As Alabama football coach Nick Saban was wrapping up a December news conference to address his 24 signees, he said, "This is not the early signing day. It's the signing day."
The numbers aren't contradicting him.
After a whopping 72 percent of high school prospects signed with Football Bowl Subdivision programs during the early signing period of the 2017-18 recruiting cycle, an even higher amount — 76 percent — elected to sign early this time around. Last year's cycle was the first to offer a 72-hour signing window in mid-December that preceded the traditional dates in early February.
The traditional signing date in this year's cycle takes place Wednesday, and there has been minimal fanfare leading up to it.
"This is now the residual signing period," ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said. "This is when you clean things up. You're worried about a handful of kids, at most, when you're talking about these top-25 or top-40 teams.
"What you're going to really start seeing is this second period being used more by the bottom Power Five teams and a majority of the Group of Five programs. This is going to be their signing day."
Alabama and Georgia currently possess the nation's top two classes and accumulated a combined 46 December signees, with the Crimson Tide's 24 topping the 23 they compiled in last year's overall cycle. Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and LSU are next in the 247Sports.com team rankings, with the Aggies having collected 23 December signees in the first full recruiting cycle under coach Jimbo Fisher.
In the revised 247Sports prospect rankings for the 2019 class, each of the top 24 national recruits eliminated the element of a late surprise by signing in December. The No. 25 overall prospect, offensive tackle Darnell Wright of Huntington, West Virginia, has favored Tennessee throughout the past several months and could provide a punch to Jeremy Pruitt's first full class that ranks 15th nationally.
"I think Tennessee has a tremendous opportunity in these last few days," Luginbill said. "There aren't many high-profile guys left, but there are some, and several of them have Tennessee as a finalist. I would also argue that Auburn is sitting there with a few guys to gain as well. They have a lot of their roster coming back, so they may not have room to sign 23 to 25 guys, but they still have room for some guys.
"Those are the two SEC schools I would look to the most as far as making some late noise, and LSU could, too, by getting defensive tackle Ishmael Sopsher, who's an in-state kid that many believe is an LSU lock."
Auburn has been overshadowed by Alabama and Georgia in recent recruiting cycles, but Gus Malzahn's Tigers signed three top-100 prospects in December: outside linebacker Owen Pappoe from the Atlanta suburb of Loganville, quarterback Bo Nix of Pinson, Alabama, and defensive end Jaren Handy of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The Tigers, who are No. 12 in the 247Sports team rankings, could add three more Wednesday: receiver George Pickens of Hoover, Alabama; defensive end Charles Moore of Louisville, Mississippi; and athlete Mark-Antony Richards of West Palm Beach, Florida.
Malzahn's Tigers are thriving on the heels of a disappointing 7-5 regular season that landed them in the Music City Bowl, where they throttled Purdue 63-14.
"I think it helped how they ended the season and entered January," Luginbill said. "They just dismantled Purdue and really looked the part. If they miss on a kid in Alabama, which will happen, they have the ability to dip into Georgia, Florida and Mississippi to complement their recruiting class with an equally caliber player.
"It's almost like Auburn likes it this way. A lot of attention will be on Alabama or Clemson or Georgia, and Auburn will just kind of go about its business and let the chips fall where they may."
Clemson is likely to snag running back Jerrion Ealy of Flowood, Mississippi, the nation's No. 26 prospect who was previously committed to Ole Miss. Also worth watching Wednesday will be cornerback Kaiir Elam of North Palm Beach, Florida, who is expected to pick between the home-state Gators and Georgia.
The Gators are ranked No. 11 in Dan Mullen's first full recruiting cycle.
With the percent of early FBS signees jumping from 72 to 76 within the past year, does Luginbill sense a continuing trend in which possibly 80 percent of the prospects in next year's cycle sign in December?
"With all the turmoil we just had in January as it pertained to assistant coach movement, I'm going to be very curious to see if that gives prospects cause for concern about what can happen after the December period," he said. "We had far more disruption in that area this year than we did in the first go-around. I don't think we'll get up to the 80 range immediately, but we could eventually get there."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.