Jim Harbaugh reeled in a top-10 recruiting class to lead the Big Ten as Michigan made up ground on Ohio State and Penn State
Ohio State saw its streak of recruiting dominance come to an end among Big Ten teams this past recruiting cycle, but don't write off the Buckeyes just yet. Although Michigan finally took the Big Ten recruiting crown this past recruiting cycle and Penn State managed to stay ahead of the Buckeyes too, Ohio State still has a loaded roster that makes them the team to beat in the Big Ten. The gap could be closing, however, as Michigan is on the move and new head coach Ryan Day must prove capable of continuing what Urban Meyer started in Columbus.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program and Ohio State has been the best in the Big Ten for a while now. Player development has also been a strong key to Ohio State's success, and Michigan and Penn State have been working to do the same in their respective programs to raise the bar. The last few years show the bar has certainly been raised, and now other programs are attempting to emulate that success.
Below are the national recruiting ranking averages for Big Ten schools over the last five (2105-19) classes according to 247Sports' Composite Team Rankings and each team's record over the last five (2014-18) 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 2019
Ohio State remains the gold standard, but is that about to change?
The Buckeyes had long been one of the top programs in the Big Ten when it came to recruiting and player development, but Urban Meyer took the program to new heights to easily outpace the rest of the conference on a regular basis. Now that Meyer has retired and Ryan Day takes over, Ohio State took a slight step back in terms of the recruiting rankings this past recruiting cycle. However, Ohio State's 2019 class was more about quality over quantity and the program still has the best assortment of talent and depth among its Big Ten peers. Maybe the gap has closed slightly, but for now, everyone is still chasing Ohio State in the talent department.
Michigan about to take a big spike up, but still just behind Penn State
Jim Harbaugh has signed three top-10 classes in the last four years but Michigan's five-year rolling average is being held down by a No. 37 recruiting ranking from the 2015 class. Once that year slides out of the mix, the Wolverines will come much closer to Ohio State and will likely pass past Penn State. While the Nittany Lions have just one top-10 class under James Franklin to Harbaugh's three, the Nittany Lions have been consistent in their recruiting efforts with four of the last five classes ranking no worse than No. 15, and the only outlier coming in at No. 19. Michigan has the more loaded roster at this point in time and just needs to drop that Class of 2015 from its average.
Nebraska continues to improve
For the fourth straight season, Nebraska's recruiting ranking has improved over the previous season. The Huskers are the only team in the Big Ten to see a constant increase in the team rankings over the span of the five years averaged for this year's list (Iowa is the only other team not to take a step back, but the Hawkeyes had the same recruiting ranking two years in a row). While only a part of that is due to the efforts of Scott Frost, it remains a reason to be optimistic about the direction of the program under his leadership. Seeing Nebraska sign a top-10 class may still be a bit of a reach in the near future, but if Frost and his staff continue to sign steady classes like this, we won't have to wait long to see Nebraska playing for another Big Ten championship.
Michigan State is still just sitting there in the shadows
The Big Ten East continues to be headlined by Ohio State and Michigan while Penn State thrusts itself into the conversation here and there. Meanwhile, Michigan State will continue to loom in the shadows of its divisional counterparts with the potential to strike at any given moment. Although last season saw the Spartans banged up a bit and showing signs of a need to improve the depth on the roster in key areas, Michigan State has put together another steady recruiting class to remain in the top five of the conference. The Spartans have slightly improved their recruiting ranking each of the past two seasons, as they check in at No. 30 overall for 2019. Consistency appears to be the key for Mark Dantonio. The overall skill may be lacking compared to other Big Ten East programs, but the Spartans will be steady enough to remain a tough out that is capable of taking advantage of an opportunity should it present itself.
The beard isn't enough at Illinois
Having one of the best beards in the nation isn't doing enough to turn around the recruiting rankings at Illinois for head coach Lovie Smith. Although Illinois has added some good pieces to the program in recent recruiting classes, the overall quality still has some room for improvement. Illinois has dropped about 10 spots in the recruiting rankings each of the past two seasons, falling from No. 43 in 2017 to No. 63 this past recruiting cycle. The Illini signed the lowest-ranked recruiting class in the Big Ten in 2019, coming in two spots behind Rutgers. This is year four for Smith, and it could be a pretty important one.
In addition to Nebraska moving its way up the recruiting rankings, Purdue also is heading in the right direction as Jeff Brohm continues to inject new life into the Boilermakers. After some slight gains in the recruiting rankings in recent years, Purdue broke through with a top-25 recruiting class this past recruiting cycle, which in turn allowed Purdue to draw even with Rutgers at the bottom of the Big Ten recruiting standings. As long as Brohm sticks around and continues to show what he can do with the program, Purdue won't share the cellar much longer. And not to be totally overlooked, Indiana also has moved up the recruiting rankings each of the past two seasons, although the Hoosiers are climbing an uphill battle moving forward compared to the rest of the conference.
With Purdue digging its way out of the last spot in the rankings, Rutgers is now sitting on the bottom of the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights have seen their team recruiting ranking drop each of the past two seasons from No. 42 in 2017 to No. 57 in '18 and No. 61 in this past recruiting cycle. That is not a good trend for head coach Chris Ash, who really needs to start showing some reasons for optimism about the program soon before he potentially has to find a new job. It doesn't help that Rutgers has just seven wins in the Big Ten in the past five years, and a Big Ten-worst 19 wins overall in that same time span.
— 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.