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Who has the best football roster in the Big Ten heading into 2014?
Love or hate football recruiting, it matters. Coaching, support staffs, financial situations and even a little bit of luck goes into winning football games, but having great players always helps too.
So recruiting rankings are just one facet of a deliberate and in-depth equation that helps Athlon Sports project the college football season every year.
When the staff sits down to hash out the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 each year, recruiting rankings are as much a part of the discussion as returning starters, scheduling differences, coaching changes and historic trends. It all gets incorporated into what eventually becomes the best-selling college football preview magazine on newsstands.
The Big Ten has seen plenty of movement of late. Not only does the conference welcome the Playoff Era in 2014 but it also welcomes two new teams — two new faces with fertile recruiting bases in the Northeast that should benefit every team in the league to some degree. The coaching ranks have seen plenty of turnover as well with changes taking place at powerhouses Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin over the last two years in addition to Purdue and Illinois.
One guys still stands above the rest when it comes to Big Ten recruiting. However, could there be a new face in the league poised to challenge in the very near future?
Here is how the Big Ten rosters rank entering the 2014 season. Below is each roster in the Big Ten based on average national recruiting ranking over the last five classes (according to 247Sports), each team's win-loss record over the last four seasons and some analysis of what it all means heading into the '14 season.
What did we learn?
Lapping the field
Urban Meyer has had two full recruiting classes in the Big Ten and the level with which he is attracting talent is putting the rest of the conference to shame. Ohio State has posted three consecutive top-five classes nationally under Meyer while only Michigan (6th in 2012 and 4th in 2013) brags even one class inside the top 20 nationally. The Buckeyes have the fifth-best roster in the country and sit well ahead of the rest of the conference. Only Michigan at 12th overall is ranked in the top 20 nationally in terms of talent. In the Big Ten, there is Ohio State and then everybody else when it comes to recruiting.
Who can challenge Urbs?
This one is easy. James Franklin at Penn State is the perfect mix of energy, talent, charisma, success, support and swagger that is needed to attempt to battle Urban Meyer head-to-head on the recruiting trail. This team remarkably posted 10 conference wins in two heavily sanctioned seasons under Bill O’Brien. The Nittany Lions don’t take any steps back with the transition to the new coaching staff and, in fact, Franklin is a better fit considering his background and love of the college game. Penn State enters this fall with the fourth-best roster in the league and 28th-best roster overall. Fans in Happy Valley should fully expect that ranking to improve dramatically over the next few recruiting cycles.
What happened to Michigan?
Losing five of your last six games will have an impact on recruiting, and, while Brady Hoke still landed a top-20 class in 2014, Michigan limped to the finish on National Signing Day. Michigan still brags what is clearly the second-best roster in the Big Ten and now the Wolverines' division has gotten even tougher. This team is dramatically more talented than every other team in the league not named Ohio State and there really is no excuse for the offensive ineptitude the Maize and Blue have experienced over the last 18 months. This, of course, is why Hoke made a change on his offensive staff. New coordinator Doug Nussmeier has obvious talent to work with and a returning quarterback in Devin Gardner. This coaching staff has to show marked improvement in 2014 or Hoke's seat will only continue to heat up in Ann Arbor.
Death, taxes and four losses for Nebraska
Bo Pelini is a fascinating head coach for a variety of reasons. His demeanor and overall prickliness aside, Nebraska is a lock for four losses every year under Pelini as he’s lost exactly four games in each of his six seasons. Nebraska has won either nine or 10 games in each season as well. The Cornhuskers haven’t recruited at an elite level nationally — ranking 23rd in the country in terms of talent over the last five classes. But that is good for third in the Big Ten (or first in the West Division) and it should allow for the Huskers to compete for championships in this league. It means it's time for the Pelini regime to break through and do something other than lose four games.
MadOverachievement in MadTown
The Badgers will enter the 2014 season as one of the championship frontrunners and one of the top contenders in the West Division. But they also will enter ’14 with the ninth-best roster in the league. And that was with a five-year high national ranking of 33rd in the latest cycle. Wisconsin has always been a middling program when it comes to recruiting but both Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema built teams that overachieved. Gary Andersen is a fantastic coach and will undoubtedly continue the profound level of overachievement that has taken place in Madison over the last few seasons.
What about the defending champs?
All of the other major players in the Big Ten seem to steal the headlines from Michigan State both on and off the field. But that is probably how Mark Dantonio wants it. His team quietly goes about its business, seemingly winning 11 games every season with little pomp or circumstance. And that should once again be the case in 2014. Dantonio returns the fifth-best roster in the league despite massive departures on defense, as the Spartans represent the last team among the top talent tier in the league. The drop off from No. 5 Michigan State to No. 6 Rutgers (and the rest of the league) appears to be glaring.
Early success for new faces?
Unlike Colorado and Utah in the Pac-12, Missouri in the SEC or Syracuse in the ACC, the Big Ten’s new editions are already on somewhat of an equal playing field in terms of talent. Missouri ranks 13th in the SEC, Syracuse is 12th in the ACC and Colorado is dead last in the Pac-12 when it comes to recruiting over the last five years. Rutgers and Maryland, however, appear on the surface to be in much better shape as they get ready to enter the Big Ten. The Knights boast the sixth-best roster in the league heading into the summer and the Terps are seventh in terms of talent entering 2014. These two coaching staffs are headed in opposite directions but both rosters look very capable of competing in their new league. To put it another way, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern and Minnesota all have “less” talent than the B1G newcomers, at least on paper.