- not to mention the inherent risks in maintaining a commitment to a prospect so late in the game. Currently, three of the top four members of the 2015 recruiting class -- Byron Cowart, Iman Marshall, and Martez Ivey -- are undecided on which school they will attend. Those decisions could come on Signing Day or even extend longer into February.
In two of those three cases, Auburn and Florida are going head-to-head as the favorites. That matchup is a partial product of scouting: both schools have done a thorough examination of the prospects and pegged them as strong fits for their respective systems.
But there's also a competitive edge to things: Auburn and Florida are conference rivals, and Florida's just-fired coach, Will Muschamp, is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn.
"Michigan stole Zack Gentry from Texas (last) weekend," Helmsworth says, noting how staff changes can change prospect interests. "They were able to get him to visit and switch his commitment.
"A month ago, nobody foresaw that at all. A new coach brings in new recruiting relationships."
Programs aren't going to attack an opponent just for the sake of attacking, though. Angulo argues that it's more about maintaining a presence in established recruiting hotbeds, and this territorial approach naturally leads to conflict. UCLA, for example, has found itself matched up against Notre Dame in years past, and the Bruins have managed to come out the victor most of the time.
— Michigan Only (@MichiganOnly) January 25, 2015
But in the last couple of years, that dynamic has flipped: Notre Dame is trying to re-establish itself in those areas it targets with UCLA, and the Fighting Irish are having success. Things are even more muddled in Texas, where a struggling Longhorns program, combined with the rise of in-state competitors Baylor and TCU, have turned the state from a Longhorns-dominated hotbed into a scene of total chaos.
Coaching changes can be natural targets for competition because the staff transitions often leave recruits less secure with their decision. Competing schools recognize that commitments in those cases are likely to waver, and they try to take advantage. Michigan's Jim Harbaugh has done exactly that with Big Ten institution Nebraska. Both programs endured coaching changes, meaning the commitments they've carried over from the past coaching staff may be reconsidering their decisions.
"You can’t ignore the fact that a certain school will go after a recruit from another school, especially a conference rival," Angulo says. But the Wolverine's moves are more urgency than agenda: "We've seen Michigan go after everyone, sending offers left and right to anyone who will listen."
For schools with small classes and time running short, the key is not getting desperate. It's not worth using a scholarship spot just to bring in a player who will never play or contribute to the team. Programs are looking for the right fit, not just a warm body.
Michigan might have to settle for a small, sub-par class and hope that it can make up for those results with next year's class. It'll have to sit back as schools like USC get richer and richer in the lead-up to National Signing Day, with several of the top players waiting until that day to pledge their commitment.
"For the last guys available, these guys are the icing on the cake," Helmsworth says. "Very few coaches are thinking, 'If we don't get this guy, it’s a huge hole on our roster.' These are the difference-makers."
And because National Signing Day functions as a day-long televised event, the publicity gains can't be ignored.
"When you win Signing Day, it helps you that day, but it helps you in the future, too," Angulo says. "Because top recruits want to play with other top recruits."