Earlier than ever, the Early Signing Period is here.

Will it be for the last time? That, we don’t know. There’s at least enough of a reason to wonder about its future after reports surfaced that the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee was considering putting an end to it. This is already Year 5 of the December signing period, but issues with early coaching firings certainly appear to be an unforeseen byproduct of the advanced recruiting calendar.

So will this be the last time we preview the Early Signing Period? Perhaps. Or perhaps we’re locked in, and as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said “we may have let the toothpaste out of the tube and it won’t go back.”

Time will tell.

For now, though, here are the 10 SEC storylines worth watching once the Early Signing Period begins on Wednesday.

1. The fight for No. 1

Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M are all vying for that No. 1 spot. It’s fitting that those 3 programs, given their head coaches and resources, are all in position to finish first in the rankings come February. As of Monday morning, just 3.5 total points in the 247sports rankings separated No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 A&M (A&M is up by nearly 13 points on No. 4 Ohio State).

Perhaps that could be decided based on the decisions of a handful of un-committed, 5-star recruits, all of whom are considering 1 of those 3 schools:

  • 5-star CB Domani Jackson (considering Alabama and USC)
  • 5-star OL Devon Campbell (considering Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Texas)
  • 5-star Edge Marvin Jones Jr. (considering Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and USC)
  • 5-star CB Denver Harris (considering Alabama, Texas A&M and Texas)
  • 5-star CB Daylen Everette (considering Alabama and Georgia)
  • 5-star DL Shemar Stewart (considering Georgia, Texas A&M and Miami)
  • 5-star S Kamari Wilson (considering Florida, Florida State and Georgia)
  • 5-star LB Harold Perkins (considering A&M and LSU)

And what we also don’t know is about the potential flips. Could someone like 5-star Kentucky offensive lineman Kiyaunta Goodwin flip to Nick Saban or Jimbo Fisher at the last minute? We should never rule out the idea of Smart pulling off a late heist, either.

Walter Nolen, the No. 2 overall recruit in the class, is committed to A&M but said that he won’t sign with the Aggies during the Early Signing Period. How does that impact A&M’s pursuit of the No. 1 spot?

It feels like the race for No. 1 is far from over, and it might even be too close to call by the end of the Early Signing Period.

2. Billy Napier’s patient process

Depending on who you ask, Napier has had an atypical start in Gainesville. He didn’t exactly go into Gainesville begging for recruits to stay committed to the program. At least that’s not what the results indicate. Florida lost commitments from 5 recruits rated 4-stars or better, including 4-star quarterback Nick Evers, who flipped to Oklahoma once Jeff Lebby took over that new offense.

Napier preached patience. The new Florida coach went on The Paul Finebaum Show and explained why he’s being as deliberate as he is and not simply pouncing to every 4-star under the sun (via On3):

“I think the first thing you do is you start with the evaluation process,” said Napier. “I think you’ve got to have a very efficient system and you certainly have to be on the same page. I’m very much involved in the evaluation process, watch each player. We have a very specific step-by-step approach with the personnel department, the position coaches, the coordinators and certainly the area coach.

“So I think the key here is we get our feet on the ground. We’ve refined this process over the last four years, we’re gonna hire competent people in that area. We’ll have an entire personnel department much like the National Football League.”

As much as that might seem like coach-speak, hiring personnel to recruit at each position is huge. Dan Mullen was criticized for not having the right assistants recruiting players specific to their position. Napier, in his own way, seems set on changing that.

This is a long-term approach. Hiring someone like longtime LSU assistant Corey Raymond was done with that in mind. Napier has to get back in with the in-state powers like IMG Academy and St. Thomas Aquinas. That won’t happen overnight. Quality over quantity will be a point of emphasis in this first class, no matter what the final ranking is.

3. Raise a glass to Drink

Welcome to 2021, where the idea of Eli Drinkwitz signing a top-15 class isn’t just possible, it’s likely.

Let me back up. It’s possible at Mizzou. As in, the program that hasn’t had a top-20 class since 2004. Say what you want about Drinkwitz’s development at the quarterback position so far, but the guy can recruit. This is all you need to know about Drinkwitz’s class, which now poised to sign at least 7 players rated 4-stars or better (that number can improve to 8 if 4-star DJ Wesolak commits Wednesday).

Luther Burden is the No. 1 receiver and No. 3 overall player in the 2022 class. The East Saint Louis, Ill., native visited Georgia midseason. As in Georgia, where Kirby Smart collects 5-star recruits like baseball cards. Four days later, Burden committed to Mizzou. Burden told 247Sports,”I chose Mizzou because I want to be the first — big recruits in St. Louis go to places like Georgia and Alabama and I want to stay home and take our talents to Missouri. It just feels like I need to be there and I need to make a change in my own state.”

In his second full cycle, Drinkwitz is making a major impact.

4. How does Brian Kelly, native Southerner, finish this class?

OK, you need to see it 1 more time:

By the way, lost in the shuffle of Walker Howard’s viral video was the fact that a longtime 5-star LSU quarterback commitment reaffirmed that he’s coming to LSU. Kelly can have cringe moments as long as he keeps bringing in talent.

The loss of the aforementioned Corey Raymond was a blow, as was watching Mickey Joseph leave LSU to return to his alma mater at Nebraska. But the addition of Frank Wilson overshadowed that. That’s as big of a win as Kelly could’ve asked for in terms of hiring someone with key ties and a deep history recruiting in the state.

Kelly walked into a pretty favorable situation with 5-stars like Howard and Will Campbell already committed. As of Monday, Kelly’s class ranked No. 25 nationally. Losing top-100 recruit Jake Johnson (the younger brother of Max Johnson) was significant, as was having 4-star skill players Decoldest Crawford and TreVonte’ Citizen both drop their commitments with the coaching change.

Four-star safety Jacoby Mathews, who will announce his decision on Jan. 2, is huge for Kelly. If Mathews flips back to LSU — he dropped his commitment back in the summer — then Kelly will sign the top 3 recruits from the state of Louisiana. He could actually land the top 4 if Shazz Preston, who is announcing on Wednesday, also winds up at LSU. All of those top-4 Louisiana recruits are ranked among the top 40 players nationally.

Bad fake accent aside, Kelly would make a loud statement if he could pull off a feat like that in his first few weeks on the job.

5. Where does Jake Johnson end up? And is it a packaged deal with Max Johnson?

Speaking of LSU, Johnson dropped his LSU commitment the same day that his brother, Max, entered the transfer portal after 1-plus seasons as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. There was buzz that South Carolina could be the perfect team for the Johnson brothers:

But then, of course, we got news on Monday night that Spencer Rattler and Austin Stogner were both heading to Columbia. That quarterback-tight end combination might’ve made it a dead end for any path to the Johnsons to head to South Carolina.

And for all we know, maybe it won’t end up being a packaged deal. One would think that Max Johnson is only going to a place where he can have a favorable path to being the starting quarterback. That might not check the same boxes as the ones Jake Johnson was hoping to check.

Outside of the SEC? Florida State and Nebraska would both make a ton of sense.

6. Remember those concerns about Bryan Harsin’s lack of Southeast ties? Well …

It’s usually a good thing if you’re doing something that hasn’t been done at Auburn since 2004. The problem for Harsin? His 2004 association isn’t a good one. He’s in position to sign the program’s lowest-ranked recruiting class since 2004. He’d actually need to improve to reach that level. He started the week at No. 26 nationally at No. 10 in the SEC. If you include Texas and Oklahoma, Auburn’s class is No. 12 out of 16 SEC teams.

Yikes. Harsin isn’t in position to be a hope merchant after a horrendous finish to the season. Now he’s got a roster that might be falling apart at the seams to go along with it. Barring some last-minute flip, Auburn isn’t going to sign a top-100 recruit. It’s been 13 years since Auburn last failed to sign multiple top-100 recruits, and that was during the transition class from Tommy Tuberville to Gene Chizik.

Harsin is in his first full cycle. It doesn’t appear that talent disparity is getting fixed without some major moves in the transfer portal.

7. Potential history for Kentucky

Mark Stoops is flirting with a top-10 class. At Kentucky. Let that sink in.

There’s rebuilding a program and having a couple nice seasons, and then there’s what Stoops is doing. He’s got 8 recruits rated 4-stars or better in the 2022 class. That includes the aforementioned Kiyaunta Goodwin, who took a visit to Michigan State last weekend and is also considering Alabama.

Goodwin committed to Kentucky back in April, and Lord knows Vince Marrow is doing everything in his power to make sure that doesn’t change at the last minute.

Obviously any chance at Kentucky finishing with its first ever top-10 class of the 247sports era is dependent on Goodwin. But either way, Stoops still is in position to land 2 of the top 3 recruits in Kentucky and 2 of the top 5 recruits from Tennessee. There’s also a chance that 4-star Michigan native Deone Walker, who visited Kentucky this past weekend, comes to Lexington.

If Walker and Goodwin are part of Kentucky’s 2022 class, a top-10 finish is on the table. Not bad for a program who has never had a top-20 class in the 247sports rankings era.

8. The SEC is going to flex again. The only question is how much?

Remember every single time someone cries of SEC bias to explain that the talent coming in and the talent going out is unmatched. Even if the anti-SEC crowd wants to say that the path to winning 11 of 15 national championships was rigged, remember that.

As of Monday afternoon, here’s the conference-by-conference breakdown of top-25 teams in the 247sports class rankings:

  • SEC — 9
  • Big Ten — 6
  • ACC — 5
  • Big 12 — 2*
  • Pac-12 — 2
  • Ind. — 1

*Oklahoma and Texas

I put the asterisk in there because with Oklahoma and Texas, you could actually say that the SEC has 11 of the top 25 classes. That includes the top 3 classes with Alabama, Georgia and A&M.

Now this will obviously change. I’d expect programs like LSU and USC to make major pushes after their splashy hires.

But what won’t change is the SEC’s annual recruiting dominance.

9. What random, weird NIL story is gonna come out?

Get ready for it. This is the first Early Signing Period of the NIL era. We already saw Texas offer each offensive lineman $50,000 for their Name, Image and Likeness. They did that through a non-profit organization called “Horns with Heart.”

Are we going to see local organizations step up in play a part in flipping several recruits at the last-minute because of an NIL deal? If $50,000 is the going rate for linemen, what could be in the works for a couple of 4-star skill players? $100,000?

We’ve seen strange last-minute flips in the pre-NIL era, of course, but what if there’s an NIL deal associated with that late flip? Will the college football world put that program on blast or will we just chalk it up to a capitalist sport doing capitalist things?

As much as the NCAA tried to shoot down any idea of pay for play, it feels inevitable. After all, it’s crootin’ season.

10. Is this the last December Early Signing Period?

I wouldn’t hate it. I’m sure the coaches wouldn’t hate it, either. So much of the conversation about ending the Early Signing Period is centered around these pre-mature coaching decisions, but if we’re trying to help out coaches who are earning 7-figure contracts because they get slammed with extra work upon accepting a new job, well, I’d say there’s not a ton of sympathy there.

Where I think there’s a conversation to be had is what those early firings are doing to the rest of the sport. Are they telling too many programs that their current season doesn’t matter? Is it actually creating more chaos than originally intended in this era of the transfer portal?

The whole point of this Early Signing Period was to give teams the ability to sign their classes early and not have coaches pressure kids into signing with them in February. For programs who don’t have changes, that makes sense. But in a time where 1/5 of the Power 5 programs are dealing with a head coaching change, it suddenly creates far more problems to have a December signing period.

Maybe a January signing period is the answer. Maybe it’ll stay in December.

Just to be sure, why don’t we all pour one out for the December Early Signing Period.