Ohio State football: The widening the gap

The Ohio State football program continues to be on another level to other programs in the Big Ten Conference.

Last week I wrote an article about how the Buckeyes have fared in the post-spring practice polls released by various websites. To nobody’s surprise, they did quite well. The same can’t be said for the rest of the Big Ten.

The highest ranking for any conference team after Ohio State was eleventh. Indiana was rated that high in exactly one of the three polls I looked at. Without question, there is a gap between Ohio State and the other conference members. It’s large and getting larger.

Before you say it, yes, I know the Big Ten has had multiple teams in the top ten of the final AP rankings in four of the last five years. But, the fact remains the Buckeyes are pulling away. While I enjoy seeing my favorite college football team boot stomp conference rivals time and again, I’m not certain having this big of a disparity in quality is a good thing. The question is, why is there such a gap?

I really think it begins with recruiting. In the last five years, the Ohio State football program has consistently finished in the top five. Michigan finishing fifth and eighth, and Penn State with a sixth are the only other Big Ten teams to finish in the top ten of recruiting rankings. Only three Big Ten teams in the top ten in five years.

Want a comparison? Of the fourteen SEC schools, nine have finished in the top ten at one time or another in those five years. To make matters worse, only three other Big Ten programs have even managed a top twenty finish. Nebraska has done it three times, Maryland a surprising twice, and Wisconsin just once.

It gets even worse. The highest finish by any of those three I just mentioned was a 16th by Wisconsin in this last recruiting cycle. There hasn’t even been a top-fifteen finish by anyone other than Ohio State, Michigan, or Penn State.

After true freshman Chris Olave caught two touchdown passes and blocked a punt that was returned for another score against Michigan in 2018, a member of the media who covers the Wolverines made a telling observation. He said the reason the Buckeyes have pulled away from Michigan is because they have done a much better job of identifying the type of skillsets that best fit what they want to do and developing those skills once they get a player.

That applies to the entire Big Ten, not just the Wolverines. The Ohio State coaching staff has been very good at finding those three-star and lower-rated four-star players and developing them into heavy contributors. Recruiting is part of the equation to the answer as to why the Buckeyes have pulled away from the conference pack, but player development is a large factor as well.

Nebraska is a good example of not developing players. Three times they recruited in the top twenty in the last five years, but they’ve not had a winning season since 2016. The Cornhuskers should be far better than what they are.

The Ohio State football program is far ahead of other teams in the Big Ten East

While Michigan’s drop-off has been more high profile, Penn State’s has been a bit more subtle. In 2017 and 2018 the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions played a couple of one-point classics. The next two seasons are where you can see Ohio State begin to pull away.

The Buckeyes got an eleven-point win two years ago, before a thirteen-point margin last year in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score. Penn State did win the Cotton Bowl and finish ninth in the final polls in 2019, but the gap to the Buckeyes was evident.

Their 2020 season was pretty much a disaster when they lost their first five games and gave up an average of 36 points. They rebounded to win their last four, but those wins came against teams that were not very good. When you look at 2019 and 2020, the majority of Penn State’s wins are over bad to mediocre teams. The Nittany Lions are not the same program they were just a few years ago.

The Big Ten’s record against other Power 5 conferences since 2017 is another telling sign of its decline. It has gone from 14-6 in 2017 to 12-9 in 2018 to 7-10 in 2019. To me, those are eye-popping numbers. That 7-10 in 2019 includes five losses against the Pac-12. Big Ten teams lost to five-win Colorado and four-win Stanford. When you begin losing games to teams near the middle or bottom of weaker conferences, there is a problem.

The Big Ten simply must change what they are doing and get better. The Ohio State football program is on an island unto itself right now. Tough competition will only make the program stronger and better prepare the Buckeyes for the post-season.

The conference’s most recent recruiting year was an improvement with seven teams in the top twenty-five. The challenge for these teams is to recruit well again next year and begin to develop players at a higher level. If that happens, it will only help the Buckeyes.