COLUMBUS — In this month, at least, all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have at least one thing in common.
This December, there is not a moment to spare for anyone.
Thanks to changes in the recruiting calendar, almost everything about college football is crammed into one month: conference championships, firings, hirings, final exams, bowl games, and now, a signing period in the middle of all it.
With so much going on at once, coaching staffs across the country are finding themselves in the midst of the most hectic end-of-season period of their careers.
“We’re taking two months of live-contact recruiting and throwing it into one,” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. “I tell you what, I hope it pays off in January.”
For the first time, football recruits no longer have to wait until the first Wednesday in February to sign their national letter of intent. An early signing period — which begins Dec. 20 — has sped up the process for many prospective players and the programs that are courting them, bringing a sense of finality formerly reserved for the offseason.
The final contact period before the new signing day began Nov. 26 — before the country’s best teams played in conference championship games.
As Ohio State and Wisconsin prepared for the Dec. 2 Big Ten championship game, the other 12 Big Ten schools spent a full week recruiting. The timing gave the Buckeyes and other conference title game participants no other choice: Recruiting had to take a backseat to the biggest game of the season.
“I wish there was an easier way, but I'm not sure what it is, especially with the early signing,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said before the Buckeyes played Wisconsin.
“I don't believe it's fair, but I'd much rather be here.”
This month has brought new challenges for every program.
Toledo’s coaching staff will spend signing day and the 24 hours before it in Mobile, Ala., where the Rockets will be preparing to play in the Dollar General Bowl set for Dec. 23. Bowling Green fired defensive coordinator Perry Eliano on Dec. 3 and currently is looking to fill that vacancy down the recruiting home stretch.
Kent State, which parted ways with former coach Paul Haynes, has not officially hired its next head coach. The program currently has only four players committed in the class of 2018, and its next coach will have fewer than two weeks before signing day to add to it.
Southern Methodist, in Dallas, has a December crunch like no other program. SMU lost its coach, Chad Morris, to Arkansas on Wednesday, setting off a coaching search exactly two weeks away from the early signing period. Final exams began Thursday, and to boot, the Mustangs are not done; their Frisco Bowl matchup against Louisiana Tech falls on signing day.
Ohio and Alabama-Birmingham will be out of the country on signing day, as both are headed to the Bahamas Bowl on Dec. 22. As a result, both programs had to hit the recruiting trail for their final push earlier than normal.
“It's a little different,” Bobcats coach Frank Solich said this week. “We were out last week recruiting — and I was a little nervous about that because I want to focus on this next game.”
Both teams will do the required signing day paperwork digitally from their hotels in Nassau.
Ohio made the decision to not recruit this week, and because of the timing of its bowl, told its commits it simply did not have time to visit all of them.
“The players who have committed to us know we're playing a bowl game and we just can't get to everybody,” Solich said.
Carey’s NIU team plays Duke in the QuickLane Bowl on Dec. 26, but said his program had contingency plans ready to go in case it drew a bowl closer to signing day, which included proctoring final exams at its bowl site if it drew a game on the 16th or 19th.
As is the case every year, some Power Five schools typically will make a last run at Group of Five schools’ best recruits near signing day. Carey said the new schedule can prevent a coaching staff “from putting out the fire,” but said it has been a two-way street: Power Five programs have been dropping commits it didn’t want to sign Dec. 20, re-opening the door for other schools who had recruited them previously.
“It’s an in-and-out game,” Carey said. “You know some of your guys might get taken or told not to sign, and that’s the reality of it even though you don’t want that to happen. But then also, they’re dropping kids right now, so now we’re in a spot where we have to be reactionary.”
Although the schedule is undoubtedly different, and December is more hectic, success as a program still goes a long way.
Coaches might not be able to recruit on the same timeline as before, but Carey said recruits still notice who is winning and who is not.
“That’s the best recruiting tool you have: to play in — and hopefully win — a bowl game,” Carey said. “Even though you may not have a chance to get in the living room, they’re going to see you on TV, hopefully being successful, and be more convinced about it than ever.”
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