This probably isn't much of a spoiler alert, but the Big Ten has a bit of a talent problem.
It's not terrible—we're not talking about a backslide into MAC-like levels of talent or anything like that—but it's fair to say the SEC and Big 12 are more reliable sources of high-level college football players than the Big Ten, especially once you get past Ohio State and Michigan.
This is a long-term problem for the conference. If nobody other than the "big two" can reliably recruit in the top 20 or so on a yearly basis (and even then only Nebraska comes close), it stands to reason that the Big Ten as a whole will struggle to keep more than two or three teams that high in the polls consistently.
Again, Michigan and Ohio State aren't the problem here, but they're going to need some help.
Part of that recruiting problem is the simple fact that long-term demographics don't favor the Big Ten's geographic footprint. The manufacturing base that has kept so many local economies afloat in the Great Lakes region has withered considerably, and once-thriving towns and football programs have since been bled dry of the money it takes to succeed.
The answer, then, is to broaden the recruiting base. This is not as easy as it sounds; you can't just decide you're recruiting California and then go bag some 4-star kids out of nowhere. Recruiting takes time, effort, relationships and luck. So how does the Big Ten expand its recruiting base?
Expand the Big Ten
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's already on this, and it's no surprise that he wants to expand into previously unknown territories.
On one hand he's thinking about television money and media markets. But when he also mentions the "changing demographics" of the country (h/t ESPN), he's of course trying to get the Big Ten to the next growth centers—and the young athletes who will be benefiting from that prosperity.
Don't be surprised if the Big Ten's next expansion focuses on the expanding Eastern seaboard for exactly that reason; the Big Ten can't afford to effectively cede territory as other conferences expand their own footprints.
Decide You're Recruiting California
"Now wait wait wait wait," you protest, "you just said you can't just do that." Au contraire. We said you can't do that and expect immediate high-end results. Recruiting is the result of relationships with high school coaches and their players, after all, and relationships take time and commitment (OR LOTS OF MONEY, but shhhhh we don't talk about that).
So you schedule some games out in California—or wherever it is you'd like to expand—and tell recruits their families can come see them play without going halfway across the country. You send your hungriest recruiter out West and have him build rapport with coaches and plan for recruits three or more years down the road.
That's a time-intensive plan, of course, and it requires about as much time as the average coach's tenure at any given school lasts. And even then there's no guarantee the plan works; remember what we said about luck? It's real. So what's the faster alternative?
Take the Coaches Who Already Have Connections There
Oh ho ho ho, now we're getting aggressive. And yes, if you're a middling school in the Big Ten, it absolutely behooves you to poach an "in" with coaches in talent-rich states outside the conference blueprint. And what does that involve? Yep, you guessed it: paying more for assistant coaches!
Come on, you had to know that all roads lead to higher assistant coach salaries.
Of course, this tactic is not a recruiting panacea by itself; it's always easier to recruit locally no matter where the recruiter has long-standing connections. There's no guarantee that a targeted assistant coach at another school is going to do anything with a new job offer other than leverage it for a raise at his old school.
But if the Big Ten wants to recruit the best, it first needs to recruit the guys who can recruit the best. Pay those men their money, Big Ten. It'll be worth it.