Preseason prognosticators like Athlon Sports — the most accurate college football preview magazine on newsstands — use many things to predict what the coming football season will look like. Returning starters, scheduling, historic trends, coaching, pending off-the-field issues and, of course, recruiting rankings all help Athlon editors predict the future of college football.
Recruiting rankings have their detractors. Yes, evaluating 16- and 17-year-old kids is an inexact science. No, star rankings aren’t the only thing that matters. Yes, leadership (e.g., Nick Saban) is more important than national recruiting rankings (See Auburn).
But using national team recruiting rankings to attempt to pinpoint how “talented” any given roster is an interesting and illuminating practice.
For the sake of this discussion, the 2013 conference alignment was used to calculate, rank and organize teams and leagues. Rivals.com national team rankings over a five-year span (2008-12) were used for the sake of consistency. And the 72 “BCS” conference teams as well as Notre Dame, Boise State and BYU were used to form the 75-team ranking.
Rutgers and Maryland are not included in the rankings, however, tune in Monday for the national rankings to see how they compare to the Big Ten.
So what do the team recruiting rankings teach us about the Big Ten:
Ohio State is a cut above
This isn’t some newsflash or top secret recruiting bulletin, but the numbers are clear. Ohio State has the best roster in the Big Ten and is five losses better than any other team in the league. The OSU football budget is significantly larger than any other program in the Big Ten, they reinvest in football more than any other school and it shows on the field with at least a share of seven Big Ten championships since 2002. If the unblemished 12-0 mark of 2012 counts, Ohio State has four outright Big Ten titles since 2006. With Urban Meyer instantly returning the Bucknuts to prominence both on the field and on the recruiting trail, fans better get used to hearing Hang On Sloopy.
Big Ten-Year War on the horizon
Ohio State's exploits are well-documented but Michigan is no slouch either. Despite three poor seasons (2008-10), the Maize and Blue still recruited at a near top-ten level nationally and is clearly the second-most talented team in the league. With Brady Hoke at the helm, however, the team has had success on the field as well. Michigan is tied with Nebraska and Penn State for the best conference record in the Big Ten (12-4) over the last two seasons. With OSU coming off of sanctions and the Wolverines returning to national relevance, the second coming of the 10-Year War is upon the Big Ten. And fans in every other city in the league should be concerned.
The curious case of Bo Pelini
If Bo Pelini had left Lincoln for the Tennessee job, let’s just say, would Big Red Nation have been devastated? Pelini has recruited well with the No. 3-rated roster in the Big Ten, the No. 21st-rated roster in the nation and a top 25 average ranking (24.0). He also has led his team to 29 conference wins in his five-year tenure at Nebraska, including three championship game appearances and four division titles. He’s also lost four games in each of the last five seasons. Pelini’s antagonistic demeanor and boiling temper likely give him a short leash with some, but his win-loss record matches his recruiting and the Cornhuskers are competing for league championships nearly every year.
Bill O’Brien was smart to stay
If Coach O’Brien wants to win the Lombardi Trophy, he will have to go to the NFL to do it. If winning the Crystal Ball is what he wants, then Penn State is the place to do it. Not only is he coaching and recruiting extremely well in the face of the worst NCAA scandal in history, but the Penn State brand has tons of upside. Joe Paterno recruited the 4th-best roster in the Big Ten and just the 30th-best roster over the last five seasons. However, the Nittany Lions have the No. 2 Big Ten record (29-11) over that span and is No. 3 overall at 48-20. Coach BoB will have to face tough sanctions including a bowl ban the next three seasons, but if he sticks it out, Penn State could easily be the next national super power. Something Jim Delany is likely rooting for as well.
Northwestern can’t overpay Pat Fitzgerald
According to the recruiting rankings, Northwestern has the least talented roster in the Big Ten and is better than only Syracuse, SMU, Washington State, UConn and Temple among BCS conference teams. Yet, the Wildcats are 40-25 over that span and are sixth in the conference with 21 Big Ten wins. Coach Fitz also has led his alma mater to five straight bowl games at a school with 11 total bowl appearances in program history, not to mention its first postseason win since 1949. All while doing it with the worst roster in the league.
Who gets the credit in Madison?
Many thought Bret Bielema’s move to Fayetteville, Ark., was curious but one look at the recruiting rankings might shed some light on the situation. Wisconsin is a unique job with elite fan support and a powerful athletic department. However, it also is nestled in a terrible recruiting territory and rarely can win battles with the big boys of the Big Ten much less the SEC. This team owns the ninth-most talented roster in the league and the 55th-rated roster in the nation — well behind teams like Minnesota, Kansas, Illinois, Colorado or Boston College. Yet, the Badgers have been to three straight Rose Bowls and are competing for Big Ten titles nearly every season. So why did Bielema leave? Did he feel like he topped out? Or that the Big Red has reached its peak as a program? Does it even matter who coaches as long as Barry Alvarez is still in the building? Many believe Gary Andersen was a great hire, but make no mistake, Wisconsin will always have to overachieve to find success on the field.
In terms of recruiting, it appears that the true pecking order (after Ohio State and Michigan) is more volatile in the Big Ten than any other league. Minnesota has had a class rank of 17th nationally and then 72nd a few years later. Penn State posted the No. 12-rated class in 2010 and then the 51st-rated group two years later. Illinois went from 23rd nationally in 2008 to 70th in 2010. Michigan State was ranked 47th in 2008 and then 17th in 2009. Balance and parity is a good thing for the league as a whole as it indicates potential across the board, but it can’t be good for the individual coach’s indigestion.
Big Ten's National Team Recruiting Rankings Breakdown:
Avg Nat'l Rank