- Jared Shanker, ESPN Staff Writer
It might be time to admit 2012 is not going to be the Big Ten's finest season.
Looking back, maybe it started on signing day. Only two Big Ten teams -- Ohio State and Michigan, but you probably could have guessed that -- finished with a recruiting class grade of a B-minus or higher.
But to find out why 2012 is going to be a down year for the Big Ten, you have to look into the past -- previous years' recruiting struggles for several of the conference's traditionally strong programs.
While significant coaching turnover -- with significant scheme changes -- has not helped the Big Ten, many newer coaches did not exactly walk into ideal situations with a full cupboard.
Beginning with 2010, the recruiting classes at two of the conference's biggest programs, Michigan and Penn State, were rather weak when considering how much is still left of those classes.
At Michigan, the 2010 class was marred by the signing of five-star Demar Dorsey, a troubled prospect who never played a down for the Wolverines. Devin Gardner has not been able to see the field consistency, fighting to find a spot where he can make an impact. Only two players from that class are starters for Michigan when discounting punter Will Hagerup.
Penn State's 2010 class was heralded as one of the best the Nittany Lions had produced in a long time, but that class has been decimated. The top four signees from that class -- Khairi Fortt, Dakota Royer, Evan Hailes and Rob Bolden -- are no longer with the team. Neither is Silas Redd, a dark-horse Heisman candidate at the end of last spring.
The remainder of the Big Ten, aside from those two programs and Ohio State, has not found its way into the top 25 class rankings in a long time.
Iowa has put together several strong seasons, but there have been some lean years during coach Kirk Ferentz's tenure, too, and being unable to put together strong recruiting classes on a yearly basis makes it hard to be a consistent Top 25 team each year.
Ron Zook raised some eyebrows at first with the classes he hauled in at Illinois, but it was clear those recruiting classes were losing luster as losses and the job security questions continued to pile up.
The fact is the Big Ten just has a lot less room for error than some of the other conferences. The Midwest does not produce the same number, or frankly the same quality, of athletes as the talent-rich Southeast or Texas or California. The SEC, which continually has as many as seven or eight teams among the top 25 classes, has a large group of players to choose from within its own backyard.
And for the Midwest's elite players, the draw of playing in the nation's top conference often leads them to eschew the Big Ten for the SEC. If ESPN 150 receiver and Chicago-area prospect Laquon Treadwell ends up outside the Big Ten, four of the Midwest's top eight prospects will have signed outside the Big Ten.
The Big Ten has also been constricted by oversigning rules for much longer than the rest of the country. It is harder to come back from a bad class when the team can sign only so many in the next class and has to explain to the commissioner's office the reason it is oversigning if it does. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier criticized the Big Ten in March 2011 for its oversigning policies, telling the Wall Street Journal it put the conference at a competitive disadvantage.
While the rest of college football has to adhere to a signing limit now, too, it still remains that the Big Ten has an uphill battle each year when it comes to recruiting. Aside from the Big East, no BCS conference has seen as much ridicule as the Big Ten. Recruits take notice.
There is not much mystique to playing in the Big Ten anymore, and the conference has some fundamental issues out of its control that hurt the conference when it comes to recruiting.
As any coach will tell you, winning is the best recruiting tool. For the Big Ten, therein lies its biggest problem.
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney