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Conference realignment is one reason the Big 12 has fallen behind in recruiting

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Underwhelming football and coaching changes don’t help, either.

Maryland v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The teams of the Big 12 should not struggle to acquire blue chip talent. The conference is based around the state of Texas, which produces more four- and five-star players than any other. Texas by itself ought to be more than sufficient to supply a 10-team league.

And yet, in the aftermath of Signing Day, it’s clear that the conference has a talent acquisition issue. The Big 12 finished a distant fifth among the five power conferences, with the average Big 12 team pulling in 3.2 blue-chip recruits and finishing 43rd in the rankings (according to the 247Sports Composite). Only Oklahoma is in the top 25.

The contrast with the Big Ten is striking. There is roughly as much talent in the traditional Big Ten footprint (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota) as there is in Texas by itself. Those eight states combined to produce 238 blue-chips in the last five recruiting classes. Texas produced 229 by itself.

And yet, Big Ten teams just closed a successful recruiting cycle. The average Big Ten team signed 5.4 blue-chip recruits, second only to the SEC, and ranked 36th. Big Ten teams are collectively surmounting their biggest limitation — lack of access to talent within their footprint — while Big 12 teams are watching Texas’ copious talent leave its borders. The best example of this phenomenon is that Ohio State signed three of the top 10 players in Texas while the entire Big 12 signed only one.

So how did this happen? The simplest answer is that the two marquee programs in the Big Ten (Michigan and Ohio State) have elite coaches who are recruiting at a high level while one of the two brand-name programs in the Big 12 (Texas) has been in the doldrums this decade and is in the middle of a coaching change. Michigan and Ohio State by themselves accounted for 40 of the Big Ten’s 76 blue-chips, while Texas signed only seven. Give the Horns 13 more, and the Big 12’s numbers start looking better immediately.

All that said, the last two rounds of conference expansion, which involved years of Big 12 turmoil, played a role.

1. Nebraska’s departure

While the state of Nebraska has minimal talent, the Huskers’ prestige as a program is such that the right coach can recruit there. Sure enough, the Huskers’ 2017 class ranked 23rd nationally. Based on total points or average recruit ranking, Nebraska’s class would have been second in the Big 12 in 2017.

2. Texas A&M’s departure

While the Aggies’ departure did not help the Big Ten in any way, it did hurt the Big 12. Aside from the fact that one of the most powerful programs was going out the door, A&M’s move opened Texas recruiting to the SEC, specifically teams in the SEC West. Coming off of an uptick in 2016, SEC West teams cleaned up in Texas in 2017, signing five of the top 12 Texans.

3. The Big 12’s additions didn’t mean any recruiting gains

Adding TCU meant another Texas presence, albeit a smaller one than the school that had left. But West Virginia plays in one of the country’s most talent-starved states. Even Big 12 departures Colorado and Missouri have some star recruits within their state borders, but West Virginia has virtually none.

4. The Big Ten’s additions of Maryland and New Jersey

Big Ten fans have been critical of Jim Delany’s decision to add Maryland and Rutgers, but leaving aside the added value to BTN by expanding the footprint with populous states, the decision has had positive effects for Big Ten recruiting. Maryland, D.C., and New Jersey combined for 92 blue-chip recruits in the past five years, so the league’s recruiting base expanded by 39 percent. That has aided the powers. Michigan has developed a base in New Jersey, adding the top player in the state in 2017 to an excellent haul in 2016. Ohio State has developed a niche in Maryland, signing the best player in the state this year after inking the third- and fourth-best in 2016.

And while Rutgers remains in a swamp, Maryland showed signs of growth in 2017. Like Nebraska, Maryland’s class would have ranked second in the Big 12. Adding D.J. Durkin as a coach might turn out to be a strong move for the Terps, as Durkin comes with a strong reputation as a recruiter from his time at Florida and Michigan. He might be the coach to exploit Maryland’s long-dormant potential.

It’s not hard to imagine the Big Ten East becoming a perennially strong division with Michigan and Ohio State at maximum potential, James Franklin returning Penn State to elite status, Michigan State continuing to punch above its recruiting rankings (assuming 2016 was a blip rather than a harbinger), and Maryland becoming a strong program.

It may look something like the Big 12 North when the league first formed or the Big 12 South in the mid-to-late aughts. Those days feel far away as the Big 12 falls behind other conferences. That regression is due in no small part to realignment.