Let the celebrations in Columbus and Ann Arbor begin. It's not quite the time of Woody and Bo, but national signing day is here, and Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke are running circles around the Big Ten.
Signing day represents a finish line for the long haul of recruiting, a time in which fax machines are inexplicably celebrated, workplace productivity in football-mad states slows down and the word commitment finally respects its definition. It allows us to pause and evaluate, and when the ink dries, Michigan and Ohio State will likely find themselves ranked among the top-10 recruiting classes in America, carrying the flag for the much-maligned Big Ten in its struggle for competitive relevance.
Entering Wednesday, Rivals.com ranked Ohio State second and Michigan sixth, while Scout.com tabbed the Wolverines No. 1 and the Buckeyes No. 2 (with fellow northerners Notre Dame No. 3). This would mark the second straight year both finished in the top 10, the second straight year that Meyer and Hoke go head to head and leave the rest of the Big Ten in the dust. According to Rivals, nobody else in the Big Ten finished better than 25th-place Nebraska last year. As of Tuesday night this year, Nebraska (16th) is the only other team better than 39th.
Rankings remain volatile as top recruits make their decisions at the last minute in nationally televised announcements throughout the day Wednesday, but not surprisingly, given the shift in the national balance in power, these results follow 21st-century trends.
From 2003-12, the average SEC recruiting class (including newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri) finished with a ranking of 24.8, according to Rivals. Over that same 10-class span, the average Big Ten class (including Nebraska) finished with a ranking of 40.8. In the Big Ten, only Michigan and Ohio State made multiple appearances in the national top 10 (Michigan State, Nebraska and Penn State made one each). In the SEC, Florida, LSU, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas A&M -- more than half the league -- all did it at least twice.
The basic point isn't a revelation, of course. The SEC has won the last seven national championships, and the Big Ten, which remains just as rich and powerful in influence, has gone downhill on the field ever since the climactic season-ending battle between No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan in November 2006. The Buckeyes went on to get embarrassed by Urban Meyer and Florida in the national championship game, and the rest is history.
Recruiting rankings are far from perfect, but when looking at the big picture, they are generally accurate (credit to CBSSports.com's Matt Hinton for his annual work on the subject) and can illustrate the disparity between the two most prestigious football conferences. Comparing leagues is difficult because of how few significant nonconference games are played, so we're forced to rely on a handful of September results and bowl games to make sweeping conclusions. Looking at recruiting data helps to paint a more comprehensive picture.
The following table breaks down the last 10 years in the Big Ten and the SEC, including average recruiting class rank (according to Rivals) total wins in the last 10 seasons, where each of those numbers ranks within the conference and the difference between where each team ranks in wins vs. recruiting.
BIG TEN (2003-12)
|Team||Avg Class||Recruit Rank||Total Wins||Wins Rank||Difference|
|Team||Avg Class||Recruit Rank||Total Wins||Wins Rank||Difference|
Little is surprising about the numbers, which support our coaching perceptions. Wisconsin (Bret Bielema) and Northwestern (Pat Fitzgerald) both out-performed their expectations, while Michigan (Rich Rodriguez) and Illinois (Ron Zook) failed to live up to their recruiting success. In the SEC, Missouri's jump can probably be thrown out, given that it won most of those 81 games in the Big 12, a league that's very strong but not nearly as deep as the SEC. Otherwise, SEC schools fall in line with their recruiting rankings, aside from Tennessee, which has struggled with mediocrity in the final years of Phillip Fulmer, one year of Lane Kiffin and three of Derek Dooley. Again, nothing unexpected.
For better or worse, college coaches have unilateral power -- and given the fluidity of rosters, programs are defined by their coaches. They're the face of the program, not just the coach but the CEO, the roster manager, the chief recruiter. If a good X's and O's coach can't recruit, he can't coach, and vice versa. (Programs like Boise State and Wisconsin might not recruit well by the numbers, but they've been among the best at identifying under-the-radar talent that fits their system, and then coaching the hell out of what they get.) Nick Saban is better at just about all of the above tasks than anyone. Say what you want about Les Miles' eccentricities and questionable game-day decision-making, but you can comfortably put him in that category as well.
We know Urban Meyer and his two national championships at Florida belong with them. Hoke, who won 11 games in his first season in 2011 but fell to 8-5 in 2012, just might prove he belongs there too. It all starts on the recruiting trail. Meyer and Hoke must continue to dominate the Pennsylvania-to-Illinois Rust Belt that has seen talent shift away to the South and West, where Florida, Texas and California are king by a wide margin (followed by places like Georgia and Louisiana). Not only do they have to fight the Big Ten's perception as a slow, aging dinosaur when recruiting, but they have to supplement their local talent by somehow convincing Floridians and Texans to come north for the winter. It's not an easy job, although Ohio State and Michigan still have reputations as historical powers with massive stadiums and fan support.
We might be on the verge of a throwback era in the Big Ten, a glimmer of the 1970s dominated by Woody Hayes' Buckeyes and Bo Schembechler's Wolverines. In yet another embarrassing loss for the Big Ten, Bielema left Wisconsin, which has lost the last three Rose Bowls, for Arkansas, a middle-of-the-road SEC school. Penn State's crippling NCAA sanctions take it out of the picture despite Bill O'Brien's valiant efforts. Iowa has grown stale under Kirk Ferentz. Michigan State reverted to failing to meet expectations in 2012. Nebraska is stuck in neutral, losing exactly four games in all five seasons of the Bo Pelini era.
The Big Ten as a whole isn't going to catch the SEC anytime soon (even Ole Miss is out-recruiting everyone now). Conference power used to be cyclical, but we may be past the point of no return because of the shift in the recruiting landscape geographically. What the Big Ten needs is to finally throw some punches at the top again. Gator Bowl wins won't cut it. Recruiting shows that the middle of the pack of the conference isn't getting better. All it takes is one championship, against an SEC team, to alter perceptions and temporarily ease the pressure, which, of course, is a lot easier said than done, especially after watching northern neighbor Notre Dame reach the title game and get run off the field by Alabama.
Meyer must maintain Ohio State's status atop the Big Ten while also reinventing the program as a team capable of beating LSU or Alabama in a national championship game (or, starting in 2014, the playoffs). On the surface, the 2013 season looks like a time to do that, centered around QB Braxton Miller, although let's not get too carried away with a good but not dominant undefeated team that played tight games against Indiana, California, Purdue and UAB in 2012. Hoke must continue recruiting at his current pace while reversing the last decade's trend of succeeding more in recruiting than actual football. That 11-win 2011 season was nice and all, but Saban provided a wake-up call by steamrolling the Wolverines in Dallas last September.
There will never be another Woody and Bo, of course. Urban and Brady will just have to do their best impression. As they sign two of the nation's best recruiting classes on Wednesday, the pressure mounts. From 1969 to 1981, either Michigan or Ohio State played in every Rose Bowl. That wouldn't be good enough now, because winning the Big Ten isn't enough, and, besides, Hayes and Schembechler lost 10 of those 13 games anyway.
What's clear is that the next few years could form another golden age in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. But unless the signing-day success carries over to nonconference wins in September and especially January, nobody outside the Midwest will care.