One of the big stories in this recruiting season has been the strong showing from the traditional elite of the Big Ten: Michigan and Ohio State.
The Buckeyes and Wolverines currently rank fourth and sixth respectively in the Rivals team rankings. Michigan is No. 1 in Scout's rankings, while Ohio State is fourth. Michigan is seventh on 247's rankings, while Ohio State is fifth. The Wolverines are fifth in ESPN's rankings, one spot behind the Bucks. No other Big Ten team is in the top 10 of any of the four rankings. Nebraska sits 13th in Scout's rankings and otherwise finds itself hovering around No. 20 in the remaining three sets. It's all downhill from there for the rest of the conference. And this is nothing new, as the 2012 recruiting rankings from all four services placed Michigan and Ohio State in the top 10 and the rest of the Big Ten all outside of the top 20.
The easy prediction from this state of affairs is that Michigan and Ohio State are going to dominate the Big Ten in the coming years. Urban Meyer is going to combine his superior talent level with an excellent offensive style and an ability to manage a staff and a roster that led to two national titles in Gainesville. Brady Hoke might not have Meyer's resume, but he is benefiting from Michigan's new-found willingness to pay market rate for top assistants, and he has reassured edgy Michigan fans that he would not bring back Lloyd Carr's infamous tactical conservatism. It's not hard to observe the current state of affairs and assume that we are headed for a bevy of Michigan-Ohio State games that will decide the league title.
The only questions are: (1) whether the Bucks and Wolverines will be moved into the same division or if the conference will keep its current structure, thus leading to Michigan and Ohio State meeting twice a season; and (2) will Michigan and Ohio State be playing for Pasadena or a spot in a four-team playoff?
However, there is a fairly obvious counter that could be made by fans of the rest of the league: we've always operated at a recruiting disadvantage to Michigan and Ohio State, and that hasn't stopped us from doing very well in recent years.* Yes, the Bucks and Wolverines dominated the conference in the 1970s when rosters were much bigger than they are today and the two big programs in the league could sign players just to keep them away from their conference rivals. In a world of 85 scholarships, the gaps between rosters are smaller. Wisconsin has won the last three Big Ten titles. Although Michigan State slid to 7-6 this season, it is coming out of its best sustained period of success (or at least one of its two best periods) since Southern schools desegregated. If these teams could compete with less talent before, then why can't they do so in the future?
* - Note: do not bother making the argument that the recruiting rankings are meaningless. It is true that being a five-star player is no guarantee of success and that there are plenty of examples of two- and three-star players who turn out to be excellent college players. However, we are talking about probability here, and the odds are stacked in favor of the guys with more stars next to their names.
The natural question that arises is this: are Michigan and Ohio State dominating recruiting in the Midwest to a greater degree than they have in the past? If the Bucks and Wolverines are recruiting at the same level relative to the rest of the conference that they have over the past decade, then we have reason to be suspicious of claims that we are entering a period of hegemony for those two programs. On the other hand, if Michigan and Ohio State are monopolizing talent to a new degree, then we may be seeing something here.
To answer the question, we should take a look at the ratios of Michigan/Ohio State blue chip recruits (defined as recruits who got four- or five-star ratings; for ease of reference, we'll use Phil Steele's term: VHT [short for "Very Highly Touted]) to those of the rest of the conference over time. Rivals' database goes back to 2002, so we can use that as our measuring stick. We will include Nebraska for the entire time period even though they are a recent addition to the league, because that provides the best snapshot as to the state of the conference going forward. Here are the ratios:
|Year||Michigan VHTs||Ohio State VHTs||Rest of B1G VHTs||Ratio|
In short, the answer is that the disparity between the classes of Michigan and Ohio State on the one hand and the rest of the Big Ten on the other are wider than they have been in the last twelve years. This year's class and last year's have the two highest ratios for the period covered by the Rivals database. In fact, there were only two years in the prior 10 in which the ratio was greater than one, i.e. years like the last two in which Michigan and Ohio State had more combined VHTs than the rest of the conference combined.
The ratio has exploded for two reasons. First, Michigan and Ohio State are recruiting very well. They have 29 and 30 VHTs respectively over the past two classes, which is the most they have recruited over a two-year period other than the 2008-09 time frame. Second, the rest of the Big Ten has seen their recruiting fortunes plummet. For the six-year period from 2005-10, the rest of the league averaged 35.67 VHTs. In the last two years, the number has been roughly two-thirds of that.
With respect to the rest of the conference, the recent recruiting results are a real indictment of the way that Big Ten programs are being run. With the Big Ten Network a success and revenues at an all-time high, we ought to be seeing Big Ten teams have better recruiting classes as a result of increased exposure, investment in facilities, and higher coaching salaries. Instead, recruiting in the Big Ten outside of Michigan and Ohio State is getting significantly worse. It is true that demographics are pushing against the conference, but population movement didn't start in the last three years. In 2009, UM and OSU pulled in the exact same number of VHTs as they are pulling in this year: 31 combined. That year, the rest of the league pulled in 41. The 2009 recruiting numbers reflected what should be a reasonably strong league, with the elite teams doing well and the middle class pulling its own weight. This year, the rest of the conference has 23. Penn State's sanctions are obviously an issue, as is Nebraska's move to the conference and resulting shift from a Texas-heavy recruiting focus to one that places more emphasis on the Midwest. But where is the rest of the league to pick up the slack?
These recruiting results do not guarantee that Michigan and Ohio State will beat every Big Ten foe and then arrive at their meeting with unblemished conference records. Again, football results are about probability. It is more likely that a four- or five-star player will be productive in college than it is that a three- or two star player will. Likewise, a team with better players is likely to win a game against a team with weaker players. So hypothetically, Ohio State might have a 90 percent chance of beating a non-Michigan Big Ten opponent four years from now, whereas they would have had a 75 percent chance when the recruiting gap was narrower. The rest of the league will still have a chance, but they will find themselves in the position of a blackjack player who is confronted with a dealer showing a face card as opposed to an eight.
Two related notes:
1. While recruiting is important, it is not destiny. Michigan signed 31 VHTs in its 2008 and 2009 classes. While those classes produced an 11-2 Sugar Bowl season in 2011, the Wolverines only went 8-5 in 2012. Strength-of-schedule played a role in Michigan's record, as did a key injury to Denard Robinson in the Nebraska game and transition issues between players recruited for the run-based spread and an offensive coordinator schooled in a pro-style passing game. Likewise, Michigan had recruited 55 VHTs in the five classes leading up to its epic 3-9 disaster in 2008. Again, transition issues and coaching can make a difference.
2. Unless Ohio State rallies in the next week, this will be the first year since 2008 that Michigan has more VHTs than OSU does. In the four prior classes, OSU pulled in 51 and UM pulled in 38. This is an important factor to keep in mind when the two teams play over the next two seasons. Michigan's sub-standard 2010 and 2011 classes (six VHTs each; Michigan's lowest totals over the twelve-year period) have not worked their way through the system. Fans often fail to appreciate the lag time between recruiting and results, so it is possible that Ohio State will beat Michigan in the next two seasons, thus leading to, "where are all your great recruits, Brady Hoke?" jibes, the answer to which will be, "they are underclassmen." It's also interesting that Michigan had a class with 17 VHTs during the Carr/Rodriguez transition class (2008), but only six during the the Rodriguez/Hoke transition class (2011). Some of that difference is down to the fact that Rodriguez wasn't as good a recruiter as Carr (or, if you take the pro-Rodriguez perspective, that Rodriguez was fighting more of an uphill battle than Carr had to) and then the rest is down to Dave Brandon waiting until January to fire Rodriguez and hire Hoke, rather than doing so after Ohio State blew Michigan out at the end of November.
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