Hickey: The B1G got clobbered on Early Signing Day. Does it matter?
A year after arguably the strongest National Signing Day for the Big Ten in the era where people grade these things, a fall from grace.
Even Ryan Day was left lamenting a rash of decommitments.
On recent decommitments in the program, Day says there was a time when other schools stopped recruiting players after they committed, but that isn't the case anymore. "It's the way things are going … we just have to adapt."
— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) December 21, 2022
Fortunately for Ohio State, late defections hurt LSU and Notre Dame even more. With those programs stumbling, the Buckeyes actually jumped 2 spots to the No. 5 national class by the end of signing day. Ohio State was the long B1G entrant in the Top 10 of the 247 sports composite rankings.
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The Buckeyes are 1 of just 3 Big Ten programs to rank in the top 20 nationally, joined by Penn State (13th) and Michigan (17th). Late pushes from Michigan State (25th) and Nebraska (28th) put 5 Big Ten programs in the top 30.
Last year, 6 B1G teams signed top-30 classes. And even Maryland (31st) and Rutgers (33rd) were knocking on the door, giving the league 8 signing classes in the top 35. Every Big Ten program had a top 50 class.
This year there are just 10 programs with top-50 classes, which is the fewest since 2018.
Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana each signed their lowest-ranked classes in the past 5 years.
Only a pair of 5-star recruits — wide receiver Brandon Inniss (Ohio State) and offensive tackle J’ven Williams (Penn State) signed in the Big Ten. No Power 5 conference signed fewer 5-stars.
In a season where 2 Big Ten teams reached the College Football Playoff for the first time, it’s a bit of a surprise.
But it shouldn’t be. It’s impossible to know the exact role NIL money is playing in recruiting, but it’s naive to think that role isn’t growing in significance.
Until next year, it’s also impossible to know whether this is simply a down recruiting cycle for B1G programs, or a trend to monitor.
Whether it’s a trend or not, there’s also a bigger question in play.
Does any of it actually matter?
In the free-for-all world of the transfer portal, the number of recruits in each class who finish their careers at the programs they signed with seems destined to dip below 50% with regularity.
Winning the transfer portal is becoming as important to college football in the 2020s as winning signing day. Perhaps even more so.
And in that regard, several Big Ten programs have started their offseasons on solid footing.
Will Portal Month trump Signing Day?
Michigan only having the 17th-ranked class in the country is an eye-opener.
The Wolverines just won back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time since 2003-04. Michigan is potentially closing in on its first national championship since 1997.
Yet this is Michigan’s lowest-rated class in 5 years.
It seems possible that Jim Harbaugh is paying a price for his February job interview with the Minnesota Vikings, which absolutely sent the wrong message to potential recruits. But Harbaugh is also pivoting as a recruiter and hitting the transfer portal with maximum ferocity.
The Wolverines hit it out of the park with center Olusegun Oluwatimi, who transferred from Virginia this season and won both the Rimington and Outland Trophies.
Even with Michigan preparing for a Playoff game, Harbaugh is diving even deeper into the portal this cycle.
The Wolverines have already loaded up with 7 transfers for next season, 5 of whom are 4-stars.
They include former Indiana tight end AJ Barner, former Coastal Carolina edge rusher Josaiah Stewart, former Stanford offensive tackle Myles Hinton, former Nebraska linebacker Ernest Hausmann and former Arizona State offensive guard LaDarius Henderson. Former Stanford center Drake Nugent will compete for the starting job and add depth, and former Indiana quarterback Jack Tuttle provides an experienced backup to JJ McCarthy.
Michigan isn’t rebuilding; it’s reloading. And it’s fair to think the Wolverines won’t be done portal shopping until after their Playoff run is complete. Michigan will likely enter next season favored to win a 3rd straight Big Ten title.
This is the power of the portal. And according to 247 Sports, Michigan currently has the top-rated transfer class in the country.
Michigan isn’t the only B1G program doing well in the early stages of portal season. Maryland and Minnesota are rated 10th and 11th, respectively. Iowa is a solid 15th.
The portal was also central to Michigan State’s success in 2021, although the Spartans’ 2022 underlies the importance of maintaining a balance between traditional recruiting and portal hopping.
And then there’s the other side of the equation.
The portal giveth, and the portal taketh
A program can only get better by adding players on signing day. But it can get a lot worse if portal traffic only goes through the out-door.
Indiana is proving to be a disastrous case study in that regard.
There are 13 former Hoosiers who have hit the exits, including 3 of the program’s 4 scholarship quarterbacks. (And the only returning quarterback suffered “significant” knee damage in the season finale, so he seems unlikely to be ready for next year’s opener.)
Indiana also lost its best pass-catcher in Barner, a pair of cornerbacks, and the top-rated recruit in last year’s top-25 signing class in edge rusher Dasan McCullough.
Roster retention is now as much a part of the game as recruitment. And if you don’t win at least 2 of the 3 categories — retention, high school recruitment and transfer recruitment — your program is doomed.
It used to be that winning signing day was the most important offseason battle. Now it’s just a piece of the roster-building puzzle.