Envision the next frontier in recruiting. It's 2017. An early signing period -- likely to receive approval this year from the FBS conference commissioners -- has been in place for two cycles in recruiting.
Now check the pulse of your program.
How much can change in two years? What's the potential impact of two compromised classes for a group of schools that don't enjoy the advantages of the elite programs in recruiting?
As the Big Ten throws its support behind a three-day December window for prospects to sign letters of intent -- without an accompanying change by the NCAA to institute earlier official visits -- geographically isolated schools like Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and others nationally must consider a painful reality that strikes at the heart of the rich-getting-richer debate central to college football.
In advance of the June vote of conference commissioners on whether to have an early signing period to supplement the existing February date, Big Ten coaches and administrators met this month to discuss the proposal. The plan is designed to ease financial and time burdens on coaches and to keep pace with the accelerated recruiting cycle. If passed, it would allow prospects, on a two-year trial basis, to sign Dec. 16-18.
Commissioner Jim Delany said a "strong majority" to support the proposal exists among Big Ten schools, which form one of the wealthiest and most influential conferences nationally, yet offer a study in contrast amid the game's recruiting subculture.
And out of the meeting, a second conversation emerged, perhaps more integral to the Big Ten's competitive balance than an early signing period: the need for early official visits, which appears much less likely to pass.
"I don't like to get on the soapbox, but I will. I'm not usually that kind of guy, personality-wise, but I certainly would like to be in a case like this. If it goes forward and [the early signing period] does pass, then that discussion about early visits has to take place immediately."Nebraska coach Mike Riley
That won't stop some Big Ten coaches who are already at a recruiting disadvantage from pushing hard for early visits.
Newcomer Mike Riley at Nebraska is a potential leader in this fight. Riley offers a respected voice at a name-brand school. He opposes an early signing period. But if its passage looks inevitable, Riley said, schools that support early visits must act.
"I don't like to get on the soapbox, but I will," said Riley, who was hired in December at Nebraska after 12 seasons at Oregon State. "I'm not usually that kind of guy, personality-wise, but I certainly would like to be in a case like this. If it goes forward and [the early signing period] does pass, then that discussion about early visits has to take place immediately."
With a December signing period, the pressure to commit early would continue to increase, magnifying the importance of recruiting a prospect before his senior year. Riley said he believes December would quickly develop into the preferred option over the traditional signing period that opens in February.
"There would be lots of pressure to get it done," he said. "And there are unintended consequences there."
Many programs in the Big Ten West can't rely on recruits to pay their way for a long trip to visit campuses in the summer.
"If you're in an area where there's a lot of good prospects, it's always been a positive," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "It is important. When you talk about early signing, you want to give prospects that might be from a plane ride away an opportunity to see your campus."
So an early signing period without early visits, he said, doesn't work well for Iowa and others.
"The two ought to go hand in hand," Ferentz said. "That would make the most sense."
The problem is, while early official visits have gained some traction in the Big Ten, the momentum for a December signing date remains stronger.
Research by the NCAA's football recruiting subcommittee indicates that early official visits lack widespread support, said Susan Peal, director of the NCAA's national letter of intent program.
"They're trying their best to win the battles against us and other schools like us. So when you can't get them on campus, you can't win those battles. So they're looking for the opportunities to do that."Ohio State AD Gene Smith, on what some programs face if there is an early signing period without early visits.
"I'm not saying it couldn't come down the road," Peal said, "but the football coaches [nationally] are comfortable with their recruiting calendar and worked very hard to get it where it is today."
That calendar allows recruits to take official visits (paid by the schools) only after the first day of class in their senior year of high school. From approximately Sept. 1 to the start of the existing signing period, it leaves a window of slightly more than five months for official visits, minus the four-week dead period in December and January.
That window looks poised to shrink by seven weeks, and it presents a problem for schools unable to secure unofficial visits (paid by the prospects) in the spring and summer months before the recruits' senior year.
While the early signing period needs only the June vote of the commissioners, early visits face a separate, tedious path through NCAA legislative channels. If approved, early visits could get on the calendar for the 2016-17 recruiting cycle, but more realistically for the year after. And that's only if the proposal gained national support in spite of almost certain opposition from the Southeastern Conference and other leagues.
In 2010, the Big Ten sponsored legislation to institute early visits. It was defeated. But things could be dramatically different this time. While there might still be opposition, a new proposal may fare better, when schools are faced with the reality of a December signing period.
Early signing without early visits would allow schools no more than two weekends in December to host recruits before they were allowed to sign. As a result, programs would feel pressure to cram a high volume of visits into weekends of home games in the fall.
"Then you're talking about balancing the time between coaching your team and recruiting your next team," Riley said. "It takes away from attention you're giving your team during the season. We will have official visits during the season, but we try to limit them, because we can only spend so much time.
"We want it to be a good time."
Time is a big factor for others, too.
"I just think you need to be careful when you make radical changes like that. It's not going to be as clean as everybody thinks it is."Penn State coach James Franklin
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he's against early visits if they would cut into the rare opportunities his football coaches get away from the game.
"It's hard enough as it is to make these guys get out of here and rejuvenate," said Smith, who, in lockstep with coach Urban Meyer, also opposes the early signing period.
With a 15-game schedule that ended on Jan. 12 after two wins in the inaugural College Football Playoff, Ohio State coaches worked straight from the start of camp in August to February's signing day, Smith said.
"This is 24-7 now," he said. "This is crazy."
Big Ten coaches earlier this month discussed a proposal that would make the entire month of July a dead period. It received strong support. This year, June 29 through July 12 is the dead period, prohibiting on- and off-campus contact between coaches and recruits.
That's fine with Riley, who prefers June as a designated period for early official visits. It's better than May, when coaches are on the road to evaluate recruits, he said, and official visits could work well in conjunction with camps, common in June.
Additionally, prospects could visit during the week instead of only on weekends. And it would be nice, Riley said, to show recruits around campus during a warm time of year in a northern climate. Illinois coach Tim Beckman, who favors an early signing date and early official visits, wants prospects to visit during the school's summer session, when current players are also on campus.
"I don't think you'd want a prospect on campus without your players being around," Ferentz said. "In a perfect world, you'd like the whole school to be in session, but the pace of recruiting is making that harder and harder to do."
Smith, who served as Iowa State's AD from 1993 to 2000, said he understood the plight of the West Division schools.
"They're trying their best to win the battles against us and other schools like us," he said. "So when you can't get them on campus, you can't win those battles. So they're looking for the opportunities to do that."
Penn State coach James Franklin views the situation from yet another perspective. He favors an August signing period, which is unlikely after the committee formed by the commissioners recommended December.
Like Riley, Franklin said he believes December would turn into the "signing date for everybody," adding to the pressure for in-season visits.
"Most coaches around the country don't really want to do that if they don't have to," said Franklin, among the Big Ten's most aggressive recruiters. "They want to do football when it's football and recruiting when they do recruiting."
Still, Franklin isn't sold on early visits, even if the December signing date is approved. He said it sounds good in theory but may pose problems in practice.
"I just think you need to be careful when you make radical changes like that," Franklin said. "It's not going to be as clean as everybody thinks it is."
Beckman admits there are challenges, like working visits around camps and arranging the trips before making off-campus contact.
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who favors both early options, posed several questions about the impact on spring evaluations, the overall recruiting calendar, camps and summer workouts.
"Maybe there needs to be a limit on how many [early visits] you would have -- it counts toward your 56 [official visits that teams are allowed to have] so you'd have lesser visits later on," Kill said. "If it could work in the calendar in a perfect world, it would be good. But there's complications on how that all works. That would have to go into deeper discussions, which we had a lot of. Everybody has a little different take on it.
"But the Iowas, us, even Nebraska, it's harder [for recruits] to get to."
According to Peal, who works closely with the commissioners, the two-year trial for a December signing period was designed to handle issues like the possible need for early visits.
Regardless, those two years represent two recruiting cycles and two potentially compromised classes for a segment of the Big Ten.
Barry Alvarez, the veteran Wisconsin athletic director and former coach of 16 years, said coach Paul Chryst favors no change to the signing period or official visits and added that Wisconsin gets "a lot of people through here in the summer" on unofficial visits. But Alvarez says the answer to these questions about recruiting may come from taking a selfless approach.
"Someone has to sit back and see what's best for the players and what makes the most sense," Alvarez said. "It's not what's best for us or Ohio State or Penn State or Nebraska or Minnesota. It's what's best for college football."
Which is what? Inside the Big Ten, the debate rages.