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Auburn's stability after five seasons under coach Gus Malzahn helped result in the Tigers landing a top-10 early signing class along with late-season rivals Georgia and Alabama.

OK. Now what?

Uncertainty reigned in the days leading up to Wednesday's start of the NCAA's new 72-hour early signing period for college football, and there was the notion this window in two or three years might supplant the first Wednesday in February as the primary signing date. Instead that happened immediately, as nearly three-fourths of 247Sports.com's top 100 prospects nationally have already elected to ink their letters of intent, including nine of the top 10.

Nine Southeastern Conference schools signed at least 15 players Wednesday, so what's left to transpire in the weeks ahead?

"I can't tell you, because I've never done this before," Alabama coach Nick Saban said Wednesday in a news conference. "I just know there is a lot of stuff going on here right now. We're trying to prepare for a playoff game. We're trying to recruit. The intensity in recruiting in December and the schedule is much more hectic and much more difficult relative to trying to see more players who you thought would sign early.

"It's different, and now we're going to recruit the rest of this recruiting cycle pretty much like it's been in the past. There will just be a smaller pool of players."

In treatment

Georgia starting inside linebacker Natrez Patrick has entered a drug treatment program and is not expected to play in the Rose Bowl. Patrick was not spotted during the portion of Thursday’s practice open to the media.

The 6-foot-3, 238-pound junior served a four-game suspension for a marijuana-related arrest in October and was charged with marijuana possession several hours after Georgia’s victory over Auburn on Dec. 2 in the Southeastern Conference championship game. That charge occurred in Barrow County and was dropped last week, but it violated probation from the October incident and resulted in a drug test he reportedly failed.

Patrick had a hearing Jan. 11 regarding the reported failed test, but it was resolved Thursday, said attorney Billy Healen, who is representing the player.

“I believe he will remain on the team but will not be at the Rose Bowl,” Healen told the Athens-Banner Herald.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart isn’t scheduled to meet with the media until next Wednesday in Pasadena, Calif., but the school did release a statement Thursday night from Bulldogs director of sports medicine Ron Courson.

“Due to confidentiality requirements, we can’t comment, other than to say we continue to follow policies,” Courson said, “and we have no higher priority than the well-being of our student-athletes.”

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Thursday's middle round of this three-day stretch brought little fanfare compared to Wednesday's historic debut, but it did result in Georgia adding two signees to its already outstanding haul. The Bulldogs inked the top-100 duo of tight end Luke Ford (No. 49) of Carterville, Ill., and outside linebacker Channing Tindall (No. 91) of Columbia, S.C.

Ford gives coach Kirby Smart's Bulldogs nine signees among the top 50 national prospects, according to 247Sports.com. Georgia is the first program ever to have seven of ESPN's top 30 recruits, and while Ford would be the highest-rated ESPN prospect for 111 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, he's just the 10th-rated signee for the Bulldogs.

"What I like the most about Georgia's class is the blueprint," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said Thursday as a guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM. "Championship teams are built from the inside out with the offensive and defensive fronts, and you need cornerbacks on defense and a quarterback on offense. They've now done that in two consecutive classes with premier players.

"This program is starting to look, top to bottom, the way Clemson has started to look over the last six or seven years and the way Alabama has been built over the last decade."

Judging by the early returns, the SEC signing classes have predictability and stability factors to them.

Georgia, Alabama and Auburn are the league's three top-10 teams heading into the postseason, and the Bulldogs, Crimson Tide and Tigers each compiled early signing hauls that have been ranked in the top 10 by the various recruiting sites. The eight SEC schools with the same head coach from a year ago have averaged 17 early signees, while the six that have undergone changes have averaged 11.

"That's a really big challenge, for these new coaches to have such a short period of time," Auburn's Gus Malzahn said Wednesday in a news conference. "You have to make so many decisions. If you come in and have guys who are committed, do they fit your plans? Every coach and coordinator is a little bit different."

Several SEC coaches have spoken out this week about seeking immediate feedback.

"The big thing for me with this early signing date is hearing from the high school coaches and what they think," Malzahn said. "I would also like to hear what the players think about the pressures that go with this."

Said Smart: "A lot of jobs have changed this year. Kids are getting pulled in different directions, and, ultimately, we've got to look at it after the fact and ask, 'Was this the best thing for the kids and the coaches?'"

Smart has been the unquestioned king of this new signing calendar, having notched a staggering six of the seven five-star prospects who signed Wednesday with SEC schools. Yet a class isn't a class until February, so this pioneering quest will continue for him and his coaching counterparts.

"It's still on your plate because there are still spots left, and I think you are always recruiting," Smart said. "We are going to be trying to recruit the rest of the spots. There are probably going to be some really, really intense battles come January, because the guys who are left are being targeted by all the top programs.

"It's not like you can say, 'Relax. We're done,' because that is not the case. We have work to do in recruiting, and we have time to do it. The focus obviously for us right now is the College Football Playoff, and it will shift back to recruiting once that ends."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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