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 the Buckeyes routinely boast 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.
Meyer continues to be the master when it comes to assembling the top talent in the Big Ten, and few teams are proving capable of keeping up the pace on a consistent basis. Michigan looked like it was ready to give the Buckeyes a run a year ago, but another Big Ten East Division program is looking to be the next biggest threat as Penn State continues to improve its depth. Meanwhile, new coaches have already provided some reasons to be optimistic about the direction a handful of teams in the Big Ten West could be heading.
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, Penn State).
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for Big Ten schools over the last five (2104-18) classes according to 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings and each team's record over the last five (2013-17) 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 2018
Ohio State continues to outpace the Big Ten
The Buckeyes have always been one of the stronger recruiting forces in the Big Ten, but Urban Meyer continues to have them battling for the top recruiting classes in the nation while leaving the rest of the Big Ten in the rearview mirror. Ohio State has landed back-to-back top-two recruiting classes and had had no worse than the fourth-best recruiting haul every season since 2013 except for one year (and that Class of 2015 included players like Jerome Baker, Mike Weber, Justin Hilliard and Denzel Ward). Meyer and his top-notch staff continue to have a decisive edge in recruiting to build a national title contender on an annual basis, and that does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
Penn State surges past Michigan (for now)
A year ago when we looked at these rankings, it was Michigan that was surging and looking to close the gap with the Buckeyes, but two solid seasons in Happy Valley with a Big Ten championship and two appearances in a New Year's Six bowl game (losing the Rose Bowl but winning the Fiesta Bowl) have Penn State assembling the second-most talented roster in the Big Ten in 2018. As Penn State was putting together a top-five class this recruiting cycle, Michigan was struggling to land the top recruits the Wolverines sought. James Franklin continues to impress on the recruiting trail, but it may be too early to suggest Jim Harbaugh has lost his edge.
Spartans still a factor
A year ago we wondered if the window of opportunity had shut on the Michigan State football program. That was coming off a rough season on the football field with a 3-9 record and Michigan seemingly trending upward in recruiting and on the football field compared to their in-state rivals. Funny how things change in a year, as we now know the door is still open for the Spartans if a few pieces happen to fall into place. Mark Dantonio may still not have the recruiting class to go toe-to-toe with Ohio State or Penn State, but it is one that can hang with Michigan and the Spartans showed they are still a threat last fall as well with wins against the Nittany Lions and Wolverines. Maryland continues to rank ahead of the Spartans, but Michigan State still holds the upper hand overall in terms of program stability for the time being.
Not surprisingly, two programs that saw some noticeable bumps in recruiting efforts over the past year just so happened to have two of the most exciting coaching hires prior to the 2017 season. P.J. Fleck has Minnesota rowing their way up the recruiting rankings in 2018 with the hope of building a winner in the Big Ten West. Joining Fleck is Jeff Brohm at Purdue, with the Boilermakers jumping up 22 spots in the national recruiting rankings into the top 50 for their best class in years. Time will tell if either coach can keep that momentum moving upward over the next year, but both coaches are off to a great start injecting some new enthusiasm at their respective programs.
Somewhat surprisingly, Wisconsin has taken a very shallow step back in the national recruiting rankings for a second straight season. Fortunately for the Badgers, that may not mean a whole lot as far as the Big Ten West is concerned given how the Badgers seem to always thrive on talent that is either overlooked or disrespected. The trend may be more a reflection on how the Big Ten East has loaded up on talent, but with Minnesota and Purdue trending upward, Iowa slipping ahead of the Badgers in the recruiting rankings for the first time since 2012, and Nebraska hoping to thrive with Scott Frost, the Badgers could be about to lose their stranglehold on the division relatively soon if this pattern continues.
Give Scott Frost a year
It is fair to give new head coaches a full year to work a recruiting cycle. This may be even more important now given the early signing period. While college football introduced an early signing period in December, Frost was busy pulling double duty between recruiting for Nebraska and preparing UCF for the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Frost has breathed new life into the Nebraska program and even managed to get a slightly improved recruiting ranking in a short period of time for his first official class in Lincoln. However, pay close attention to what Frost is able to do with a full recruiting cycle as he works to bring Nebraska back to national relevance.
No love for Lovie?
Lovie Smith is entering his third year at Illinois, and he could really use a few wins to hang his hat on this season. Those wins certainly are not coming through the recruiting process with the Illini signing the third-lowest recruiting class in the Big Ten (ahead of only Northwestern and Rutgers). Smith seemed to generate some new sparks in recruiting in his first recruiting cycle, but that momentum was lost following a 2-10 season.
— 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.