Scoggins: The Big Ten's recruiting gap

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 27, 2012 - 10:58 PM

The conference has many attractive amenities, but the best players in the South often want to play near home.

The Ohio State Buckeyes rank dead last in the Big Ten in total defense after one-third of the college football season. That revelation underscores the sad state of affairs for a conference that has become both a national punch line and figurative punching bag.

"That's very alarming," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of his defense. "That's something that has to change real fast."

The same sentiment applies to the Big Ten's steady backslide into mediocrity. This proud, tradition-rich conference has fallen on hard times in football to the point that even its powerful commissioner, Jim Delany, acknowledged in recent interviews that the collective body has "underperformed."

The supposed cupcake portion of the schedule became a weekly grind and made the conference an easy target for critics. The Big Ten posted a 6-6 record in the second week of nonconference games, and the carnage continued last week as Louisiana Tech blasted Illinois by four touchdowns and Iowa lost to Central Michigan at home on a last-second field goal.

The conference is 6-9 against teams from major BCS conferences plus Notre Dame, and only three Big Ten teams are ranked in the Top 25, led by undefeated Ohio State at No. 14.

The Big Ten lacks one truly dominant team and now limps into conference play this weekend with its reputation in serious need of repair.

"When you have big brands, expectations are high," Delany told ESPN.com this week. "I can't discount the facts, and I can't discount the critics."

The league's struggles aren't limited to this season. From 2006 to 2011, the Big Ten posted the fourth-best nonconference winning percentage (69.4) among conferences, trailing the SEC, Big 12 and Big East. The Big Ten also went 16-30 in bowl games in that same span.

The downward trend has spurred a cascade of theories and opinions, including the fact that half of Big Ten head coaches are in their first or second season at their school. That's plausible as a contributing factor, but even more so, it boils down to talent and speed.

The Big Ten simply is not attracting the same caliber of athletes as its southern peers, particularly the SEC. Michigan's lopsided 41-14 loss to Alabama in the season opener provided glaring evidence of that talent gap.

"There are good players in the Midwest, but there's more good players in the Southeast. That's just the facts," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "That will always be the case. Unless you go down there and get some of those guys to come up north on a more consistent basis, you're going to struggle competing with the SEC."

Recruiting rankings remain an imperfect science because of their subjective nature, but they do give some indication of a team and conference's overall talent. The Big Ten is lagging in that area.

Analyzing Rivals.com national recruiting rankings the past five years, the Big Ten's average rank for all its teams was 44th, which was significantly worse than the SEC (23) and even the Big 12 (35). It's no coincidence the SEC has won six consecutive BCS national championships.

Farrell lists the Big Ten at No. 5 among BCS conferences in recruiting. No one denies the conference finds itself at a geographic disadvantage because high school football is superior in warm-weather states. Typically, southern recruits prefer to stay close to home and play for schools that they are familiar with and offer them a better opportunity to compete for championships. That's not an easy problem to solve.

Ohio remains fertile recruiting ground, but a population shift south has hurt Western Pennsylvania, a traditional hotbed for talent, according to Farrell. The Big Ten territory lacks overall depth in talent, which forces coaches to recruit elsewhere for help.

"You're not going to consistently get the best kids out of the southeast to come north," Farrell said.

That's not to say the Big Ten doesn't carry its own inherent advantages. The conference boasts a large footprint with passionate fan support, a lucrative TV network, rich tradition, quality coaches and first-class facilities. The Big Ten has enough resources to be successful on a national scale.

Now it just has to figure out how to improve its product.

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com

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