The retirement of Urban Meyer was supposed to give the rest of the Big Ten an opportunity to close the gap between them and Ohio State. It was a prime chance for Jim Harbaugh to make up ground at Michigan. It seemed like a moment when Penn State’s James Franklin or Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio could make some moves.
Well, none of those things happened.
Instead, in the 15 months since Gene Smith named Ryan Day the Buckeyes’ next head coach, the gulf between Ohio State and the rest of the conference has only widened. With each passing day, it seems to grow. Rather than comparing the Buckeyes to Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten, it has increasingly felt more apt to view Ohio State in the national lens. How does it stack up to Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma, Georgia or LSU? Those are the teams standing in the way of the ultimate goal.
So, how did we get here? By Ohio State's ethering of the Big Ten year after year both on the field and on the recruiting trail, a trend under Meyer that has continued with Day at the helm.
In the fall, Day’s first full season as head coach, the Buckeyes rolled through the conference.
The Big Ten opener against Indiana? A 51-10 win. A trip to Lincoln to face Nebraska? A 48-7 win. Michigan State coming to town? A 34-10 win. On the road at Northwestern? A 52-3 win. Playing host to Wisconsin, then ranked No. 13 in the country? A 38-7 win. Taking on Maryland? A 73-14 win. Going to Rutgers? A 56-21 win. Welcoming Penn State to Ohio Stadium? A 28-17 win. Going on north to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan? A 56-27 win.
All nine regular season victories came with double-digit margins.
Meyer ran through the Big Ten with few slip-ups, losing only five conference games in his seven years. But even he lost to a Big Ten opponent in each of his final four seasons leading the Buckeyes. Day ran the table in the conference for the first time since 2014.
Not until the Big Ten title game, when the Buckeyes faced the Badgers in a rematch, did it ever seem as though they were in real danger of a potential loss. Yet even after entering halftime trailing 21-7, they responded with 27 unanswered second-half points to secure a 34-21 victory and the conference championship.
To close the clearly apparent, seemingly ever-increasing talent divide with Ohio State that played a primary role in the on-field results of 2019, the rest of the Big Ten needs to figure out how to put together consistently stellar recruiting classes.
Yet nobody has managed to do so. Not Michigan, not Penn State, not Nebraska, not Michigan State, not Maryland. Nobody. And really, no one’s coming close to the Buckeyes, who are pulling away from the pack even moreso than usual in the 2021 cycle.
Here are 10 facts about Ohio State’s 2021 recruiting class to contextualize what’s going on:
- It currently has the nation’s No. 1 class. No Big Ten team has ended a cycle with the nation’s top recruiting class in the modern recruiting era.
- Its average player rating, per the 247Sports composite rankings, is 95.09. No program in the country has ever signed a class with that high of an average player rating in the modern recruiting era.
- It’s the only class in the country that currently has more than one committed five-star prospect – Jack Sawyer and Kyle McCord.
- It includes nine top-100 recruits. No other team in the nation has more than six top-100 players committed.
- It has 12 commitments from four-star and five-star recruits. The entire rest of the Big Ten has 11 combined commitments from four-star and five-star recruits.
- It features three four-star prospects who committed in the past four days. No other team in the Big Ten has more than three four-star prospects committed to their school.
- It includes 14 commitments. Michigan and Penn State, Ohio State’s chief Big Ten rivals on the recruiting trail, each only have two commitments.
- All of the five top-rated Ohioans have already committed to Ohio State. Only one other team – Paul Chryst’s Badgers in Wisconsin – have commitments from the top-five recruits in a given state. Kansas State, who has three commitments from top-five prospects in the state of Kansas, is the only other program with more than two.
- Ohio State is in position to sign all five of the top-five Ohioans in the same class for the first time in the modern recruiting era.
- Day is putting together his second top-five class in a row. No other Big Ten program has secured back-to-back top-five recruiting classes in the modern recruiting era.
A lot can change between now and December's early signing period, and more will happen in the couple months between then and February’s National Signing Day.
But as of now, Day’s decimating the rest of the Big Ten on the recruiting trail the same way Meyer did, and one could argue he has even taken it up a notch. Depending on how the 2021 class wraps up over the next nine months, it could legitimately be more highly rated than any class Meyer put together.
Day's already one-for-one in Big Ten football titles, and he's damn near clinched the Big Ten recruiting crown as well. These days, winning the conference isn't the end goal. But it's essentially a prerequisite to the two largest goals: Beating Michigan and winning the national championship. If the Buckeyes win the Big Ten, they probably beat Michigan and are well-positioned for a playoff bid.
“To win this conference is a huge deal. I know it's been done before, but we don't take any of that stuff for granted for a second,” Day said in December. “The first goal, as we all know, is to win the rivalry game, but this is a huge goal of ours, as well. If we win the Big Ten championship, we know a lot of things have gone well, we've won a lot of big games.”
Only days after he noted the importance of a conference title, Day went out and led the Buckeyes to a 13-point win against Wisconsin, securing a spot in the 2019 playoff and Ohio State's third conference championship in a row, but the first under Day.
What’s happening right now on the recruiting trail should continue to make his team the clear Big Ten favorite for years to come.