B1G recruiting is getting better -- and still losing ground to the SEC
The arrow pointed upward for most Big Ten football programs and the conference as a whole on Early Signing Day for the Class of 2022.
Last year, Ohio State was the B1G’s lone signing class to crack the national top 10. That made for the second time in 3 years that a single Big Ten program was represented among the 10 best recruiting classes.
Someone finally undid the kink in the hose.
On Wednesday, 3 Big Ten teams cracked the top 10 — No. 4 Ohio State, No. 6 Penn State and No. 9 Michigan. Quality traveled down the line. There are 8 Big Ten teams with top-30 signing classes.
Indiana signed its best class ever. For Rutgers, it’s the program’s second-best signing class by national ranking. Kirk Ferentz, famed for turning lumps of clay into diamonds, has a pair of top-100 recruits he can mold from diamonds into some synthetic mineral.
Talent is flowing in throughout the Big Ten.
For the first time, 13 of the 14 B1G programs have signed top-50 classes. Illinois, a staggering 88th in 2020 and 73rd last year, shot up to a respectable 45th in Bret Bielema’s inaugural class. Purdue moved up from 76th a year ago to 39th.
All of it is good news as the B1G bridges the gap between itself and the SEC to be the nation’s top football conference.
Except there’s one problem: the gap isn’t bridging. It’s widening.
Somehow, the SEC got even better at recruiting
Where the Big Ten has 3 top-10 recruiting classes, the SEC has 3 top-3 recruiting classes. And while the 2 leagues were fairly close in recruiting depth a year ago — 7 Big Ten schools had top-25 classes compared to 9 in the SEC — this year the SEC’s bottom tier is rising rapidly.
There are a staggering 12 SEC teams with top-25 recruiting classes — all but 2 programs in the conference. And that’s not including future members Texas and Oklahoma, which also have top-25 classes. The Big Ten is down to 5 top-25 signing classes.
That’s still ahead of the ACC and Big 12, which had 3 each. Rather than gaining ground on the SEC, the B1G is merely putting distance between itself and the other 3 Power 5 leagues in the battle to be No. 2.
The divide grows clearer when you count top-200 recruits.
Last year, 36 top-200 players committed to Big Ten programs compared to 73 who signed with SEC schools. That gap grew this year, with 77 SEC signees compared to 34 in the Big Ten. Based on current projections, it will grow even wider in February when the classes are completed.
The Big Ten has a gap of its own
Big Ten vs. SEC isn’t the only significant gap in the recruiting game right now. There’s also a big one within the B1G’s own house.
As most anyone who follows the league closely knows by now, the B1G East champs are now 8-0 against their B1G West counterparts in the Big Ten championship game. Michigan’s 42-3 trouncing of Iowa in this year’s matchup drove home the gap between the divisions with the subtlety of a Sandler movie.
And it’s about to get even worse.
All 7 teams in the Big Ten East signed top-30 classes. Only Iowa, at No. 26 overall, was able to do so in the West.
Wisconsin’s issues had more to do with class size — the Badgers only had 14 signees. Their most recent classes rate 16th (2021), 26th (2020) and 29th (2019). Small class size was also an issue for Nebraska, with dipped down to 58th with 13 signees. The Cornhuskers had top-20 classes in each of the 3 previous years, though Scott Frost has done Jack Squat with said signing classes.
Essentially, Iowa and Wisconsin are the only programs pulling their weight out West.
Pat Fitzgerald will typically be able to do more with less at Northwestern, though the Wildcats ran into a Wrigley Field brick wall this season. PJ Fleck teeters between 35th-40th with his classes when it feels like the ceiling for Minnesota should be somewhere between 25th-30th. But he does coach up the talent he can bring in.
Yet for all the great X’s and O’s out West, the programs can’t make up for the lack of Jimmies and Joes. There is an increasingly humungous talent divide between the divisions.
If the rest of the West doesn’t start catching up, it will ultimately become necessary for the Big Ten to redraw its divisional lines. Being stuck with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan forces also-rans like Indiana and Rutgers to recruit like crazy just to stay in the neighborhood. Nobody’s creating that kind of pressure in the West.
If that doesn’t change, the pressure needs to be injected. Whether it’s through a North-South split or some sort of Leaders and Legends remix, the Big Ten must address its own inequities if the internal talent gap continues to grow.