“Stars don’t matter.” This is a common phrase uttered by many around signing day. Guys like JJ Watt and Le’Veon Bell are some of the top examples. I am not one of those people that think this way. While stars aren’t everything, and walk-ons have a long history of making an impact in college football, having more talent on a roster is the quickest way to more wins. To judge talent levels around the Big Ten, I decided to look at the top 85 recruits each program signed in the last four years (only two years for JUCO signees). These are approximate rankings as they do not consider transfers in and out of each program. This also doesn’t consider players who left early for the NFL such as Chase Young. The main idea is to approximate the talent level of each Big Ten program in 2020.
Ohio State has always dominated Big Ten recruiting. However, the extent to which Ohio State dominated still surprised me. Since 2017, Ohio State has signed 13 five-star recruits. The rest of the Big Ten has signed 11 (Michigan: 4, Penn State: 4, Iowa: 1, Maryland: 1, Wisconsin: 1). Ohio State also dominates the rest of the conference in top 100 recruiting. The 100thranked 247 Sports recruit in 2020 had a rating of 0.9543. Ohio State signed 36 players of this caliber since 2017. The rest of the conference has signed only 38 (Penn State and Michigan are responsible for 25 of those).
The talent recruited to the Big Ten falls in four different distinct tiers. Ohio State, as mentioned above, has run away from the rest of the conference in terms of recruiting with its domination in five-star recruiting. Penn State and Michigan form a second tier of recruiting. Both programs have signed over 50 four and five-star recruits.
Nebraska is in a unique position on this chart, having signed 26 four-star recruits since 2017. However, its top five recruits from the 2017 class were all four-star prospects who have left the program already. Nebraska also lost four-star recruits Maurice Washington and Cam’ron Jones from its 2018 class. This puts Nebraska’s actual talent level on the chart closer to that of Maryland who has signed 16 four-star recruits over the last four years. These two schools are on their own tier of programs who have signed 15+ four-star recruits.
The final tier of recruiting is “the rest”. These other nine teams have all signed fewer than 10 four-star recruits since 2017. Despite this some teams, such as Wisconsin and Iowa, had 10+ win seasons in 2019. Rutgers, who has only signed 3 four-star recruits since 2017, was the bottom of the league with only two wins in 2019.
Looking at the complexion of the Big Ten shows that stars aren’t everything when it comes to college football, but they are a big factor. Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan will all go into 2020 as contenders to win the Big Ten out of the East. The West is more complex as the division recruiting leader, Nebraska, will probably be considered a contender for the division despite recent struggles on the field. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa who have also recruited towards the top half of the conference will also contend for the division crown. Stars aren’t everything, but they can sure do matter.