Many of the best stories involving the Big Ten and recruiting rankings in recent years have centered on how teams or players defied the star system.
There were former walk-ons like Jack Conklin and Carl Nassib who went on to become All-Americans, or lightly recruited guys like J.J. Watt and Darqueze Dennard who blossomed into superstars. Programs like Wisconsin and Iowa earn praise for developing overlooked prospects into all-conference gems while consistently outperforming the recruiting gurus' expectations. Michigan State built a powerhouse by smartly evaluating and then coaching up two- and three-star recruits into studs, though the Spartans have spent more time in the blue-chip waters lately.
These are fun stories of persistence and hard work. Admirable ones, even. They might lead you into wanting to ignore the hype of National Signing Day or pretending the rankings that will be finalized on Wednesday aren’t worth anything.
Unfortunately, that’s not reality. Recruiting rankings do matter, at least if you want your team to compete at the truly elite echelon. So this week is vitally important for the Big Ten. The good news is, there are some encouraging trends developing.
As of Tuesday morning, four Big Ten teams ranked among ESPN's top 20 classes for 2016: No. 2 Ohio State, No. 5 Michigan, No. 13 Penn State and No. 19 Michigan State. If that holds, it would be the first time the league has had four Top 20 classes since ESPN Recruiting has been keeping track.
To understand why that matters, you have to look no farther than this year’s College Football Playoff. The national championship game between Clemson and Alabama was, as much as anything, a validation of recruiting rankings. Both teams have been loading up with star-studded classes among the nation’s very best for the past several years, and the depth and breadth of talent on the field that Monday night in Arizona certainly showed.
Or just go back to last year’s playoff. Ohio State won it all thanks in large part to a core of players from the 2013 recruiting class. ESPN ranked that group third nationally, but a re-ranking would likely put those Buckeyes at No. 1. It included such stars as Joey Bosa, Ezekiel Elliott, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, Jalin Marshall and Darron Lee, all of whom are headed to the NFL draft this spring. (J.T. Barrett and Dontre Wilson are still sticking around in Columbus).
You don’t have to finish first in recruiting to finish No. 1 on the field, but you’d better at least be near the top. As FoxSports.com’s Stewart Mandel writes, the leaders in class rankings have all but mirrored the final rankings. The 2000 Oklahoma team is the only national champion since at least 1993 not to have had at least one top 10 recruiting class in the three seasons before its championship, and many of the title winners were powered by multiple top 5 classes.
That’s why Michigan fans should be (and are) giddy about the recruiting mojo that Jim Harbaugh has brought. Yes, some of his antics are silly, and yes, some of his tactics -- like dropping kids who had long been committed -- are more than a little distasteful. They are also necessary in the cutthroat world of recruiting. The moral high road might bring more honor. But that path does not lead toward victory against Alabama.
Harbaugh still has a chance to land No. 1 overall recruit Rashan Gary. If so, that would give the Wolverines the top recruit in the 2016 class and the No. 2 recruit in 2014 (Jabrill Peppers) on the same roster. That’s not a bad place to start.
Harbaugh, like Urban Meyer and James Franklin before him, added some aggressiveness to the Big Ten recruiting scene. The rest of the league has been forced to catch up, and like it or not, that’s the only way to keep pace with the SEC. Michigan State has been one of the few programs to reach the rarefied air of the sport without dominating the recruiting rankings in recent years, but even the Spartans are moving up in that world. They have gone from having the No. 29 class in both 2014 and 2015 to a Top 20 class right now. The semifinal loss to Alabama was a pretty clear indication that for as much great work as Mark Dantonio has already done, even more top-shelf talent is needed.
The Big Ten is never going to outshine the SEC on the recruiting scorecard -- that’s a function of geography. But it can’t afford to get blown out on signing day and still expect to fare differently on New Year’s Day. Luckily for the league, several of its programs should finish well on Wednesday. That’s the best kind of recruiting story the Big Ten can author.