Is Big Ten Football Struggling to Keep Up with Michigan, Ohio State Recruiting?

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Is Big Ten Football Struggling to Keep Up with Michigan, Ohio State Recruiting?
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

As sure as the sun rises and sets, you can bet Michigan and Ohio State will sit atop the Big Ten recruiting rankings. No, seriously, there are few things surer in life than those two schools sitting at the top of the heap when national signing day is over on an annual basis. 

In fact, one of those two teams not topping the Big Ten team rankings has happened just twice since 2002, according to 247sports. It's the same for the Rivals.com rankings (excluding Nebraska during its time in the Big 12) and Scout.com rankings as well. 

The only team to replace either of those two at the top of the rankings in the Big Ten according to any service was Penn State, who topped the 2006 and 2010 rankings

So, there you have Big Ten recruiting, since the inception of recruiting rankings in 2002, in a nutshell—hope you enjoyed the history lesson. 

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

However, there's more to the story than just Michigan and Ohio State topping the rankings. The real story is how the new versions of Michigan and Ohio State have been perceived to be pulling away from the rest of the Big Ten.

Some have suggested it's been a case of the rich getting richer and everyone else falling behind, but the reality is the conversation may need to be: Is Ohio State pulling away from Michigan and everyone else?

Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo suggested just that last year in an interview with Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Journal Star:

(Wolverines head coach) Brady Hoke and (Buckeyes head coach) Urban Meyer are about to hit it out of the park every single year. They are about to separate themselves from the rest of the conference. Just watch the recruiting tape—it's night and day right now. It's not even close. I watch it with my own eyes.

The difference is DiNardo and others are looking nationally at the rankings and assuming the Big Ten isn't getting any better. All they see are the Top 25 and the Big Ten failing to get more than three or four teams into those coveted spots.

There's little argument that, on the national scale, the Big Ten is falling behind, but internally, things look a bit different. A conference is only as good as its worst teams both on and off the field, and that's where the Big Ten has made its biggest gains—on the recruiting trail.

For all the talk of separation between Michigan/Ohio State and everyone else in the rankings, it hasn't necessarily shown up where it matters most—on the field.  

Neither of those two teams have won a Big Ten title since the inception of the Big Ten Championship Game in Hoke's first year, and only Ohio State has made it there at all. 

What good are amazing recruiting rankings and 5-star prospects if it doesn't translate into the one thing that should matter most to those two teams—winning championships? 

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The reality is that the recruiting world is much more gray than black and white, and how you measure a class makes a big difference in how you perceive said class. 

Do you take in the national team rankings? What about average star rankings? Or even total points for each team? 

Historically speaking, points don't matter much because the formula's used at Rivals and Scout.com have changed over time, without adjustment to old classes. So, we're left with a look at team rankings and average stars. 

The difference between the pre-Brady Hoke/Urban Meyer era and what has taken place since their time in the conference tell two very different stories based on the two different measures. 

What is the reality of Big Ten recruiting then? Let's start by looking at the average star rankings per class. 

Big Ten Average Star Rankings
Team 2002-10 Average 2011-14 Average Overall Average
Illinois 2.74 2.78 2.75
Indiana 2.26 2.81 2.43
Iowa 2.75 2.88 2.79
Michigan 3.55 3.47 3.52
Michigan State 2.86 3.08 2.93
Minnesota 2.62 2.77 2.66
Northwestern 2.56 2.92 2.67
Ohio State 3.57 3.69 3.60
Penn State 3.12 3.02 3.09
Purdue 2.61 2.76 2.65
Wisconsin 2.78 3.02 2.85

Rivals.com *Nebraska excluded due to difference in B1G and Big 12 rules

Yes, Michigan and Ohio State dominate this category, but we all should've known that coming in. What is important is: What is the trend for the other nine teams we can accurately measure? 

For all but one of the teams not named Michigan or Ohio State, they've increased their average star ranking in the last four classes to date. It means eight teams have stepped up the quality of the recruits they are pulling in, regardless of ranking. 

Yes, in many cases, the change is small, but it's also important to note that Michigan and Ohio State's averages have actually gone down in the last four-year period, according to this measure. 

So, perhaps perception of a big gap getting bigger isn't reality after all. But what about the other measure, recruiting rankings? Does it tell the same story or something different? 

Big Ten Team Ranking Averages
Team 2002-10 2011-14 Overall
Illinois 41.11 54.25 45.15
Indiana 79.33 51.00 70.62
Iowa 44.11 44.75 44.31
Michigan 12.22 15.00 13.08
Michigan State 35.22 35.00 35.15
Minnesota 50.56 64.00 54.69
Northwestern 75.67 63.00 71.77
Ohio State 14.78 4.75 11.69
Penn State 30.78 40.50 33.77
Purdue 46.56 60.75 50.92
Wisconsin 47.67 45.75 47.08

Rivals.com

Just five of the 11 programs we are looking at have been better in the last four years than their national ranking average was the previous nine years, including Ohio State. 

Perhaps, the most overlooked aspect is that schools that sat historically at, or near, the bottom of Big Ten recruiting have made significant strides in the last four years.

Indiana and Northwestern were the two biggest risers in the comparison, and that's a good sign of the conference rising as a whole. 

As the saying goes, "a rising tide lifts all boats," and in this case, two teams rising to the top have made most step up their games. 

Which Team Will Become Challengers to Michigan and Ohio State on the Recruiting Trail?

Submit Vote vote to see results

With Ohio State and Michigan consistently near the top of the rankings, it has forced all schools to try harder, and for nearly half, that's exactly what has happened. 

Let's not forget that since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska's classes have looked like this—No. 15 (2011), No. 25 (2012), No. 17 (2013) and right now are sitting at No. 37 in the 2014 class, according to the same Rivals.com measures used above. 

That's an average of 23.5, and it would put them third in the Big Ten during that time frame. Nationally speaking, that isn't great, but it gives the conference at least some hope of catching the big two on the recruiting trail. 

Truthfully, while perception and high "rankings" matter to the national narrative, the numbers tell us Ohio State and Michigan aren't nearly pulling away the way people believe they are.

Rather, they are who they've always been, and schools like Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin have actually begun to close the gaps that once existed between them. 

Recruiting is a world where it takes baby steps to change perceptions, and with new situations happening at all three schools, it's a positive sign for the future that things have been turning around as of late. 

Now, it's up to those schools to start making a bigger dent nationally. Do so, and perceptions will begin to change quickly about the Big Ten. 

 

*Andy Coppens is the Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens

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