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How the Big Ten is Closing the Gap on the SEC for Conference Supremacy

Trace McSorley, Saquan Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Trace McSorley, Saquan Barkley, Penn State Nittany Lions Football

Ohio State is still Ohio State. Even after a 31-point decimation at the hands of eventual national champion Clemson, the Buckeyes are still the class of the Big Ten. But maybe they’re no longer alone: After all, Penn State beat OSU and captured the conference championship plus a Rose Bowl berth last season. And since the Buckeyes won the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014, archrival Michigan has surged back to national prominence thanks to Jim Harbaugh.

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Following that 2014 Ohio State title, Athlon Sports examined what it would take for the Big Ten to catch or surpass the then-dominant Southeastern Conference. A lot has changed in just a few seasons, and while it’s still very hard to claim B1G superiority in college football, the folks up north are making substantial strides in the right direction.

Bold Hires Helped Re-Establish an Upper Class

After 2014 we said that the league needed “three or four more Ohio States (at least).” Michigan State was peaking with a Cotton Bowl win over Baylor, but no other program looked capable of consistently challenging the Buckeyes.

Entering 2017, the league has arguably two more elites — Michigan with Harbaugh and Penn State with James Franklin. Both historic programs were in disarray for very different reasons, but both schools have exploded: In ’14 Brady Hoke’s Wolverines were 5–7 and 48th in S&P+, compared to 10–3 and third in S&P+ two seasons later. The Nittany Lions took a Cinderella Rose Bowl run with the school’s first B1G-quality depth chart since the Paterno/Sandusky sanctions and jumped from 7–6 and 47th to a conference title at 11–3 and eighth in S&P+.

“I think Ohio State has in a lot of ways directly or indirectly challenged the rest of the conference and made it clear that football is important to the rest of the conference as well as in Columbus,” Big Ten Network analyst and former LSU and Indiana head coach Gerry DiNardo says. “What supports that is the money spent on hiring coaches and facilities. There’s been a drastic investment financially since Urban hired his first Big Ten staff.”

Things at the top look stable, provided Harbaugh can break through and eventually beat the Buckeyes, and that Penn State continues to add not just depth to its roster, but top-15-level recruiting. To compare Franklin to Meyer after one Rose Bowl season might be premature, but as many coaches in the league point out, 2016 was the first season that Penn State was functionally competitive after the Joe Paterno sanctions. 

Related: Big Ten Football Predictions for 2017

Bold Hires Could Help Establish a Middle Class

The 2017 offseason has been huge for Big Ten programs that aren’t national title contenders but that can compete for frequent appearances in the top 25 — and that’s where the conference has lacked in overall depth.

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Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck was at one time a candidate for Oregon. Regardless of what went on behind the scenes, his ending up in Minneapolis is a boon for an athletic department in dire need of good publicity and a fresh start in recruiting. The move wasn’t cheap — Fleck’s contract with the Gophers (five years, $18.5 million) is a huge step up over Tracy Claeys (three years, $4.5 million). That’s a spending philosophy more reminiscent of the SEC.

“Minnesota is a great example of the Big Ten’s issues relative to other conferences like the SEC or Big 12,” a rival Big Ten head coach says. “You can’t just spend on football coaches. You’re expected to be competitive in multiple sports. Wrestling and hockey and basketball. It’s not like some Southern schools that go all-in on one sport.”

Not much changed in the state of Indiana in two seasons, until very recently: Kevin Wilson brought Indiana to .500 and some level of stability, but his rumored clashes with school officials and boosters did him in. The quiet success story — rather, succession story — in Bloomington is Indiana native Tom Allen, whose Hoosier defense could be one of the best in the entire league this season. The Allen era opens in Week 1 with Ohio State.

“Guys ask, ‘Why come here?’ I say, ‘Why not?’ I always thought you could attract the right kind of players to a place like Indiana. If you can stay true to who you are in recruiting, you can win here, finding players who can work to a point where you can have the advantage over a team that might be considered more talented,” Allen says.

Across the state, moribund Purdue finally did two big things right — it ended its Jim Tressel-ball attempt with Darrell Hazell and then made a blockbuster hire in Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm.

“I use Jeff Brohm and P.J. Fleck as the example. Is it the Jimmy’s and Joe’s or the X’s and O’s? Purdue clearly hired an X’s and O’s coach,” DiNardo says. “That doesn’t mean he can’t recruit. Minnesota clearly hired a recruiting coach, and that doesn’t mean he can’t coach. I do think Maryland hired someone who can do both in DJ [Durkin].”

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Just a year ago Durkin was tasked with making newcomer Maryland some version of respectable in the loaded East division. They’ve dropped in S&P+ in three straight seasons (51, 65, 87), but they’ve increased their recruiting payoff (49th, 42nd, 18th nationally per 247Sports) following each season and became bowl eligible in ’16.

The biggest issue facing Maryland is a microcosm of the issues in the Big Ten: woeful imbalance between divisions.

“Switch out Maryland and Iowa, or Maryland and Northwestern [between the West and East Divisions],” a Big Ten assistant coach says. “I think Durkin gets those guys competing for a division title in a season or two, compared to being the outsider in the East. He can do everything right and not break eight, nine wins, ever.”

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2017

Can Someone Consistently Oppose Wisconsin in the West and Help Balance the Divisions?

We know Iowa is a season removed from a Rose Bowl, but we’re looking at you, Nebraska. The whole league is, too.

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“I’ll put it this way: There’s way more attention on the conference taking Rutgers and getting no return than the conference getting a Nebraska program they thought would be another national title contender. Which one is more surprising?” a Big Ten assistant coach asks.

“Mike [Riley] has never had a reputation as a great recruiter, but that’s not fair because he was at Oregon State for so long, so we just don’t know,” DiNardo says.

“It’s not that the West can’t win the Big Ten. In some sense all they have to do is win one game in Indianapolis. The solution I believe now rests in the hands of a dynamic recruiting head coach, an unlimited staff, and Nebraska is not there yet I don’t think. Alabama, Ohio State have the support staff that allow them to recruit the elite.”

Many coaches Athlon spoke to believe that in addition to issues regarding the internal direction of the program in the modern era, Nebraska has suffered in the short term by leaving the Big 12’s fertile recruiting areas in Texas and Oklahoma.

“They’re still hurting from the recruiting rules being structured where a kid is paying out of pocket to take that unofficial,” DiNardo says. “Nebraska used to recruit and beat schools in warm weather areas where a kid can get in a car and go drive for a visit. Lincoln is a plane ticket. … Schools like Nebraska have to get the kids to campus as soon as they can and as often as they can.”

It All Comes Back to Recruiting, and That All Comes Back to Michigan and Ohio State

Per the 247Sports rankings, 76 four- and five-star players signed with the league in 2017. A whopping 40 of them signed with Ohio State and Michigan.

“This does go back to Urban Meyer. I think his arrival helped create hires like James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh. There’s a mentality now that you have to go about things in an SEC manner in landing major talent,” 247Sports analyst Barton Simmons says.

But there’s a growing consensus in the recruiting world that the more national and more dominant the league’s two premier brands become, the better that is for talent development across the B1G. It’s a trickle-down scenario.

“Ohio State and Michigan can take a national approach,” Simmons says. “You’re seeing players on those rosters that represent the entire nation. And with Michigan and Ohio State and to a certain extent Penn State going all over the country, there’s more availability of higher-level Midwest prospects. Maybe a typical Ohio State recruit from years ago now ends up at Michigan State, and the player Michigan State would’ve normally recruited now falls to Purdue.”

Indiana’s Allen says: “We’re trying to make our home state more of an emphasis first and foremost and make sure we don’t lose anyone here, but places like Ohio have always been good to us. We want to expand our range and work those as aggressively as we can. The biggest trick I think is it to be early and be out there in recruiting, just like any other program in the nation.”

“You can’t try to keep up with those two schools,” a Big Ten assistant coach says, “but that’s not the point anymore. You leverage the exposure of those brands and grab the guys in the region that they now can’t. The talent left behind is real. Because they can only take 22 each, right?”

Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) of for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 Big Ten Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.