In less than a month’s time, Michigan State became the “it” school in the Big Ten and a player on the national landscape. Wins over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game and Stanford in the Rose Bowl will do that. The Spartans finished 13-1 and ranked No. 3.
But one glance at recruiting rankings reveals a different picture. Not only is Michigan State nowhere near the top of the Big Ten standings, it’s also far down in the national rankings. Then again, if your colors aren’t scarlet and gray and Urban Meyer isn’t your head coach, the Big Ten’s recruiting ground has become a tough neighborhood.
“From a talent standpoint, yes [Ohio State is widening the gap],” J.C. Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports, told Eleven Warriors. “This isn’t just a new thing. Over time, they’ve consistently recruited at a higher level than the rest of the Big Ten.”
Based on the Rivals.com rankings, the Buckeyes have eight of the top 100 recruits and the No. 2 class nationally. Penn State has the second-best class in the conference, but it’s ranked a distant 20th. Nebraska is 25th, followed by Michigan (29), Wisconsin (30) and finally Michigan State (31). Indiana, ranked 39th, is the only other Big Ten foe in the top 40.
The Wolverines’ group of prospects is small but high in quality. Of their 16 commitments, almost half are four or five stars. And the Spartans are still in on several notable players, which could result in a top-15 class.
“Michigan State, quite frankly, has more momentum than any other school in the Big Ten across the board,” Shurburtt said. “They made a smart move hiring Curtis Blackwell as their director of player operations. He’s a guy with deep ties to the state of Michigan. Then when you factor in the season they had and they’re going to put a lot of guys in the NFL, that’s given them a selling point.”
However, Ohio State is still King of the Midwest. While recruiting can be an inexact science, signing as many highly rated players as possible is the surest way to build a winner. Meyer’s track proves that.
At Florida, there was a revolving door of top-five classes. With those came national championships. So far in Columbus, Meyer’s secured the pledge of numerous coveted recruits. There isn’t a new crystal football, but his record of 24-2 proves it’s in the offing.
“What Urban Meyer is doing is not so much signing the No. 2 class two years in a row. It’s signing a top-five class four or five years in a row and stringing it together,” Shurburtt said. “That’s what Alabama’s done. They don’t really rebuild, they reload.”
That’s not to say there isn’t final week intrigue. The decisions of Jamarco Jones and Malik McDowell are shrouded in mystery. The Buckeyes are also anxiously awaiting word on defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi.
Jones, a four-star offensive tackle, has been committed to Ohio State since June. But Mark Dantonio and the Spartans are making a late push. If he stays firm, Jones would be the crown jewel of the Buckeyes’ five-man offensive line class.
The 6-foot-5, 295-pound tackle from Chicago visited East Lansing over the weekend, which usually isn’t a good indicator. Final visits carry significant sway, especially if a kid’s been committed to another school for over six months. Jones’ uneasiness comes from the departure of Mike Vrabel, who was the lead recruiter during the courting process.
“This year we have seen the return of having the advantage for the last official visit,” Shurburtt said. “In previous cycles, most guys have made up their mind. With the dead period extending and only having three official visit weekends, this was bound to happen.”
It’s just the latest recruiting battle between two coaches – Meyer and Dantonio – that certainly don’t exchange Christmas cards.
In the first two months on the job, Meyer was able to pry away Se’von Pittman from Michigan State. That put in motion the Big Ten’s newest rivalry. Tape-gate followed, then the Spartans win in December. Make no mistake, Dantonio would like nothing more than to steal a big-time recruit away from Meyer and Ohio State.
Another head-to-head showdown sure to garner headlines centers on McDowell. The defensive lineman from Detroit, thought to be deciding between Michigan State and Michigan, made his final official visit over the weekend, and it occurred at Ohio State.
At 6-foot-6, 292 pounds, McDowell already has the body of a college defender and is said to be a major fan of new defensive line coach Larry Johnson. The same goes for Nnadi, a Virginia Beach native, which is territory considered to be in Johnson’s wheelhouse.
“[McDowell’s decision] has now become the most unpredictable storyline of a five-star prospect in the entire class.” Shurburtt said. “It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens there.”
A school that’s made recent gains on the recruiting trail is Penn State. Since hiring former Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions have added seven commitments, including five pledges from what was arguably the Commodores’ best class in school history.
Franklin’s staff is filled with assistants who have Keystone State experience, but he lost Penn State’s most valuable assistant – Johnson.
“He’s one of the best recruiters in the country,” Shurburtt said of Johnson. “Now [Ohio State] has a guy who can help solidify the Eastern Seaboard. That’s huge, especially for a program that’s located within a top-five talent-producing state and is always going to get the lion’s share of the top talent in that state.”
The rich get richer, a canyon forms and Ohio State is left alone at the top.