The first post in a series looking at how each conference fared with their 2016 (and recent past) recruiting classes - winners, losers, and programs in long-term trouble. All rankings are from the 247Sports composite.
Three clear tiers of talent
Overall the Big Ten had a strong performance recruiting in 2016 - five recruiting classes in the Top 25, including two of the top five with Ohio State and Michigan. James Franklin has now put together consecutive top 20 classes, and Michigan State has been remarkably consistent (which we'll get to, but is both good and bad). Mike Riley also finished his first full Nebraska recruiting class inside the top 25 nationally, something fans in Lincoln hadn't seen since 2013.
But there's a huge divide in talent in the conference, forming three clear tiers. Ohio State and Michigan are in a blue-bloods tier of their own, with a far greater percentage of blue chip signees than even the Nittany Lions, Spartans, Huskers, and Badgers. Those four schools then make up the second tier - they've consistently ranked in the top 20-40 nationally, and have regularly brought in a few four-star guys in each class with the rare 5-star catch. After that? It gets really ugly, very fast.
Here's the average recruiting class over the past four years combining the bottom eight recruiting schools in the conference - Maryland, Northwestern, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue: zero five-star players (just one total in the past four classes for all of those programs combined), one 4-star, and 18 three-star recruits. Over 50% of the Buckeye and Wolverine commits are blue-chip players, and this group is reeling in two in a good year.
The Grand Canyon-like gap between the haves and the have-nots in the Big Ten leads to things like Urban Meyer starting his Ohio State coaching career with a 32-2 record in conference play. Over the last four years the Buckeyes have landed more four and five star recruits than the entire west division combined (in fact more than 10 conference teams combined, because it's still true adding in Indiana and Rutgers from the East). Penn State, Nebraska, and Michigan State have enough talent to play the occasional spoiler, but if Jim Harbaugh's first recruiting class sets the bar for future groups, it's going to be mostly be about Michigan and Ohio State for the foreseeable future.
Below is a 4-year look at the recruiting rankings, with a composite average at the end weighing recent years more heavily to emphasize directionally where things may be headed.
|Program||2016||2015||2014||2013||4 Year National Rank||5*||4*||3*|
Ohio State: The Buckeyes will lose more production to the NFL Draft than any program in the country, but will reload with another top 5 class. And given the talent disparity discussed above, they still might be favorites in every game next season with Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State breaking in new quarterbacks.
Michigan: Jim Harbaugh's methods may have been a mixture of creepy, bizarre, and sketchy, but they were effective. While the Wolverines didn't dominate the local talent, they capitalized on Harbaugh's national reputation, landing three blue-chippers from California and five from New Jersey. Rashan Gary may be the surest defensive star since Jadeveon Clowney, and momentum should continue building with a pretty soft schedule next year that begins with Hawaii, UCF, and Colorado. Year 2/3 have usually been the peak success points of Harbaugh's previous stops - immediate improvement turns into early momentum and continued success before he starts rubbing people the wrong way and he reaches the points of diminishing returns. If he wins big enough at Michigan he may be able to do whatever he wants, but it's something to keep an eye on long term. Beginning to open up a legitimate talent advantage over Sparty and Penn State and keeping pace with Urban Meyer is a great start.
Nebraska: Mike Riley's first class in Lincoln finished 24th in the nation and was the best in the west division. His West Coast ties paid off immediately, as Nebraska landed three blue chip recruits from California including four-star quarterback Patrick O'Brien. The Huskers have now signed the top ranked class in the West division three of the past four years - can they turn that advantage into an edge over Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Northwestern on the field?
Michigan State: Mark Dantonio's classes have been remarkably consistent over the past four years - in order, #35, #25, #22, #22. Michigan State landed four of the top 10 recruits in an increasingly competitive state, and it's hard to complain much about consistent improvement in recruiting, even if slow. On the other hand, the Spartans have the 4th most wins in CFB since 2013 (36-5), with two conference titles and a Rose Bowl win to their credit. Why not better? Shouldn't that translate into a clear talent advantage over a program like Nebraska?
The answer I think lies primarily in unfortunate timing. Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame have each had vulnerable periods over the past decade, but have stabilized with great coaching hires as of 2015. Sparty's success has coincided with one of the best recruiting head coaches in the land arriving at Ohio State, Harbaugh returning from consistent NFL success to his alma mater, and Brian Kelly building a solid talent base in South Bend.
Iowa: I debated whether Iowa should land in "neutral" or a "losers" category, but settled here. The Hawkeyes were somehow a game (and a few plays, really) away from the spot in the College Football Playoff, and had their most successful season in years - their first-ever 12 win season. But winning apparently doesn't solve all recruiting woes - while Iowa jumped from classes averaging around 60th nationally up to #46 this year, they still weren't able to land a single 4* composite recruit and just one of the top 500 players (#494). Maybe it will just take a little time - A.J. Epenesa is a five-star verbal for the 2017 class - but this also could be a sort of sad reminder of the program's recruiting ceiling. Maybe with some consistent winning and Big Ten Championship appearances they could recruit in the top 30-40 like Wisconsin?
Maryland: On its surface, a #42 ranked recruiting class for the Terps is right in line with the last few years and really a solid result after finally getting rid of Randy Edsall this offseason. But the way this recruiting period ended for DJ Durkin and his new staff was like getting broken up with via text a few times in a row. Longtime verbal commit Dwayne Haskins, who was a composite top 100 recruit and at one point Notre Dame's top 2016 target at quarterback, flipped to Ohio State just weeks before signing day. On the same day Maryland's other top commit, OLB Keandre Jones, also tweeted his intent to sign with the Buckeyes. The best catch of the cycle was four-star guard Terrance Davis, but only three of the state's top 15 players stayed home to play in crazy Under Armour uniforms, compared to four for Penn State. Stefon Diggs' younger brother was the #5 player in the state but chose to go play for Alabama instead. We'll wait to see how Durkin's first full recruiting class pans out, but starting the rebuilding process with Haskins would have been an immediate jumpstart for a program that's been destroyed by injuries at QB the last few years.
Purdue / Illinois / Rutgers: Each of these programs finished outside the top 70 classes nationally, and are in desperate need of a turnaround. Maybe Chris Ash can bring some life to the Scarlet Knights, but so far the end result of their move to the Big Ten has been allowing new programs to pillage the best talent in New Jersey. There were eight blue chip recruits in New Jersey in the 2016 class, and seven ended up signing with Big Ten teams (five to Michigan, two to Michigan State, one to Ohio State). The best Rutgers commitment was the 15th best player in the state.
Illinois has had better recruiting luck recently, finishing just inside the top 50 in 2015 and 2013. The Illini then fired Tim Beckman early in the season and made an uninspired hire of Bill Cubit, and well, that's how you end up behind Colorado State and 0-12 UCF in the recruiting rankings.
Purdue hasn't signed a four-star player in three years, and probably delayed any potential improvement in recruiting by hanging on to Darrell Hazell, who returns as a lame duck coach. The Boilers couldn't sign any of the top 16 recruits in Indiana, and their average recruit grade was the worst of any school in the Power 5 (although their overall class did slightly out-rank Kansas, so cheers to not-last place!). Please, melt down the locomotive statues, sell the big drum, and offer whatever you can to PJ Fleck or someone else who can turn this thing around.