Posted: Wednesday February 2, 2011 8:11PM ; Updated: Wednesday February 2, 2011 9:57PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Don't be fooled by Signing Day circus; 2011 recruiting awards

Story Highlights

Nation's top two recruits haven't signed, but Signing Day isn't a farce

A headline like Black Mamba's switch shouldn't overshadow full class

Recruiting coach of the year, plus more Signing Day winners and losers

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The annual circus that is National Signing Day truly outdid itself this year. The nation's No. 1 prospect, Jadeveon Clowney, appeared on national television to discuss why he wasn't actually signing anywhere just yet. The No. 2 player, Cyrus Kouandjio, announced he would sign with Auburn but never put pen to paper. There was a live dog, a forged signature and the most awkward television interview in the history of recruiting.

All of this presumably elicited scoffs and groans from the indignant cynics who like to believe this is all just a bunch of hooey. Who do these teenagers think they are, staging press conferences befitting an NFL All-Pro? Who do these adults think they are, fawning over said kids in the first place? After all, everyone knows those recruiting rankings don't mean squat.

But don't you see? Signing Day has become such a spectacle because the recruiting game is that important. It's arguably more important to college football teams than the draft is to NFL teams. There is no free agency. There are no trades. Your favorite program's fortunes rest almost entirely on the names that come across that fax machine the first Wednesday of February.

We know the rankings aren't an exact science -- but neither are draft projections, weather forecasts or stock outlooks. That doesn't mean they don't deserve our attention. Sure, there will be guys who donned baseball caps Wednesday who you may never hear from again, and there will be guys you didn't hear a word about Wednesday who will one day be All-Americans. But generally speaking, far more often than not, there's a very direct correlation between a team's perceived recruiting success and its actual on-field achievement. And the more stars next to a guy's name, the better the chance he'll pan out.

For whatever reason, it took the advent of the Internet for the media at large to start according recruiting its appropriate level of coverage (and it's still largely underplayed in markets outside of the South). But now that we have, it's no wonder a kid like Clowney might choose to milk the attention. And one can't begin to imagine the pressure hovering over Kouandjio, who's managed to start his own personal Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl all the way from Maryland. He appears to be torn between the allure of the defending national champion (Auburn), the love for his brother (who plays at Alabama) and his relationship with a coach who happens to be at a particularly remote outpost (New Mexico's Mike Locksley).

If there's a mistake we make in glamorizing Signing Day, it's in letting this one day overshadow the importance of the other 364. Recruiting classes take a year or longer to develop. Relationships are formed long before a kid puts on that baseball cap. And now, finally, folks are also starting to pay attention to the often ugly business that takes place after Signing Day -- the callous weeding out of underachieving upperclassmen to make room for the hot-shot newcomers. There's nothing wrong with taking a day in February to celebrate such an important rite in college football, but it does contribute to misperceptions and unduly affect fans' expectations.

Take the case of De'Anthony Thomas, the celebrated five-star running back/cornerback from Los Angeles who pulled an 11th-hour stunner this week. Long considered a locked-in USC pledge, Thomas took an unannounced visit to Oregon last weekend and signed with the school Wednesday night. It's a coup for Chip Kelly and a bummer for Lane Kiffin. Ducks fans will view it as another milestone in their rise to Pac-10 and national prominence, and Trojans fans will lament how a hometown star got away.

But whether or not Thomas winds up becoming a college All-American, the drama surrounding his decision is probably far bigger than the actual ramifications. For one thing, if he'd been pledged to Oregon all along, it'd be a non-event. But more than that, it doesn't tell us the full story of either team's recruiting class.

For the Ducks, the bigger issue may be the ones that got away. Four elite defenders Oregon was targeting when Wednesday began -- defensive lineman Delvon Simmons (North Carolina), defensive end Branden Jackson (Texas Tech), defensive tackle Christian Heyward (USC) and defensive end Roderick Byers (Clemson) -- all went elsewhere. Oregon will still likely celebrate a top 10 class, with Thomas the cherry on top, but one could argue it lost more than it gained on the final day.

"It's been a bad day for Oregon," Scout.com National Editor Allen Wallace said prior to Thomas' signing.

Meanwhile, USC closed with a flurry gaining Signing Day nods from a horde of four-star prospects: linebacker Lamar Dawson (Danville, Ky.), tackle Audrey Walker (from Ohio State pipeline Cleveland Glenville), defensive tackle Christian Heyward (San Diego) and athlete Marquise Lee (Gardena, Calif.) Losing "The Black Mamba" (Thomas) stings, but the Trojans already have speedy skill players galore on their roster. They needed offensive linemen and linebackers, and they got them in bunches.

Speaking of needs, one ought to consider them in giving proper context to the ongoing Kouandjio saga. As if Alabama and Auburn fans needed anything else to lord over each other, the elite tackle's eventual decision (assuming it's not New Mexico) will surely provide more fodder. But for the Tigers, adding Kouandjio would be a luxury; for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, it's more a necessity.

Auburn already has signatures from the nation's top center (Reese Dismukes) and a top-three guard (Christian Westerman) and tackle (Greg Robinson). Its offensive line class is stacked regardless. Alabama on the other hand failed to land two other four-star tackles (Brandon Shell and Aaron Morris). It was counting on Kouandjio, and failing to get him could be the one glaring hole in an otherwise sterling class.

"That franchise left tackle is somehow alluding [Alabama]," said 247Sports.com National Analyst J.C. Shurburtt. "I think it would definitely hurt Alabama more. If Auburn loses Cyrus, it's still one of the top offensive line classes in the country."

Maybe it won't matter. Maybe Kouandjio won't pan out.

Or maybe he'll make the key block on the winning score in the 2013 Iron Bowl. It's entirely possible. Maybe Alabama will lose 28-27, like it did last year, because it couldn't protect its quarterback.

That's why Signing Day matters. Technically, all the thousands of hours and miles the coaches log leading up to it matter more, but those 15-second announcements are far more fun to watch -- especially when live animals are involved.

 
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