The Big Ten was once a great football conference. It was even recently a very, very good football conference. It might yet one day be great again. If it does return to its former glory, however, it's going to be with significant help from some non-native players.
Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are the Midwest. Sure, you can argue for the Dakotas, Kansas or Missouri to be included, and certainly the Midwest's eastern bounds don't have a prayer of crossing the Appalachians. And if you want to argue for some "Great Lakes" distinction, fine, we won't stop you. But by and large, it's a pretty distinctive and well-agreed-upon region.
The states in that region hold 116 of the country's 538 electoral votes. It's home to, per the 2010 census, over 69 million of the United States' roughly 313 million residents. Of the 70 BCS-level teams (the six "BCS" conferences plus BYU and Notre Dame), 17 are in that region. In other words, it is just about a fifth of the United States.
Now here's the problem. The Big Ten's home territory is not home to a fifth of the top football talent in the United States. Not even close.
In the ESPNU 300 for the class of 2013, only 14 of the top 100 prospects are from states in the Big Ten footprint. Altogether, the states account for just 41 of the top 300. And the Big Ten doesn't exactly have those prospects locked down, either; the top five prospects all chose non-Big Ten schools, and only 25 of the 41 "local" prospects stayed in the Big Ten altogether.
So, the Big Ten is forced to recruit from afar.
The Omaha World-Herald has a fantastic look at Nebraska's changing recruiting landscape, and while it might be an overstatement to call the situation dire—Nebraska's still doing well enough on the field that there's no real need to panic—it's certainly jarring to see the way Husker football has become dependent on outside help.
Here's more from the World-Herald:
[Tom] Osborne had mastered the blueprint. On signing day ’97, he signed a vintage NU class. Fifteen of the 22 players came from inside the circle:
Eric Crouch, Omaha. Matt Davison, Tecumseh. Dave Volk, Battle Creek. Kyle Vanden Bosch, Larchwood. Tracey Wistrom, Webb City. Erwin Swiney, Lincoln. Jon Rutherford, Midwest City, Okla. Mark Vedral, Gregory, S.D.
Sprinkle in a few outsiders — notably Correll Buckhalter, Bobby Newcombe and Dominic Raiola — and Osborne felt good enough to call the ’97 class "solid."
Sixteen years later, the blueprint has dramatically changed.
Osborne, from 1984 to 1997, signed 56 percent of his players from the 500-mile radius. Under Bo Pelini, that number is 31 percent. The four lowest percentages on record came in the past five recruiting classes.
There are graphs and interactive maps in that World-Herald piece. You should check it out. And here's the thing: Nebraska's hardly alone in the Big Ten when it comes to this trend.
All in all, the Big Ten went out of its footprint for 106 of its 253 recruits in 2013. There isn't much of a correlation between how close to "home" these recruits were and how good the classes were—Michigan stayed in Michigan and Ohio for the majority of its recruiting class while Nebraska tooled around Texas and California to great effect, and Iowa's humdrum class was largely from close by while Minnesota's last-place class only includes five Midwesterners. Still, the message is clear: The Big Ten is going to have a hard time putting together solid recruiting classes without branching out in a big way.
This is a serious issue for the Big Ten, and likely a root cause for its push to the east—not only in the form of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, but its expected further additions from the ACC, whatever they may be. The Big Ten may not be able to plumb Virginia or the Carolinas for talent the way the closer schools do, but at least adding them to the footprint gives the original schools a better shot at wooing prospects there.
It's basically the Big Ten's only hope. Because when it comes to producing enough high-level talent to fill a conference, the Midwest just isn't cutting it anymore.