National signing day for college football is Feb. 4. And it isn't like it used to be.
Ten years ago, it was like a circus with so many unsigned players making last-minute decisions and announcing their choices amid much fanfare. It was fun for everyone...the kids, coaches, fans, even the analysts.
Now the event is anti-climactic because most of the top 100 prospects are committed. Now it is a largely ceremonial process with the players faxing in their letters-of-intents to the schools. Now the only drama is who might switch on signing day and leave one school holding the bag while another celebrates.
This is a strange year for recruiting. Unlike most years, the No. 1 ranking in the recruiting sweepstakes is up for grabs with any one of at least 10 schools still in the hunt for the top prize as signing day approaches. A year ago, Alabama passed Notre Dame on signing day to claim No. 1.
This year, the top classes are being recruited by (in no particular order but listed alphabetically so as not to upset rabid fans) Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, North Carolina, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas and USC.
Illinois ranks somewhere between Nos. 20 to 25 nationally but that standing could change dramatically if coach Ron Zook fails to keep Morgan Park defensive end Craig Drummond and East St. Louis wide receivers Terry Hawthorne and Kraig Appleton.
Drummond apparently has academic issues and might not qualify for Illinois. He is visiting Mississippi this weekend. He probably could qualify for Ole Miss. Hawthorne is visiting Oklahoma, which also doesn't embrace the same academic standards as Illinois, while Appleton has shown interest in Wisconsin.
That is why, until a year or two ago, I was opposed to the early signing date. Call me old-fashioned but it seemed to me that if a kid thinks he is mature enough to make a commitment to a school and shakes a coach's hand and says "I'm coming," he should keep his word and not make visits to other campuses. If he isn't certain about his decision, he should wait until he is. He should be a man of his word. I'm sure he wouldn't expect any less from someone else.
But times have changed. The rush to early commitment has forced me to concede that it would be best for the NCAA to establish an early signing period, as in basketball, thus reducing the number of de-commitments and eventual transfers that are plaguing college football today. The college coaches are in favor of an early signing period. I think it is inevitable.
In the Big 10, Illinois' class likely will rank behind Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State. But it is interesting to note that the loss of chief recruiter Mike Locksley hasn't had a negative effect on Illini recruiting.
Nationally, the Big 10 is having an average year at best. The conference ranks behind the SEC, ACC and Big 12. There isn't a lot of talent in the Midwest this season. Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Indiana were way down. It was a below average year in Ohio. College coaches had to leave the Midwest to find big-time players.
Once you leave the region, you can be successful if you have coaches who know the territory. For example, Michigan is more comfortable in Florida than Michigan. Note that new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin is stockpiling his staff with highly rated recruiters and paying them accordingly. If they want to be competitive, Big 10 schools should copy.