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Here's why recruiting matters more than ever

Don't like the hat dances and everything else about signing day? Too bad, it matters more than ever. Ed Szczepanski/USA TODAY Sports

Few topics polarize the college football community quite like recruiting.

Many fans lap up every morsel of on-the-trail news, from offers to visits to soft verbal commitments to social media hints offered by prospects and their suitors. They consider national signing day -- that's Wednesday, Feb. 3, for non-recruitniks -- to be a national holiday.

Then there's the rest of you. Signing day makes your skin crawl. The whole recruiting process, at least what it has become, turns you off. You hate the hat dances, the eleventh-hour flips, the big to-dos in high school gyms and the silly social media displays from coaches.

"It's critically important," a Power 5 coach said of signing day, "but it's just so overblown."

But the reality is, signing day provides important clues about programs, coaches, trajectories and trends. To dismiss it outright is a bit shortsighted.

So, without further ado, here's the signing day guide for the fan who hates signing day.

Some top players will make an immediate impact in the biggest games

The adage is true: Recruits and recruiting classes shouldn't be judged for two or three seasons. But recent history shows some decorated prospects who sign Wednesday (or are already on campus) will make their mark right away and on the biggest stages.

Would Alabama have won the national title without Calvin Ridley's contributions? The No. 23 prospect in the 2015 class led all freshmen with 89 catches and ranked second among freshmen with 1,045 receiving yards. Said one SEC assistant who faced Bama: "He's Amari Cooper as far as being that guy in their offense."

Another true freshman started in the national title game, at one of the unlikeliest positions. Clemson left tackle Mitch Hyatt, the No. 18 player in the 2015 class, stepped in seamlessly for a new-look offensive line. According to ESPN Insider's Steve Palazzolo, Hyatt played the most snaps of any true freshman last season (1,067), starting every game for the Tigers.

Ridley and Hyatt reflected a theme in the 2015 recruiting class: Of the nation's top 50 players, 42 took the field last fall.

"There's definitely still a place for redshirting guys," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said, "but when you look at the top 200 players in the country, those elite guys, for a lot of programs, they can come in and help and give you a spark. Year-round training is a little more of a focus the last four or five years at the high school level. Because we have a philosophy where we play freshmen, it helps us on the recruiting trail to attract top-level guys.

"They watch and see which programs are consistently giving young guys an opportunity."

Other top-50 recruits who made big impacts include Florida State safety Derwin James, Alabama cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, Texas A&M wide receiver/returner Christian Kirk and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen. The year before, Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and LSU RB Leonard Fournette played right away.

"Recruits keep up with everything," Scott said. "They want an opportunity to play early. If you're recruiting the best of the best, and you go in there and say, 'Hey, we've got a plan to redshirt you,' you're not going to get many guys to sign up for that type of deal."

The point is, there's value in paying attention to the top names this Wednesday.

The Big Ten is a big story again because of big-time recruiters

For years, signing day has been the SEC's and ACC's show, with special appearances from the Texas and L.A. schools. The Big Ten hasn't been irrelevant, but it rarely receives much mention.

That should change Wednesday.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's unorthodox recruiting tactics -- sleepovers at recruits' houses, climbing trees -- sustained the hype around Michigan. "Very different," an SEC coach said of Harbaugh's approach. It hasn't come without controversy, but the final product should help Michigan for years to come -- the Wolverines could land a top-five class, which could include the overall No. 1 prospect, defensive tackle Rashan Gary. He'd be the first No. 1 player to sign with a Big Ten school since ESPN started rankings.

Ohio State's Urban Meyer doesn't need sleepovers to keep securing top prospects. Ohio State is poised to sign a top-three class, which includes the nation's top defensive end (Nick Bosa, Joey's younger brother).

"These guys have energy, and they have that star base," one Big Ten coach said. "This league needed that, because of what was going on with the SEC with the championships and the coaches. A little shock and awe is more cosmetic, but the game in recruiting is so much perception, a league's strength is so much perception.

"It's not hurting."

Another coach credits Harbaugh and Meyer for having clear recruiting approaches and sticking to them, but he added: "It's not like Jim Tressel and Lloyd Carr didn't recruit well. Brady [Hoke] recruited well, too, but Brady didn't put everything he did out on Twitter, either."

Throw in likely strong classes from Penn State and Michigan State, and the Big Ten could have four top-20 classes for the first time since ESPN started its rankings.

Historic things are happening at unlikely programs

A fair criticism of signing day is that it only spotlights the same group of tradition-rich, well-resourced, well-located programs. That will change this year.

Baylor could land the Big 12's top recruiting class, filled with top-shelf Texas skill, including receivers Devin Duvernay and Tren'Davian Dickson, and quarterback Zach Smith. The Bears have yet to sign a top-20 class despite four 10-win seasons since 2011.

Stanford is more of a rankings regular, but the Cardinal could challenge USC for the Pac-12's top spot, thanks to quarterback K.J. Costello and others.

But no signing day outsider is making a bigger splash than Houston of the American Athletic Conference. After a 13-1 season capped with a Peach Bowl win and a No. 8 final ranking, the Cougars are poised to make history. Houston could be the first Group of 5 team to pull in a Top 25 class since ESPN began its rankings (UCF, at No. 49, was the highest Group of 5 finisher last year).

Houston's mostly homegrown class started coming together before coach Tom Herman even coached a game, with 14 Cougars recruits committed by early August, including defensive tackle Ed Oliver, the No. 4 player in the country. While Herman and his staff have 136 combined years of recruiting the state, they honed in on Houston and the surrounding areas.

"We've proven that you don't have to have Big 12 or SEC on your logo to stick out," Herman said. "The path to those types of games and championships and competition is just as easy at the University of Houston as it is anywhere else."

Alabama's recruiting is always worth watching

After a fourth national title in seven years, Alabama fatigue has set in around much of the country. What happens on signing day is a big reason for that success.

The Tide have signed the No. 1 class in each of the past four seasons (they've finished in the top 3 every year since 2008). They also hit it big with their most prized prospects. Consider Alabama's recent No. 1 recruits: safety Landon Collins (2014 All-America selection, second-round draft pick), running back Derrick Henry (2015 Heisman Trophy winner) and offensive tackle Cam Robinson (started first two seasons, All-SEC selection, likely first-round pick in 2017). Alabama's top three recruits from 2015 all redshirted -- cornerback Kendall Sheffield, quarterback Blake Barnett and running back Bo Scarbrough -- but its fourth, Ridley, played a major role.

It's unlikely that Alabama will continue its streak of No. 1 classes -- SEC West rival LSU has the top spot nearly locked up -- but the Tide's track record cannot be ignored. Get to know names like linemen Jonah Williams and Chris Owens, and B.J. Emmons, the top-rated running back in the 2016 class. Odds are, they'll be helping Alabama to another national title in the near future.

The Tide have the tradition. They have arguably the greatest coach in college football history. But they also have the recruiting chops to keep winning.

It all begins on signing day. You owe it to yourself to watch.