When DeVonta Smith hauled in the 41-yard touchdown reception from Tua Tagovailoa that clinched Alabama's 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia in January's national championship game in Atlanta, it resulted in euphoria on the Crimson Tide sideline and stunned silence for the Bulldogs.
In other words, there was a clear difference between finishing No. 1 and No. 2.
By the end of today's traditional national signing date for coveted high school football prospects, a No. 1 class will be awarded. Ohio State, Georgia and Texas entered today as the top three programs in the 247Sports.com composite rankings, with Alabama No. 6 and not totally out of the running for an eighth consecutive top-ranked class of signees, but does finishing No. 1 really matter?
Where the college football programs stood in the 247Sports rankings entering today’s traditional signing date:
› 1. Ohio State
› 2. Georgia
› 3. Texas
› 4. Penn State
› 5. Miami
› 6. Alabama
› 7. Oklahoma
› 8. Clemson
› 9. Notre Dame
› 10. Auburn
Other SEC schools
› 12. LSU
› 18. Florida
› 19. South Carolina
› 20. Tennessee
› 23. Texas A&M
› 28. Ole Miss
› 31. Mississippi State
› 37. Kentucky
› 38. Vanderbilt
› 39. Missouri
› 56. Arkansas
"I do think, to some degree, that we make too much of this," ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said Tuesday. "It's a fan-driven entity, and it's a paper champion and a projection. You're truly not going to really know for two or three classes how good an individual class is, because you've got to see who pans out and who doesn't.
"If you're a consistent top-15 or top-20 recruiting school, you're putting yourself in position to contend for your conference title and your potential inclusion in the College Football Playoff, but is it necessary to be No. 1 or No. 4 or No. 8 to win a conference championship? I don't think so."
That Alabama has finished with the No. 1 recruiting class nine times under Nick Saban and won five of the last nine national titles on the field is proof alone that signing elite classes can have a monstrous impact. Alabama, Georgia and Auburn each finished this past season ranked in the Associated Press top 10, and each is among the top 10 classes entering today's finish line.
Georgia had the No. 1 class after college football's inaugural early-signing window Dec. 20-22, and the Bulldogs enter today ranked No. 1 by ESPN and No. 2 in the 247Sports composite rankings behind Ohio State.
The Bulldogs signed six five-star prospects in December — the Southeastern Conference signed eight overall — and could snag a seventh this morning from cornerback Tyson Campbell of American Heritage High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Campbell is scheduled to pick between Georgia and Alabama shortly after 10 on ESPNU.
Patrick Surtain Jr., another five-star corner from American Heritage, is expected to announce LSU or Alabama as his destination this morning on ESPNU as well.
"I think it's going to Alabama and LSU making the most noise (today), and I think Texas A&M has the most work to be done," Luginbill said. "The problem with Texas A&M is that they don't seem to be a finalist for many of those top remaining undeclared guys on the board. They could either strike gold or strike out. If LSU can land Patrick Surtain, quarterback James Foster (of Montgomery, Ala.) and receiver JaMarr Chase (of Metairie, La.), that would be a fantastic finish, but if the chips fall right for Alabama, they could sign as many as seven total players.
"Alabama may lose a couple of kids, but if they get receivers Jaylen Waddle (of Bellaire, Texas) and Justyn Ross (of Phenix City, Ala.) and can steal Surtain away from LSU and get offensive tackle Nick Petit-Frere (of Tampa, Fla.), it would be the best finish in the SEC."
One of the more unique decisions to track today — specifically late this morning — will be that of Quay Walker, a linebacker from Cordele, Ga. Walker is the nation's No. 31 overall prospect according to 247Sports and has been committed for months to Alabama.
Since Walker committed, however, Georgia won its first SEC title in 12 seasons and Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt became the new head coach at Tennessee.
"I am of the belief that he's one of the guys Alabama doesn't feel great about," said Luginbill, who was a guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM. "I wouldn't be surprised if Auburn is in the mix there as well, but my bet is that it's a Georgia-Tennessee battle with Auburn being the dark horse."
Tennessee began December's early signing period with the No. 54 class, according to 247Sports, but Pruitt's Volunteers were No. 20 as of Tuesday with the potential for further advancement.
"The one advantage Jeremy Pruitt had maybe more than all the other new Power Five coaches was that he was able to bypass the introductory phase and just hit the ground running," Luginbill said. "When UCLA hired Chip Kelly, he had to go out and familiarize himself with the kids who were currently committed and get in front of those kids, because he had never met them or talked to them. With Pruitt, he had already established relationships along the line for at least two years, so his familiarity with the player pool in Tennessee's footprint allowed them to hit the ground running once they came off the dead period.
"They've met some short-term needs in the offensive and defensive lines by hitting the junior college ranks, which was a very wise move, and we'll see how they close, but they've certainly had a leg up compared to other coaches due to the familiarity."
Roughly 72 percent of the signing classes among Bowl Subdivision programs were filled in December, leading Luginbill to describe today as more of a "player puddle" to pick from than a "player pool."
After Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, the Lone Star State became enhanced recruiting territory for SEC schools. Alabama defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson, LSU safety Jamal Adams, Ole Miss tackle Greg Little and Florida receiver Tyrie Cleveland were just some of the touted Texas prospects to sign with SEC schools, which was in addition to Kevin Sumlin's Aggies landing the likes of receiver Ricky Seals-Jones and defensive end Myles Garrett.
The SEC signed at least seven top-20 Texas prospects from 2013 to 2016, but the league landed five last winter and has just four entering today.
"When Texas A&M joined the SEC and had immediate on-field success that was much the result of Johnny Manziel's involvement, that changed the perception of the SEC for kids in the state of Texas," Luginbill said. "It became attractive. It became the en vogue thing. What you see now is TCU's increase in value and Texas getting back to getting players committed in the state.
"Texas A&M going through some public perception struggles, in my opinion, has maybe tarnished that shine of the SEC and is helping the Big 12 right now. We're seeing Oklahoma, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, recruiting well in addition to Texas. The two bluebloods in that conference seem to be turning the tide of the level of importance of kids staying at home."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.