Ohio State, Michigan flex recruiting muscle against “The Little 10”

Rivals Ohio State and Michigan continue to pick the cream of the crop in Big Ten recruiting. Photo: USA Today Sports

When Penn State abandoned football independence and joined the Big Ten in 1993 there were thoughts that the Nittany Lions would soon become a dominant force in the Big Ten. With a strong grasp for east coast talent and a solid program, Penn State was thought to be on track to handle the Big Ten with ease more often than not and count on regular trips to Pasadena, California. But in 1993 Penn State quickly realized what everyone else in the Big Ten had known for years.

Ohio State and Michigan were the teams to beat.

As it stands today, Ohio State and Michigan continue to be the leaders and the legends of the Big Ten and there is little to stop that momentum. It all starts with recruiting.

The Wolverines handed Penn State their first Big Ten loss in 1993 at Beaver Stadium in the first meeting between the two historic football powers. Later in the season Penn State would leave Columbus, Ohio with a second loss in Big Ten play. Penn State was 10-2 that season. While the Nittany Lions blitzed through the conference a year later, it would soon once again be realized that Ohio State and Michigan were the top forces in the conference.

Since Penn State joined the Big Ten the recruiting battles in and around Pennsylvania started to stiffen. Ohio State and Michigan were traveling deeper in to Penn State's once largely uncontested recruiting grounds and there was nothing they could do to slow it down. Joe Paterno was getting older and making fewer recruiting trips to top recruits. Penn State started losing to Michigan on an annual basis. The Buckeyes were making runs at BCS titles. Penn State could have a solid season here and there but to date the Nittany Lions have won just three Big Ten titles since joining the conference. Michigan and Ohio State have combined for at least a share of 15 Big Ten titles, and they have also each won a national championship, something an undefeated Penn State team failed to capture.

Decades later and Penn State continues to see Michigan and Ohio State creep in to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and more. Wisconsin and Michigan State have ventured to the east coast more frequently as well as others in the Big Ten. That edge has been dulled. But the Buckeyes and Wolverines have not just expanded their efforts to Pennsylvania. They are thinking bigger and as a result getting better.

Recruiting dominance in 2013

Just how dominant were the Buckeyes and Wolverines this year in recruiting? Using the composite rankings from 247 Sports as our barometer, Ohio State landed the fifth best class in the country. Michigan was three spots behind with a top ten recruiting class. This year marked the second straight season the two rivals were the only Big Ten teams ranked in the top ten and third consecutive year the Buckeyes landed in the top ten.

Just one other team in the Big Ten managed to pull a top 25 class according to these rankings, with Nebraska coming in 21st overall and Penn State the first team out at 26th overall. A casual look at the rankings shows that the Buckeyes and Wolverines are playing on a different playing field right now when it comes to recruiting. But Ohio State and Michigan are far from hoarding the five-star players. Each added just one five-star player in their respective Class of 2013 hauls. Instead the Buckeyes and Wolverines are loading up on four-star talent far more successfully than the rest of the Big Ten.

Between the two schools, Ohio State and Michigan are bringing in a combined 36 four-star recruits. The Buckeyes are adding 19, the Wolverines 17. How does the rest of the Big Ten compare in this category? Not so well, as demonstrated by two tweets I shared with my followers:

Meyer looks around the Big Ten and sees the same numbers you do. He may not admit to looking at star rankings, and perhaps he does not. But he sees the results and what the experts say. SEC this. SEC that. He knows it all too well, of course, and he knows for the Big Ten as a whole to start picking up ground that recruiting around the conference needs to find a way to get back in the game. Of course, he is one of the men who changed the game.

Ohio State, Meyer changing the recruiting game in the Big Ten

Urban Meyer is pointing Ohio State in a new recruiting direction.
Photo: USA Today Sports

When Urban Meyer was introduced as the new head coach of Ohio State we all knew it was a great pairing. Combined with the financial means the Buckeyes have to work with and Meyer's experience recruiting in territory formally unknown by Ohio State, the future was bright and the game was about to change. Ohio State had always recruited very well under former head coach Jim Tressel, bringing in the top recruiting class in the Big Ten from 2008 through 2010, but Meyer brought a wider vision to the program.

"Meyer is willing to go any and everywhere for talent whereas Tressel relied more on targeted areas when getting outside of Ohio," Marcus Hartman of Scout.com's Ohio State affiliate Buckeye Sports Bulletin told Crystal Ball Run in an email. "Tressel and his staff had good connections in Florida, Pennsylvania and Georgia, so those tended to be the places they concentrated their out-of-state efforts. Otherwise it often took some kind of random connection to get a relationship started. Meyer does not limit his approach. He will inquire about kids anywhere and seems to require less reciprocation of initial interest to feel comfortable making a commitment to hitting a recruit hard and maintaining pursuit for the long haul."

Meyer's recruiting strategies have already been questioned, criticized and debated around the Big Ten, but has he done anything wrong? Whether you support or detest the idea of Ohio State pursuing a player already committed to Wisconsin or Michigan State is your own decision, but Meyer is playing by the rules. The faster other coaches realize that, the sooner other coaches will try the same.

Recruiting is a filthy game to begin with. The entire premise of it is a bit slimy. Big Ten coaches better be prepared to get a little dirty if they are going to compete in the future. 

What is it Ohio State and Michigan have that the rest of the Big Ten lacks?

Any comparisons to be made between Ohio State and Michigan and the rest of the conference ultimately comes back to money. Simply put, Ohio State and Michigan have money that nobody else in the conference, except for Penn State, can match. Ohio State is the second biggest money-maker behind Texas, and Michigan is not that far behind. It should be no surprise that these schools also spend the most to support athletics, with football being the leading source of revenue and expenditures.

They also have tradition that is almost unrivaled in the conference. Between them are 1,740 wins, 76 Big Ten titles, 10 Heisman Trophy winners and 18 national championships. Nebraska and Penn State can be thrown in to the conversation but it will continue to be Ohio State and Michigan carrying the Big Ten banner when it comes to the prestige debate.

"No schools in the Midwest or East can match the combination of prestige and proximity to recruits that Ohio State and Michigan offer," Hartman explains. "Nebraska and Penn State both have passionate fans and big, impressive stadiums but are more isolated by comparison. Ohio State is right in the middle of what is by far the best talent base in the north, and Michigan has traditionally recruited Ohio well. That waned in the later years under Lloyd Carr and during the Rich Rodriguez era, but Brady Hoke has restored it with connections from his growing up in Ohio and recruiting the state heavily as a Michigan assistant and head coach at Ball State."

Michigan's Brady Hoke has had an instant impact on rcruiting in Ann Arbor as well, and is targetting Ohio with more emphasis.
Photo: USA Today Sports

Michigan's hiring of Hoke was a bold move. It instantly provided Michigan with new life. His familiarity with the recruiting battle grounds allowed Michigan to get a jump start on recruiting. The Wolverines used a strategy that involved getting early connections and making noise in recruiting before anyone else could. It appears to have worked as recruits have once again realized the value of playing for Michigan and visions of winning are once again not so far-fetched in Ann Arbor.

"Ohio State and Michigan have stable coaching staffs, aren't being obliterated by the NCAA, and are geographically proximate to most of the talent in the Big Ten footprint," says Brian Cook of MGoBlog. "Wisconsin doesn't have the first, Penn State doesn't have the second, and Nebraska doesn't have the third. Add in the history and fanbases of those two schools and everyone else is playing catchup."

Take a look around the rest of the Big Ten and you see that nobody else can realistically offer recruits what Ohio State and Michigan can.

Wisconsin has won three straight Big Ten titles but have yet to win a Rose Bowl and are undergoing a coaching change that brings uncertainty to many. Why hasn't Wisconsin been able to capitalize on three straight conference championships? Michigan State has seen a recent surge but remains a program that can choose from the leftovers from Michigan and Ohio State.

Northwestern may have one of the top coaches in the conference in Pat Fitzgerald, but academic standards limit the kind of talent the Wildcats can bring on board. If we are talking about isolation, Iowa speaks for itself. Minnesota has a new stadium but it has not done anything to attract players to come play there. Purdue and Indiana are your typical "basketball schools" playing in front of partially vacant home stadiums.

Who can break "The Little 10" mold?

The best choices to look for hope to break up the dominance of the Wolverines and Buckeyes come from the polar opposites of the conference, Nebraska and Penn State.

Nebraska has always been a program that has recruited well, whether in the Big 12 or the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers have always gone up against bigger names, be it Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio State or Michigan. This is nothing new for the program, but as conference alignment leads to evolving recruiting philosophies from coast to coast, Nebraska struggles to stay ahead of the curve.

"Yes, it’s difficult to go up against Michigan and Ohio State," Brandon Cavanaugh of Corn Nation told Crystal Ball Run, "but it’s far from impossible."

Cavanaugh suggests Nebraska needs to step up their recruiting efforts during the season if Nebraska is to remain a recruiting power in the Big Ten as Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke go on the attack year-round.

Can Nebraska and/or Penn State dethrone Ohio State and Michigan? Photo: USA Today Sports

"Nebraska’s still going to recruit nationwide, but what I’ve been seeing over the years since Bo Pelini’s tenure began is a lackadaisical attitude towards recruiting during the season," Cavanaugh says. "Before the first kickoff and after the bowl, the Huskers are on fire. They’re actually one of the best schools at locking down commitments after January official visits, statistically.

"Nebraska did a much better job last cycle and while there was still a lull, they managed to bring in arguably the best class in Pelini’s tenure. If you eliminate that lull, the Huskers can sit very close to Ohio State and Michigan in the rankings every year."

Penn State is entering the second year of NCAA sanctions, which will hold the Nittany Lions back for a while. Penn State is reduced to just 15 scholarships to offer through the Class of 2016 and there are three seasons left on a  postseason ban. Bill O'Brien has his work cut out for him but given how well it appears he was able to do with his Class of 2013 – Penn State added one of the top tight ends (Adam Breneman) and one of the top quarterbacks (Christian Hackenberg) in the country – it remains optimistic for what kind of impact O'Brien may have in the future. If he stays put in State College.

And that continues to be big "if." Before accepting the job at Penn State O'Brien had been a strong candidate for a head coaching gig with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. This off-season he was linked to openings in Philadelphia and Cleveland. His NFL-mindset will continue to catch the eye of NFL franchises in need of a new coach, but if he remains at Penn State and manages to put together respectable seasons throughout the remainder of the NCAA sanctions, what he might be able to do with a full allotment of scholarships could be impressive.

This week O'Brien noted Penn State has to do better in the state of Ohio and in the New England region. This follows up his previous remarks that Penn State needs to win back the state of Pennsylvania's top talent and start to branch south. O'Brien has already started to move south.

If Meyer wants tougher recruiting in the Big Ten, he may be getting it.

What about Maryland and Rutgers?

In 2014 the Big Ten will expand to 14 members by adding the ACC's Maryland Terrapins and the Big East's Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The addition of these two programs should open up recruiting paths a little bit more for Big Ten programs in some fertile recruiting grounds. Rutgers and Maryland are already able to sell the Big Ten future to their recruits. So how did they do with the Class of 2013 compared to the rest of the Big Ten?

Once these schools are added to the mix it will be interesting to see how these numbers change. But for the time being it appears as though Maryland and Rutgers will join the rest of the conference in the rear view mirrors of Ohio State and Michigan.


Kevin McGuire is the national college football writer for Examiner.com and host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast.

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About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to NBCSports.com's College Football Talk, Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Host of the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and iHeart Radio. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.