Recruiting may be the lifeblood of a college football program, but developing the incoming talent and maxing out the potential of a roster is a big reason why some coaches thrive and others will fail. At Ohio State, Urban Meyer and his staff continue to excel in both categories, which is why Ohio State routinely has the most talented roster in the conference. That has shown to pay off in the wins and losses and bowl game destinations at the end of the year.
Ohio State may still be the top program in the Big Ten in terms of overall talent, but Jim Harbaugh is working hard to get the Wolverines into the same category and James Franklin has Penn State trending upward coming off a Big Ten championship and a decent shot to think about a repeat in 2017. Has the gap closed between Ohio State the the rest of the pack in the Big Ten?
As far as the Big Ten is concerned, the other noticeable gap in talent is seen between the East and West divisions, with the East seeming to be a bit top heavy. This has not always been a factor in the division vs. division head-to-head results, although it is worth recognizing that the Big Ten West champion last season (Wisconsin), could not manage to top any of the top three teams in the East (Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State).
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for Big Ten schools over the last five classes according to 247Sports Team Composite rankings and each team's record over the last five seasons. Obviously, this doesn't take into account attrition but, over time, this should be considered relatively even across the conference.
Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Rosters in 2017:
Ohio State Remains on Top
For the sixth straight year, no program will have a more talented roster than Ohio State. Urban Meyer has landed the top overall class in the Big Ten each year he has been in Columbus, which has played a huge role in seeing the Buckeyes go to a BCS/New Year's Six game each season the Buckeyes have been eligible for postseason play (and going 12-0 the one year they were ineligible). Ohio State has secured a top 10 class each year with Meyer and a top-five class in five of the last six seasons. The rest of the Big Ten has four top 10 classes (all owned by Michigan).
A handful of Big Ten programs seem to be trending upward in terms of overall talent over the last three years. Penn State has taken a noticeable upward move coming off a Big Ten championship with James Franklin getting to flex a full set of scholarships. Nebraska has also inched their way up the rankings as Mike Riley gets ready for his third season in Lincoln. Northwestern has also slowly stepped forward, but the program to watch closely may be Maryland. The Terrapins had a strong recruiting haul in coach DJ Durkin's second year, finishing No. 18 in the 247Sports Composite. Prior to the 2017 class, Maryland's highest finish since 2013 was No. 40 nationally.
Indiana has been on a steady decline in talent rankings, having declined each year since 2013 according to these roster rankings. Despite the decline in overall talent, the Hoosiers have had some explosive offensive players during the past few seasons and earned trips to back-to-back bowl games the last two years. However, Kevin Wilson has been fired amid some controversy in Bloomington and that leaves Tom Allen with the chance to leave his stamp on the program to turn things around. No other Big Ten teams has declined in overall talent for as long as Indiana has.
Has door shut on Spartans?
The 2016 season was particularly rough for Michigan State. Coming off a Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff appearance in 2015, the Spartans went just 3-9 in 2016, and the timing of that dropoff could not have come at a worst time. In-state rival Michigan surged to No. 2 in the polls before falling off in November while division foes Ohio State and Penn State either went to the College Football Playoff or won the Big Ten. That leaves the Spartans in need of trying to bounce back at a time the division seems to be improving all around (ie: Maryland). Michigan State wasn't always pulling in top classes but managed to build a winning program under Mark Dantonio. After a talent dropoff for 2017, can the Spartans fight back or has their run of being a perennial Big Ten contender passed them by?
Nowhere To Go But Up For New Coaches
The Big Ten's newest coaches in the conference have almost nowhere to go but up in terms of talent. P.J. Fleck at Minnesota and Jeff Brohm at Purdue should focus on the offensive side of the roster and see some quick results, while Tom Allen at Indiana would benefit from attempting to continue to improve things on the defensive side of the ball.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.