Fans in the Southeast often approach National Signing Day with the same anticipation as they do a national championship game. The connection isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.
The SEC has won six of the past eight national titles in football. Players signed the previous February figured prominently in the majority of those championships.
Former LSU running back Justin Vincent is a great example. He rushed for more than a 1,000 yards as a freshman in 2003 and was the most valuable player of both the SEC and national championship games.
Three years later, freshman quarterback Tim Tebow played a role in Florida's national championship. In 2009, freshman Trent Richardson rushed for 751 yards as a worthy backup to Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in Alabama's unbeaten national championship season.
No single recruit ever had a greater impact on an SEC team than quarterback Cam Newton. The junior college transfer won the Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to an unbeaten national championship season in 2010.
But Newton wasn't the only Auburn recruit to have an immediate impact. Freshman running back Michael Dyer rushed for 1,093 yards and starred in the national championship game. No other school in SEC history has had that much offensive production that fast from a recruiting class.
You don't have to win a national championship to appreciate the instant value of a recruit. South Carolina wouldn't have made it to the SEC championship game in December if it hadn't signed 1,000-yard rusher back Marcus Lattimore last February. And it's unlikely Mississippi State would have finished in the top 25 without junior college recruit Vick Ballard, who ranked sixth in the conference in rushing yards per game.
Those success stories should heighten the interest in what happens with two of the most acclaimed recruits in this class - running back Isaiah Crowell of Columbus, Ga., and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of Rock Hill, S.C., both of whom are the subject of fierce SEC recruiting battles, and both of whom are considering Alabama.
If the recruiting services and recruiters are right about both Crowell and Clowney, those players could provide just what Alabama needs to win another national title. The stakes are high on the other side, too.
Georgia's Mark Richt is the most likely SEC coach to lose his job in 2011. But suppose Crowell could do for Georgia what Lattimore did for South Carolina last season? Perhaps he could elevate the Bulldogs above a mediocre East field and save Richt's job as well.
You might wonder why Crowell would even consider Georgia over Alabama. Alabama's Nick Saban is the coach with a history of relying on freshman running backs. Richt is the coach who redshirted Knowshon Moreno.
But never underestimate in-state appeal. Although Georgia had a rare losing season in 2010, it's assembling a top-10 class, based mainly on in-state talent.
South Carolina has proximity in its favor in the recruitment of Clowney. Its depth chart serves as another attraction.
The Gamecocks just lost star defensive end Cliff Matthews, so Clowney would have an opportunity to start right away. They could pair him with 6-foot-8 defensive end Devin Taylor, who has All-SEC potential.
Their improved conference status is tied to the recruitment of players like Clowney. Lattimore, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery all are former South Carolina high school players who distinguished themselves as freshmen after signing with the Gamecocks.
South Carolina likely will have to wait on Clowney. He's expected to sign on his birthday, Feb. 14. Crowell is scheduled to announce his decision Wednesday on ESPNU.
Anthony Johnson's signing could be as significant. The five-star defensive tackle has committed to LSU, which has a need at the position and is seemingly well-stocked enough elsewhere to contend for a national championship.
And, as the SEC has proved repeatedly, it takes only one recruit to turn a contender into a champion.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.