I stayed up to watch the end of the National Championship Game this year. As a college football fan, I couldn't have asked for much more at all. For the second year in a row, I saw a heavyweight title fight between two heavily talented teams going shot for shot for a full 60 minutes.
Like so many other fans tired of Alabama's dominance, I was elated that Clemson had won the way they did, if only to stop the Saban machine for just a single year. Then of course, I woke up the next morning and made the dreaded realization that some people had already come to beforehand: Clemson winning isn't that much better for college football in terms of parity.
The biggest thing that a lot of people took from the title game this year and even last year is that once again, the southern teams in college football reign supreme when it comes to talented athletes. They have the market cornered, they get all of the best players in the country and no one else, especially in the midwestern Big Ten Conference, can ever hope to compete with either of them, with the possible exception of Ohio State who despite being the only bowl team to be shutout this season, did beat Alabama en route to a National Championship two years ago.
Naturally as a Michigan fan, I can't agree with this idea. Paul Finebaum calls that "entitlement." I happen to think entitlement is punching your expensive high definition TV screen after your school fails to win its fifth national title in eight years while the rest of college football settles for second place or worst every season, but I digress...
When looking at what the southern teams have done in the past decade and asking if that level of play can be matched, it goes way beyond the eyeball test which a lot of people use when it comes to this argument. They see Deshaun Watson, Jalen Hurts, Bo Scarborough, Mike Williams, Reuben Foster, OJ Howard, Ben Boulware and the rest of the great talent on those teams and couldn't possibly imagine any players like that coming up north to play in the cold for a school like Michigan. The general perception is that if you have talent and can really play, you go to a southern school, preferably Alabama because they put players in the NFL.
The thing is, not every highly coveted player in the country goes down south. There is this guy, for example:
Rashan Gary, the nation's consensus No. 1 recruit in 2016 went on national television at ESPN and picked Michigan over Clemson. He's been in MIchigan's defensive line rotation since Game 1 of the 2016 season.
Alright, well that's just one five-star talent right? Michigan can't build up their talent level that high with just one five-star recruit every season. Fair enough:
These are Michigan's 2017 five-star commitments, WR Donovan Peoples-Jones and LB Jordan Anthony. As you can see from his helmet table, Peoples-Jones turned down two southern schools and Ohio State to come to Michigan. Anthony plays at IMG Academy in Florida and will be headed north this fall along with four-star OL Cesar Ruiz, regarded as the best high school center in the country.
Ok, now that we've established that five-star athletes DO come to Michigan, let's get down to business. For starters, there is still a major talent disparity between Michigan and the southern schools like Alabama. That can't be denied, but what also can't be denied is that Michigan is on track to close that gap within the next number of years under Jim Harbaugh.
Last year in what was Harbaugh's first full recruiting class at Michigan, he finished with the No. 4 class in the nation behind two southern schools and Ohio State with Gary as the only five-star athlete in the class. Alabama, as to be expected at this point had five in its class.
This year, 2017 doesn't look to be much different:
So that's two Top Five recruiting classes for Harbaugh and his staff at Michigan and he's attracting more attention from five-star recruits. While it can't be understated how important it is for Michigan to keep this pace up, the disparity is clearly indicated here with both Alabama and Ohio State bringing in six five-star recruits apiece. THAT is where Michigan has to catch up in the next few years.
Nick Saban has built a machine in Tuscaloosa and there's not a whole lot he needs to do short of flashing his national championship rings to get top talent to come to Alabama. The same could be said for Urban Meyer at Ohio State who has three rings of his own. Both coaches have been at their schools for at least five years now and have established their programs and cultures. Harbaugh has established his new culture at Michigan, but he needs more than two years to start bringing in more five-star talent to start to match Alabama and Ohio State with their athletes.
The good thing is, he's on pace to bring more five-star athletes in every season. As much as people would like to believe that five-star talent is dominated by the south, the truth is that it's all over the country on the East Coast, West Coast, Midwest and so forth. There is top talent to be had from plenty of high schools across the nation and it's all about building those in-roads to find them and get them to come to Ann Arbor instead of elsewhere.
Now, Michigan fans will tell you that they've heard this song and dance about five-star recruits before. After all, Derrick Green was a recent five-star athlete that didn't pan out well for Michigan at all. There's no guarantee that the five-star athletes that any school gets won't be a complete bust when they get there.
While that's true, it doesn't seem to be a huge problem for Alabama or Ohio State who seem to have more success with five-stars than failure. That is where elite coaching comes into play, which allows these five-star players to be developed and molded into All-American players by a superior staff, one that Michigan did not have when Derrick Green was recruited. They certainly have it now with Harbaugh and his assistants, just as Ohio State has with Meyer or Alabama has with Saban.
So a five-star athlete is going to get top level development at Michigan. It's reasonable to believe they will be successful there, so what about getting to the NFL? Well, that's where Harbaugh's 44-19-1 record in the NFL with three NFC title game appearances and a Super Bowl appearance come into play. He has an extensive NFL pedigree as a successful coach and longtime player in the league and he has filled his staff with assistants that also have NFL experience including Greg Mattison who was retained from the previous staff, Tyrone Wheatley a Michigan legend that went pro, Mike Zordich a former NFL safety, Tim Drevno who coached offensive line for the 49ers and Jay Harbaugh who worked quality control for the Ravens for two years.
Oh, and there was Jedd Fisch who coached on six different NFL staffs before coming to Michigan and then recently being hired as UCLA's offensive coordinator, but Harbaugh replaced him with Pep Hamilton, a coach in the NFL for more than a decade that included his most recent position of offensive coordinator for the Browns. That's right, Harbaugh replaced one of his NFL caliber assistants with a current NFL offensive coordinator. If a five-star talent wants all the tutelage he can get to go pro, Michigan's staff is loaded with more than enough experience to show them EXACTLY how.
Education doesn't even need to be mentioned. Michigan is one of the top learning institutions in the country. They have the facilities and money to make things work as well.
So barring any individual and personal reasons for a five-star recruit that they wouldn't want to come to Michigan, such as proximity from home, level of comfort with the team and the campus among other things, there's more than enough reasons for top talent to come to Michigan......which means that it's ultimately going to take time for them all to make the exodus north on a regular basis. Harbaugh is going to keep recruiting the top talent from all over the country and as his program and culture continues to win and grow, it will build into the machine that many are seeing the foundation for now and it will get to the point where a Michigan recruiting class has multiple five-star athletes in it, ready to succeed.
When that happens, Michigan will be every bit on Alabama and Clemson's level as far as talent goes and the Wolverines will seriously contend for a national title or two. It's not instant and there's obviously a lot more work to be done, but the seeds are there for Michigan to be every bit the powerhouse of those southern schools in time, even in the Big Ten. All it takes right now is a little patience.