While the annual Thanksgiving weekend matchup between Michigan and Ohio State brands itself as one of the nation’s top rivalries, it hasn’t been much of a competition as of late. Though the game itself is battled out on the gridiron, the rivalry is actually won years in advance.
The same sentiment holds for the Buckeyes when compared to any other Big Ten foe, really. According to 247Sports’ College Football Team Talent Composite, which measures the overall talent of each Division I team based on recruiting evaluations, Ohio State has the nation’s third-best 2021 roster.
Of course, some former NFL Draft picks weren’t even identified by major scouting services coming out of high school. Recruiting rankings don’t necessarily dictate a prospect’s college career, but they’re a damn good indicator.
On fall Saturdays, the Buckeyes trot out 16 former five-star prospects, second-most in the nation behind Georgia (19), in addition to 49 four-stars and 20 three-stars. Since Jim Harbaugh took over at Michigan in 2015, the Buckeyes have signed the Big Ten’s top-ranked recruiting class six times in seven years. All six of those conference-best classes ranked inside the top five nationally.
The only exception came in 2019, when the Buckeyes underwent a head-coaching transition from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day. But even in that cycle, one of the Wolverines’ top overall targets — five-star defensive end Zach Harrison — signed with the Buckeyes. When Ohio State visits Ann Arbor this month, Harrison will try to inflict the same pain coming off the edge as former star Buckeye pass-rushers like Chase Young and the Bosa brothers, Nick and Joey.
The Wolverines, on the other hand, have just three former five-star prospects on their 2021 roster. One of them, true freshman J.J. McCarthy, is a second-string quarterback who has yet to throw more than 10 passes in a single game. Another one, junior defensive tackle Chris Hinton, hasn’t yet established himself as a game-breaking NFL talent like most other five-star recruits.
The third, however, has made an impact. That would be junior Daxton Hill, whose name is generating day-one NFL Draft buzz following his successful transition from safety to nickel corner this past offseason.
Beyond the three former five-star prospects, the Wolverines feature 41 four-star recruits and 36 three-stars. The roster has the 15th-most talent in all of college football, according to the Team Talent Composite. That narrowly slots Michigan ahead of Big Ten rivals like No. 16 Penn State and No. 21 Wisconsin, but it’s well behind the Buckeyes. Finding diamonds in the rough is a key aspect of recruiting, but it’s seldom enough to overcome that sort of talent gap.
At least on the recruiting trail, more is always merrier. Success is a positive feedback loop. Recruits’ eyes are drawn to National Signing Day spectacles, dramatic commitments and swaths of top talent heading to certain college towns. Most prospects mention winning in the same breath as proximity while sorting through dozens of scholarship offers. Every team to appear in a national championship game since 2002 has rostered at least one five-star recruit.
Once recruits arrive on campus, much is made of talent development. It’s an area where some coaching staffs excel and others falter. In April 2020, a deep dive by 247Sports measured talent development from 2011 to 2015 by tracking the NFL draft fate of top recruits. The Buckeyes checked in at No. 2 nationally with 64% of their top-247 prospects drafted, while Michigan lagged behind at No. 20 with just 27% of its top-247 recruits drafted.
Under Harbaugh, that figure has increased dramatically. Still, given the positive feedback loop of recruiting, the five-year stretch from 2011 to 2015 caused the gap between the programs to widen even further. The Richard Rodriguez and Brady Hoke eras allowed Ohio State to distance itself from the Wolverines, laying the foundation for severe recruiting disparities reflected in today’s Team Talent Composite.
It’s difficult for even coaching to overcome that, and it’s a root cause of the Buckeyes outscoring Michigan by 95 points over the last five meetings. It also helps explain why the Wolverines, despite remaining alive in the Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff races, are once again set to enter this season’s meeting as a heavy underdog.
Still, if it wants to break the feedback loop of recruiting and compete with the Buckeyes on the trail, Michigan must do one thing:
Beat Ohio State on the field.