Nestled in the witch’s armpit between damn lies and statistics, National Signing Day 2018 also turned up this little nugget on the Wisconsin Badgers front:
For the first time since Maryland and Rutgers joined the party in the autumn of 2014, splitting the Big Ten into geographically sensible — if competitively skewed — divisions, a West program other than Nebraska finished ahead of Wisconsin in the 247Sports national recruiting rankings.
In fact, a pair of rivals managed to pull that trick off this winter — Minnesota and Iowa landed the Nos. 37 and 40 classes, respectively, while the Badgers checked in at No. 44. Fine margins, really, but it does mark the first time in four recruiting cycles that Wisconsin’s spoils didn’t wind up among the top 2 in its own division.
“If Wisconsin can maintain their recruiting mix and still win — they have to keep doing what they’re doing, but they only control the sidelines,” offered Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo, who’s also been crunching the numbers. “But if the other teams build up talent bases that are better than Wisconsin’s, the players are more important than the coaches. So if that trend continues, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to Wisconsin.”
The two primary questions, of course, are how interesting and how soon. The most obvious interloper to a West the Badgers have won three times in its four years of existence is Nebraska, with Scott Frost Mania uniting a fractured state and his staff producing a top-25 recruiting class within its first nine weeks on the job.
“I think Wisconsin has done a really good job of being consistently good,” noted Allen Trieu, Midwest recruiting writer with 247Sports. “And they’ve done that without the help of extremely highly ranked recruiting classes. I don’t think that will change.
“During that time, some other schools, Nebraska included, have brought in some higher-ranked classes. I think you always have to keep one eye on the enemy and I think the Big Ten West is getting better as far as a recruiting, so I think Wisconsin needs to be aware of that. But I don’t see any real need [for the Badgers] to feel threatened by it at this time.”
But the Cornhuskers are also likely at least a year away, given that the evil pixies who put together the league schedules handed the Big Red the masochist’s dream dance card in 2018: visits to Ann Arbor, Madison, Evanston, Columbus, and Iowa City, plus scrappy Michigan State at home.
“I think Wisconsin has done a really good job of being consistently good. And they’ve done that without the help of extremely highly ranked recruiting classes. I don’t think that will change.”
— Allen Trieu, 247Sports.com
Nebraska’s quarterback derby remains a Big Red question mark large enough to be seen from one of Elon Musk’s mystery satellites, although if Frost has taught us anything in six months, it’s that his sides subscribe to the theory that nada es imposible, and that the more stacked the odds — hello, Peach Bowl — the more dangerous his teams look.
“The gaps are going to close between the East [Division] and West,” DiNardo countered. “Because here’s what’s happening in the West: Scott Frost has energized [the Huskers’] recruiting efforts — they’re No. 1 in the West and they’re No. 4 in the conference right now. P.J. [Fleck] has got the best recruiting class Minnesota has had in a long time, and it’s a big class. [Purdue coach] Jeff Brohm, because of their immediate [turnaround] and his reputation as an offensive guy — the one thing about the Purdue-Indiana thing, IU is in the East, so the kids look at that and say, ‘How far can they go?’
“And the fourth piece of the puzzle is that this is the highest-rated class Kirk Ferentz has had [at Iowa] in four years. So we’re seeing the gap being closed in the recruiting between the East and the West.”
Subtle and not-so-subtle staff shifts have closed the Hawkeyes’ enthusiasm gap on the big boys in recent years, helped by a 2016 Rose Bowl berth; a playoff-shaking ambush of Ohio State last fall; and recurring, almost comic, tire-iron jobs on Nebraska. Iowa’s recruiting classes in 2014 and ’15 checked in at Nos. 60 and 59, respectively; the 2017 and ’18 harvests ranked 41st and 40th.
The Hawkeyes swapped out a retiring Greg Davis at offensive coordinator with Ferentz’s son Brian, a 34- year-old who was a firecracker as the leader of Iowa’s offensive line 12-14 years earlier. He’s carried over that aggression — sometimes to a fault — on the coaching side of the fence.
“[Iowa’s helped by] the new facility,” DiNardo said. “[Kirk Ferentz] has had some staff turnover. And there was a reason for some of that staff turnover — and some of that could have been recruiting. I just think Brian’s a pretty aggressive recruiter. I think they’ve made some changes in their staff that have made them a better-recruiting staff. Greg Davis, who I really like, [was] a 65-year-old and beating the pavement [for recruits].”
Of course, we’ve heard these verses before, and the chorus is always the same. In Madison, bottom line isn’t about winning in February so much as it is winning in October and November, although the hunting and gathering phase for 2019, by all accounts, is off to a bitchin’ start.
Since 2014, Wisconsin has a 7-1 record, head-to-head, against Iowa (4-4) and Nebraska (1-7). The Badgers have won five of out of their six meetings with the Hawkeyes this decade and six of seven with the Huskers:
If you want to change the paradigm, a change in talent doesn’t hurt. But until you start changing the scoreboard, the narrative ain’t going anywhere. And neither is Bucky.