What a difference a year makes, right?
It wasn't that long ago when all of the college football writers, including myself on more than one occasion, were wringing their hands over the state of Big Ten football recruiting. Demographic trends showed more and more families leaving the Midwest for the South or West, and the middle-tier of the conference was struggling to keep up. Poor recruiting typically leads to poor on the field results, leading to the Big Ten's punching bag reputation. It seemed pretty bad.
And then Ohio State wins a national championship, multiple Big Ten teams won high profile bowl games, a few coaching changes happened, and suddenly, things are looking up for the B1G. A look at the 247Sports Composite rankings shows four Big Ten teams in the top 10 recruiting classes nationally (paced by Ohio State in third), with another five in the top 30 overall. Eight different teams have signed at least two blue chip players (four or five-star ratings), including programs like Minnesota, which aren't typically in the business of grabbing big names.
Has the Big Ten turned a corner in recruiting, or is it just too soon to tell? Let's take a closer look at the data.
In 2016 (so far), 44 blue chip athletes have committed to Big Ten schools, with eight different schools signing at least two. In 2015, 50 blue chippers went to the B1G, with 10 schools getting at least one blue chip prospect (eight signed at least two). In 2014, another 50 went to the conference, with 11 schools signing at least one blue chip player, and eight getting at least two. Since we're only in July, barring an ahistoric significant wave of decommitments, the Big Ten is in great shape to top that mark. It isn't impossible that Ohio State alone could get the conference up to 50.
At the top, 2016 is unquestionably projecting to be a better year for the Big Ten. Ohio State only has 16 players in their class right now, but their combined rating of 255.99 is so high that it would rank higher than every single non-Ohio State class in 2015, even Penn State's 2015 class, which had 25 commits, including 13 four-star players. 2016 Penn State, with only 15 players currently committed, would be better than every non Ohio State and Penn State class in 2015. Michigan State and Michigan have already exceeded their scores for last year, and both still have room to take a few more players.
There are positive signs elsewhere in the league too though. Nebraska's top commit, offensive lineman John Raridon, is their highest ranked commitment since 2011, when the Cornhuskers grabbed Aaron Green and Jamal Turner. They already have two prospects who have rankings above .90, and given that they only have 12 commits right now and are targeting a few other highly regarded players, there's a good chance they could come away with their best class (at the top, anyway) in several seasons.
Some teams in the conference can point to doing a better job protecting local talent as a reason for improving recruiting fortunes. Minnesota was able to lock down four-star linebacker Carter Coughlin, the best player in the state (and somebody even Ohio State wanted), as well as the second best player in the state, high three-star DT Jovanny Garcia. Minnesota isn't a state that's deep with excellent football players, but four of the top five highest ranked prospects are committed to the Gophers. That makes things easier moving forward.
That hasn't been the case for everybody. New Jersey had eight blue clip players, and Rutgers isn't likely to get a single one (or even one of the higher ranked three-star kids in the state), even though they heavily recruited several on the list.
Maryland, particularly the area around Washington D.C, is also a very important recruiting ground, but the Terrapins have work to do in securing the neighborhood for themselves. The Terps did secure a highly touted local QB prospect in Dwayne Haskins, who they hoped would help secure some of the other highly touted local players. But the prospects that have committed to College Park since Haskins are more of the two-star variety, and the Terps will be ijn a dogfight with Penn State, Ohio State, and other powers to keep DMV kids from going elsewhere.
Illinois also struggled badly to keep local players. The Illini have secured the commitment from just one top ten player in the state, No. 7 ranked three-star RB Kentrail Moran, as other Big Ten schools have secured the commitments from the other nine. It's a positive for the conference that all of those best players are staying B1G (as opposed to flipping to the SEC or to Notre Dame, which has happened recently), but may not be great for the depth of the league.
What else has changed? Nebraska seems to have changed their approach, being more aggressive and expansive in the offseason. Michigan obviously hired a new popular new coach in Jim Harbaugh, and after a slow start, seems to have picked up some big momentum for Michigan, and have them in solid position to grab a few more blue chip players.
Sustained success at Michigan State may have made them a more established brand and allowed them to get into homes they previously wouldn't have bene able to get to, and coupled with the momentum from Ohio State's title run, sanctions being lifted at Penn State, and a good year for local prospects, and you can see why there's momentum for a solid B1G year.
Has the league definitely turned a corner though? That's awfully hard to say. It's only July after all, so players still have plenty of time to reconsider their commitments or be reevaluated. A few Big Ten schools, like Iowa, have already nearly filled up their classes, and will likely get passed in the rankings as schools with smaller classes start to fill up. There's also an entire season to play, and how teams perform on the field will surely impact the decision making process of many recruits.
There's also coaching stability to consider. Big Ten coaches at league bottom feeders Indiana, Purdue and Illinois may find themselves on the hot seat, and even recently extended coaches at Maryland or Rutgers could be fired thanks to affordable buyouts if their teams struggle significantly, all of which could impact recruiting for this season. Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin also have new coaching staffs, and how they will be able to close a recruiting class, or focus on recruiting during the season, remains to be seen. The Badgers also got off to a bit of a slow start on the recruiting trail, as it were.
It's very early, and many of the structural reasons for concern, like population shifts, assistant coaching salaries, and staff aggressiveness haven't completely gone away, and could become concerns again if the conference struggles on the field. For now though, there are certainly early signs, especially at the top, that recruiting has improved though, and that may be all the B1G needs in order to consistently secure a spot in the college football playoff.