With the announcement of Jim Harbaugh as the new coach at Michigan, the Big Ten East just got a whole lot more difficult, and with the level of recruiting that he is capable of, it very well could become the toughest division in college football.
Snark, smart ass comments, and everything else about recent Big Ten ineptitude aside, the coaches at the four biggest programs in that division--Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State--are in the rarefied air of being a great X and O mind, a good to excellent recruiter, and good to excellent developer of talent. There are a lot of coaches that can do one, maybe two things, but not all of them. For example, former Michigan coach Brady Hoke was an elite recruiter, consistently getting Michigan in the top 10 of recruiting classes while he was there.
But there's a reason he's a former Michigan coach.
His inability to develop the talent he amassed was almost criminal, and other than the quarterback position (seriously, I'm so not sold on Shane Morris), Harbaugh will have a very good foundation of talent, and will win early and often. He's very much behind the eight ball in saving the 2015 recruiting class (currently last in the conference with only six members), but a guy with his cache will salvage something, and at the end of the day it will be a respectable class. And moving forward, he will have Michigan back at, or near, the top. Very soon.
Still, what will Harbaugh have to face in the East division? Let's take a look.
Urban Meyer, OSU: The first regular season conference game Meyer loses at Ohio State will be his first, and is 25-1 in the conference in three years, to include a Big Ten title. He has dominated on the recruiting trail, and has brought SEC-level talent into the Big Ten, at least on the field. His recruiting classes have been ranked (247 composite rankings used) 5th, 2nd, 3rd, and 2015 is on track to finish in the top five again (currently fourth). The level of talent Meyer has amassed is stunning, and the depth? Well, when a guy that started the season as the third string QB can hang 59 on a very good Wisconsin defense in the conference championship game, yeah, they've got depth. When you add in the fact that Ohio State also made the inaugural College Football Playoff, and will be playing for a spot in the championship game on New Year's Day night, OSU is the belle of the ball right now, at least in the Big Ten.
James Franklin, Penn State: Franklin was able to recruit and win at Vanderbilt, of all places. He had the 26th ranked recruiting class in the country his last season with the Commodores, and won nine games in consecutive seasons before moving to Happy Valley. How big is that? Well, until Franklin got there, they had five winning seasons since 1960. Five. He won nine games two years in a row, won two bowl games, and took Vanderbilt to three bowls--doubling the amount of bowl appearances for that program all time in four years. When he got to Penn State, he salvaged PSU's recruiting class and ended up with a 24th ranked class, which was pretty good considering the loss of Bill O'Brien and scholarship reductions due to the Sandusky scandal. He's cleaning up for 2015, heading towards a top 10 class, and has no more scholarship restrictions moving forward. Franklin is re-stocking the barest of cupboards, and although they still need to build some depth, PSU is going to be a tough out in the coming seasons.
Mark Dantonio, MSU: Dantonio's results speak for themselves. Dantonio, who isn't a star chaser when it comes to recruiting, still does his homework, gets guys that fit what he wants to do, and develops them better than anyone else. He's won 10 or more games in four of the last five years, two conference titles, a 6-2 record against Michigan, and three straight bowl wins. One of those Bowl wins was the Rose Bowl, over a favored Stanford team last year, and Rose Bowl wins are few and far between for the Big Ten in recent seasons. More than one person has asked how the loss of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi might hurt MSU, and whether or not Sparty is at the apex of the Dantonio era. Personally, I don't see it. Narduzzi implemented the defense, but Dantonio is still the architect, and they've got a lot of talent coming back next year. He has a decent class for 2015 coming in, and I'm really not expecting the train in East Lansing to slow down.
I guess this is where I'm supposed to say nice things about Indiana, Rutgers, and Maryland. Rutgers won their bowl game convincingly, which is good, but SO GOES AGAINST THE NARRATIVE YOU GUYS. That said, I don't think Rutgers and Maryland can get to an elite level with Kyle Flood and Randy Edsall, nor do I think they'll be anything other than a consistent seven or eight win team in this division, and they'll get some mid level, late December bowl. And Indiana. Oh, Indiana...you were doing some good things, and I had high hopes for you. But sadly, you're Indiana. You're going to be buried, and it's not going to be pretty.
The Big Ten has been down, to that I don't think there's any doubt. But the four best programs in the East division, historically and recently, all have head coaches that are tenacious, driven, and wildly successful. While over in the West, you could make an argument that the two best programs, historically and recently, Nebraska and Wisconsin, downgraded their coaches this past off-season.
There has been a distinct power shift in the conference, and it resides in the East.