I don't normally write long posts just to disagree with a column, this article from David Jones at Penn Live stuck with me and I couldn't let it go. Using demographic data and some football recruiting charts from CFBMatrix, Jones argues that skeptics of the Big Ten's addition of Maryland and Rutgers will ultimately be proven wrong, as both programs will eventually blossom into football strongholds. In fact:
This only reinforces my belief that Jim Delany's expansion to RU and UMd, so disparaged and mocked by so many in the Midwest, will be validated sooner or later. It's inevitable. In fact, I'll predict that, within a decade, Rutgers and Maryland will be established as more important to the Big Ten than longtime football powerhouses Nebraska and Wisconsin.
That's a bold statement for two programs that can have little historical claim to ever being very good for long, and just jumped up a significant weight class in football.
Why is it inevitable? Because both programs, unlike many others in the Big Ten, are right next to some prime high school recruiting grounds, Jones argues. That's good for them, good for the entire Big Ten, and will eventually lead them to greatness. I've heard this not just in this article, but from many others, and I couldn't disagree more.
Pointing out this graph from CFBMatrix's Dave Bartoo, Jones writes that "What the heat map shows most stunningly is how fertile for all Big Ten schools, not just the Eastern outposts of Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, are the metro areas along the I-95 corridor."
Well, that's just not true at all.
Minnesota, for example, signed just one player in 2015 from Maryland or New Jersey, and that was low three-star DE Winston DeLattibourdere, a prospect who was 247Sports Crystal Ball projected to go to Idaho, and whose best other offer came from Buffalo. That's hardly a major signing. The Gophers do not have a single commitment from the area in their 2016 class. The Gophers did sign three star WR Melvin Holland Jr. from Ashburn, Virginia back in 2014, and he had offers from Rutgers, Wisconsin, and a few ACC and CUSA schools. So that's two prospects in two and a half cycles.
The same is true at Wisconsin. The Badgers signed a single I-95 kid in 2014 (three-star RB Taiwan Deal from my backyard in Hyattsville, MD), with a second signee, fellow Marylander Chris Jones, failing to academically qualify. The Badgers didn't sign a single kid in 2015, and have just one in 2016 (Patrick Johnson III, a 3-star from Potomac, MD). Useful players? Sure. Players significantly better than the caliber of kids they were getting before? No.
Big Ten West programs might sign a few kids from the area, but it isn't likely to be a major talent draw for most of them. Every program there is already recruiting heavily out of state, from Southern California (Nebraska), to Dallas, to Southern Florida. Getting kids from New Jersey to visit out west for unofficial visits is expensive, and given the costs of travel and with those programs already recruiting behind heavyweights in the I-95 region, it's unlikely that changes in the near future, unless some teams like Illinois hire new coaches with eastern roots.
There are great players in the DMV and in New Jersey, and many of them are going to Big Ten schools, but by and large, the best ones are headed to Big Ten East institutions, particularly those who already traditionally recruited the state, like Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State. Ohio State doesn't need an annual game against Rutgers to get players in New Jersey. Penn State has been heavily recruiting the DMV region for decades, a game against Maryland doesn't change anything. DC-Maryland-Virginia also looks like a bigger deal on the heat map because Maryland and Rutgers are obviously also recruiting those states heavily.
The thinking that population shifts away from industrial midwestern states can hurt Big Ten recruiting isn't a new thought, or an entirely incorrect one. Yes, people moving away from Western PA, Northern Ohio, or Chicago suburbs will probably mean that those areas produce fewer FBS caliber football players, and B1G teams will need to recruit out of state (which they do). But that's also not the full story, as population alone doesn't determine where prospects live. After all, New York City is huge, but produces less D1 talent than the Cincinnati area every season.
Could these current trends continue, sapping talent from the Great Lakes and repopulating it in suburban Maryland and New York? Sure. But over a decade or more, it's also possible that say, outrageous property taxes and high cost of living moves more families away from places like Montgomery and Prince George County in Maryland, or at least prevents families from sending kids to expensive private school football factories. It's possible that state level budget austerity could change the quality of HS football, and thus talent development, nearly anywhere in the country. Population is just one part of the equation, and the devil, as he often is, is in the details. Nothing is certain.
Simple geographical proximity to high school talent is also not the only variable in determining if a program will eventually blossom, and maybe it isn't even the only one. Florida International, for example, sits in the most dense concentration of football talent in the entire country, in Miami-Dade County in Florida. And yet, their stay in FBS has been nearly uniformly terrible, with only two winning seasons, despite recruiting advantages over all of their peers. Florida Atlantic hasn't fared much better. SMU is down the street from the biggest talent center in Texas but has been hot garbage for two decades. Boise State and BYU, on the other hand, have managed to enjoy solid football success despite being in the middle of nowhere. Heck, so has Wisconsin.
Could proximity to recruits lead Maryland and Rutgers to football success? Sure. It's unquestionably the biggest selling point for each program right now. But having recruits in your back yard is no guarantee of success. Maryland has been able to attract blue chip players in fits and starts over their recent history, and landed a major blue-chip local QB to build a class around for 2016, but it is still an uphill climb. The Terps secured just two of the top 15 players in Maryland in the last recruiting class, and while they grabbed the top two in-state prospects in 2014, the next 21 went all over the country.
For Maryland, you can't really sell football tradition. The Terps haven't won double-digit games since 2003, and have only finished in the Top 15 of the AP Poll twice since 1986. You can't sell an amazing gameday environment. You're fighting off not only the best of the Big Ten for local talent, but also Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Notre Dame, and the occasional SEC team, and even if you manage to hang on to a few more of those kids, you're facing Urban Meyer, James Franklin, Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh every season. Maybe Maryland is able to lock down a more dynamic recruiter as a future head coach, but given the disparity in recourses and tradition among their division peers, that's a hard job for anybody.
That's even harder for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights did enjoy a brief period of both recruiting and on-field success under Greg Schiano during the mid 2000s. Like Jones said, Rutgers was a regular 8+ win program, and eventually, was able to parlay that into stronger recruiting showings, even beating Penn State and a few other major programs for a few kids. What wasn't mentioned, however, was that these seasons happened while Rutgers was playing in a dilapidated Big East. Even with all of this historical, financial and administrative handicaps, Rutgers wasn't regularly facing off against programs that were dramatically better off than they were, instead playing teams like Cincinnati, South Florida, Syracuse and Connecticut.
Their degree of difficulty, with again, annual games against Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State and more, has been dramatically jumped up. Rutgers could sign five more blue chip players in every single class and would still be at a talent disadvantage against all of those teams. Could they be doing better than they are now? Sure. A more recruiting focused coach and program could certainly improve the talent level. But somebody needs to lose games in that division, and Indiana can't lose them all.
There are other reasons to be skeptical of program rebirth at either new school, beyond an unforgiving schedule. Both schools will be waiting a while before they get full financial shares from the Big Ten, and neither are in excellent financial situations. Maryland will be improving their lacking football facilities in the near future, but immediate plans for athletics construction at Rutgers, a school with less of a history of political and administrative support, are less clear. When you pontificate that the success of either program is an inevitability, you're not just placing unwavering faith in recruiting tables and demographics, you're also placing it with university administrators and Maryland and New Jersey politicians. I think that's stupid.
Could either of these schools hire a new, engaging head coach, improve their recruiting, and become successful football programs? Anything's possible. They both have exciting things going for it, and once the Big Ten gets a new TV deal, both should have enough money to compete. Is it certain? Absolutely not.
The stubborn truth is, class mobility in college football is awfully difficult, and hard to sustain for a long period of time. One advantage often isn't enough, and for every win you grab, somebody else has to lose. Change is possible, but there are few true inevitabilities in college football. Just ask how inevitable is going for Texas.