It has long been thought that the days of Michigan and Ohio State's hegemony over the Big Ten had come to an end. Woody and Bo are long gone. Ohio State self-imposed sanctions by hiring John Cooper and then taking themselves out of the postseason. Michigan hired Rich Rodriguez, which basically killed half a decade of Wolverine football. Wisconsin has won three conference championships in a row. Neither Michigan nor Ohio State has even played in a Big Ten Championship Game (Ohio State obviously could have this year, had it not been for tattoos). Parity had come to the nation's oldest collegiate football conference.
In recruiting, however, the days of the Big Two are back. No program -- frankly, no three programs combined -- can match the Wolverines and Buckeyes on the recruiting trail. Brady Hoke has tapped into a new vein of talent in Ann Arbor, recruiting the upper Midwest and mid-Atlantic better than anyone. Ohio State has combined its talent-rich backyard with Urban Meyer's national connections to acquire talent as well as Jim Tressel ever did.
Nebraska might not have the national presence that it once did -- the Huskers essentially went through a lost decade and have not played in a BCS bowl game since 2001 -- but Bo Pelini has found a formula of his own. Where Tom Osborne would pull linemen from the Plains and skill position talent from California and Florida, Pelini is casting a wide net across the Big Ten footprint, the Huskers' former Big 12 states, and the Pacific Coast. The result: A Nebraska recruiting class that only has one player from Nebraska.
Elsewhere, Penn State is dealing with its first season under NCAA-imposed scholarship reductions, Tim Beckman is proving to be much better at recruiting than he was at coaching, Wisconsin's new staff is trying to hold their class together, and Michigan State and Iowa are doing Michigan State and Iowa things. It's Big Ten recruiting, where what was old is new again.
Top three classes
There is remarkably little debate over which three classes are tops in the conference this winter, though identifying an overall winner might be more difficult. Ohio State landed five-star linebacker Mike Mitchell out of Plano, TX at the expense of almost the entire country. Fourteen four-star prospects are set to sign with the Buckeyes, as well, including defensive end Joey Bosa, running back Ezekiel Elliott, and defensive backs Cameron Burrows, Jayme Thompson, and Eli Apple. Most striking about Ohio State's haul is its success in the South: Mitchell, Bosa, linebacker Trey Johnson, defensive lineman Michael Hill, wide receiver Corey Smith, and quarterback J.T. Barrett all hail from SEC country.
Michigan took a more direct route to the top of the conference's recruiting rankings. The Wolverines pounded Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania for prospects: Of Michigan's 27 commitments, 22 hail from inside the Big Ten footprint. That list includes offensive linemen Patrick Kluger and Kyle Bosch, tight end Jake Butt, quarterback Shane Morris, and exquisitely-named defensive back Taco Charlton. When the Wolverines left their backyard, they did it for high-reward candidates. In Derrick Green, a five-star recruit out of Virginia widely considered the nation's top halfback, they got one. Baltimore's Henry Poggi, whose father is a legendary high school coach and brother plays at Iowa, is another big win for Michigan.
Nebraska's class doesn't meet the standards of the Big Two, but the Huskers have done a superb job of acquiring athletes at positions important to Pelini's scheme. Nebraska has landed two four-star linebackers (Josh Banderas of Lincoln, Nebraska's only in-state commitment, and Marcus Newby), two four-star running backs (Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby), and a bevy of three-star brutes to put in the trenches. Nebraska also landed Taylor Martinez clone Johnny Stanton at quarterback, and is still actively recruiting at wide receiver.
Top three players to know
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State -- Last summer, when the NCAA put Penn State under the strictest sanctions of any program since SMU's death penalty, prohibiting the Nittany Lions from the postseason for four years and reducing the number of program scholarships by 10 per season, the concern was not just that the program would lose depth but that premiere players would not want to play for a program with no hope of a bowl game. Hackenberg, a five-star pro-style quarterback out of Fork Union, Virginia, might have killed off that problem; just weeks after his commitment, PSU landed mammoth four-star left tackle Brendan Mahon. Bill O'Brien turned Matt McGloin into the Big Ten's best passer last year; he might turn Hackenberg into the next Dan Marino.
Derrick Green, RB, Michigan -- Michigan has landed big running back recruits in the past -- Sam McGuffie, anyone? -- but it's been quite some time since Big Blue got the nation's top-rated running back. Green is Rivals' No. 8 player nationally, the top player in Virginia, and the holder of scholarship offers from every program with a pulse. Not only is Green a likely first-year contributor for a Wolverine squad still rebuilding from the RichRod era, but he's a rare recruiting win for the Big Ten over the best of the SEC.
Deon Long, WR, Maryland -- The Terps might not yet be a Big Ten school, but Long -- a five-star JUCO wide receiver out of Iowa Western Community College -- will have ample opportunity to victimize Big Ten defenses when Maryland jumps to the conference in 2014. Long, who graduated from Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High, fell victim to the same Mike Locksley magical potion that led fellow Dunbar alum Arrelious Benn to Illinois. When Long awoke, he was playing at New Mexico. That obviously didn't work, and Long left for Iowa Western after his freshman season. He quickly became the nation's top JUCO prospect, fielding offers from Florida and Nebraska before committing to Maryland -- where Locksley is the offensive coordinator -- last summer.
National Signing Day drama to watch
There's remarkably little drama in the Big Ten heading into Signing Day. Most top recruits still uncommitted are deciding between some combination of Ole Miss, Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida, and Ole Miss, leaving Big Ten schools picking through the MAC and other garage sales for bargains. Four-star safety Vonn Bell has made eyes at Ohio State but looks like a Tennessee commitment. MacKensie Alexander has reported interest in approximately 124 collegiate programs, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Rhein Fire of the World League, but is likely to settle somewhere in the South.
No other player in the Rivals Top 100 lists a Big Ten school in his final choices.
Some of the conference's smaller classes -- Iowa, Michigan State, Northwestern, Indiana -- typically use the final few days before Signing Day to offer "tweener" recruits from the MAC and FCS, or promote walk-ons into scholarship spots. Wisconsin provides a different kind of drama, as new head coach Gary Anderson tries to hold together Bret Bielema's final class and fill a handful of open spots.
But there probably will be no surprise televised announcements. No hat ceremonies that were not preordained. No fax machine webcams. No drama, just the way the Big Ten likes it.
Notes from SB Nation blogs
Mike Mitchell has been on the tip of Ohio State recruiting aficionado's tongues since back when he first took Nike's The Opening 2013 by storm. Though he spoke highly of the Buckeyes whenever pressed by recruiting experts and bloggers alike, he kept OSU fans guessing by continuing to procrastinate taking an official visit longer and longer.
The murmurs came to an end when Mitchell finally checked out the Buckeyes' Columbus campus in early December, but there were still those second guessing the significance since his parents didn't even go along (admittedly Mitchell has 8 other brothers and sisters, so getting a long term babysitter under those circumstances might not have been the most reasonable or viable possibility).
There are a couple of reasons that this commitment is huge for the Maize and Blue, the most important being the current RB depth. Currently on the roster, Michigan has an injured tailback who may or may not be ready to go for Spring Ball, a big-back who's shown nothing outside of the Spring Game, a local speedster who chose Michigan over...EMU, a scat-back who's similarly done nothing and may move to slot receiver, and a scat-back return-man who may or may not be a CB.
So super quick, you're going to catch that these last two classes, these two case studies where everyone is like, "OSU AND UM ARE LEAVING THE B1G IN THE DUST" happen to coincide simultaneously with Michigan and Ohio State's largest recruiting classes and the rest of the Big Ten's smallest recruiting classes. I think this is a key find.
Now, maybe Hoke and Meyer have attained such a level of power of the Big Ten's recruiting game that they have literally siphoned recruiting scholarships away from other teams through some sort of insidious life steal mechanic or...
A. Those two wealthy, traditionally successful, schools have each had about 50 scholarship slots open up in the past two years, something that happens, once, maybe twice over a dozen year span to the average Big Ten program and,
B. At the same time, the B1G's other programs have hit the dips of their scholarship numbers, (particularly the other 'contenders', Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska have ALL average under 20 recruits a class the last two seasons), which leads to a situation where...
C. In addition to traditional advantages, for the past two recruiting classes OSU and UM have been able to leverage 'playing time' and 'early opportunity' and actually mean it, while in addition to their traditional disadvantages, the other contenders can't do that as easily, and when...
D. Four and five star players are limited commodities, and when a four or five star signs somewhere he is by definition not signing somewhere else (I see you "Committed, but still taking visits" kid) so when 27 scholarship Michigan takes one, they're out of 18 scholarship Michigan State's pool leading to...
E. Essentially a perfect combination of factors for this sort of recruiting blowout, even when it is super-duper likely we see large reversion to the recruiting mean as the class sizes flip around over the next year or two.
On the big scale, this class isn't much: Northwestern is barely a blip on the radar of most national recruiting experts, and by and large isn't competing with the top of the conference for many players.
But Northwestern won ten games this year on the back of a defense without any elite gets, a three-star QB and a two-star running back. I could tweak that to say that recruiting rankings don't matter. A better statement is that if Northwestern has done well without players judged to be good by recruiting experts - what can they do with higher caliber players? We'll get to find out: Northwestern's classes have been categorically improving in the eyes of recruiting analysts, and I don't think that can be spun into a bad thing.
I have not heard any rumblings about Illinois being interested in Showers or Showers being interested in Illinois. I just think that this is an option that Tim Beckman should consider pursuing. The worst thing that happens is Showers says no and we're all back to hoping Aaron Bailey is the savior again.
And if Showers does say no, he might not be our last option at a transfer quarterback. There are rumblings that Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt may be looking for a new home soon as well. You'd have to think the Rochester, Illinois product would be interested in the Illini as well.
Whatever happens, there are options out there, and the Illini shouldn't ignore any of them.
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