March 6, 2009

Mailbag: Long distance relationships tough

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Every program covets players ranked among the nation's top 100 prospects.

There are 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, so it doesn't take an MIT grad to figure out some teams will be denied, especially when high-profile programs such as Ohio State, Alabama, Miami, USC, Texas, Oklahoma and Notre Dame annually attract multiple prospects ranked among the top 100.

But that doesn't mean other programs can't assemble talented recruiting classes. The first step in that direction is getting premier in-state players. Some programs are better at that than even their fans might realize, as we'll see in this week's mailbag.

Tough sell

From T.J. in New Berlin, Wis.: Why can't Wisconsin attract some of the blue-chip recruits?

Geography is the culprit.

Most high school football players tend to choose colleges in their home states, in bordering states or in warm climates. Climate obviously isn't an advantage at Wisconsin. Neither is the region in which it's located.

Looking at the past four recruiting classes (2006-09), the state of Wisconsin has produced just nine players who were rated four- or five-star prospects by Rivals.com. The bordering states Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota aren't overflowing with top prospects, either.

In that span, Michigan produced 37 four- or five-star recruits. But getting those prospects means beating Michigan and Michigan State in their home state and "interlopers" such as Ohio State and Notre Dame, whose programs have higher profiles than Wisconsin's. Illinois had 27 top prospects in that span. That means beating Illinois and Notre Dame, among others. Minnesota had eight such prospects, and Iowa just five.

Madison is a beautiful city. Camp Randall is a great stadium. Wisconsin's campus is wonderful. But the geography issue puts Badgers coach Bret Bielema in a tough spot. Indeed, his job might be one of the most difficult in the country. He has to convince players in Florida, Texas and other southern states to give Wisconsin a look.

By the way, many of those same players willing to head north also are being recruited by Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame.

But give credit where credit is due. Bielema has signed one five-star and 14 four-star prospects in his four recruiting classes. And remember those nine blue-chip prospects out of the state of Wisconsin? Bielema has signed all of them.

The Badgers have signed more blue chips than some might have realized.

Winning not enough?

From Mike in Cleveland: As a diehard Buckeyes fan, I can honestly say I'm not one of those fans who think it's time to ditch coach Jim Tressel. Even Woody Hayes didn't win them all. With so many seniors leaving, what are you expectations for the Buckeyes this season? Should there be a big concern at quarterback? There's not much behind Terrelle Pryor.

Tressel already has won or shared five Big Ten championships and is 7-1 against Michigan. Considering those numbers, Hayes probably would view Tressel's detractors the same way he viewed the Wolverines with utter disdain.

That some Ohio State fans have criticized Tressel for being too conservative is ridiculous. His Buckeyes teams have posted at least 10 victories in six of the eight seasons he has been there.

And I wouldn't be surprised if the Buckeyes hit double digits again in '09. Another Big Ten championship is not just a possibility but a probability.

True, Chris Wells, Malcolm Jenkins, James Laurinaitis, Brian Robiskie and Marcus Freeman are gone. Losing that much talent has to hurt, but other Big Ten teams will be hurting just as much, if not more.

Penn State's offensive line and receivers were depleted and the defense lost seven starters. Iowa didn't lose much quantity, but sure lost quality with running back Shonn Greene leaving early for the NFL and defensive tackle Mitch King completing his eligibility. Michigan State loses quarterback Brian Hoyer, star running back Javon Ringer and several defensive starters.

Ohio State typically replenishes its roster faster than its Big Ten brethren. Each of the Buckeyes' past five recruiting classes have ranked among the nation's top 15, and the past two were in the top five.

Pryor proved himself a bona-fide threat as a freshman and figures to be better as a sophomore. Indeed, Pryor likely will emerge as the most exciting player in the Big Ten this season. He's a big reason the main reason I'd pick the Buckeyes to win the Big Ten championship in 2009.

'Eers will be heard

From Alyssa in Little Stoke, England: Please, please, please tell me West Virginia has a hope of a good season this fall. I have to admit I shed a tear at the end of Pat White's final game.

Dry your eyes, Alyssa. Pat is gone, but the Mountaineers' chances of winning a Big East championship are not.

Of course, their odds are greatly enhanced because the Big East has become the most mediocre of the "Big Six" conferences and is weaker than the Mountain West. Only two Big East teams (No. 17 Cincinnati and No. 23 West Virginia) were included in last season's final AP poll, and the 2009 outlook doesn't appear much better.

But that doesn't matter. The first priority always should be winning a conference championship, and the Mountaineers should be in the thick of that race in the Big East.

White will be missed. He was the best player in school history or at least since Sam Huff. The offense won't be as potent with Jarrett Brown at quarterback. Still, breakaway running back Noel Devine makes the Mountaineers dangerous. The offense will get a boost if/when suspended running back Jock Sanders is reinstated.

The defense is a bigger factor. The Mountaineers ranked 11th in the nation in scoring defense last season and seven starters return from that unit. For that reason, the Mountaineers have to be considered championship contenders in the Big East.

Stability problem

From Powell in Las Vegas: Will UCLA get the better of Pete Carroll and USC anytime soon?

That depends on your definition of "soon."

It's unwise to dismiss UCLA's chances against USC, even for the 2009 season. Honestly, who thought the Bruins could upset the Trojans in 2006? That win knocked USC out of the national championship game. But to maintain I expect UCLA to beat USC in 2009 would be a lie. I can't see that happening, especially now that former defensive coordinator Dwayne Walker is the new coach at New Mexico State.

UCLA will emerge as a real threat to USC when its quarterback situation is stabilized. And when that will be is anybody's guess.

A dozen hopes

From A.A. in West Caldwell, N.J.: What am I missing? The Big Ten needs another team to stage a championship game. By Big Ten standards, Rutgers is a decent team and plays in the media capital of the world. That would boost sagging Big Ten Network ratings. Why not extend the invitation to the Scarlet Knights? They are a large, research-based state university.

That's a question for Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, who two years ago said the conference was interested in expansion.

Rutgers would seem a viable choice for the reasons you mentioned. The proximity to New York City is appealing, but I question how big college football is to the populace. Still, it's a city of more than 8 million. If a quarter of those residents are interested, Rutgers would have a lot to offer.

Still, I'm not buying Rutgers as a possibility. The Big Ten wants Notre Dame, but that isn't likely to happen, either.

Missouri could be an interesting choice. It has a solid academic reputation, is the only FBS school in that state and comes with the St. Louis and Kansas City TV markets. Plus, the Tigers already have a rivalry with Illinois.

Of course, this is just speculation. Missouri has a long history with the Big Eight/Big 12, and why leave a successful conference?

But for the sake of conversation, imagine how the dominoes could fall if Missouri left. That could lead to Arkansas leaving the SEC for the more geographically advantageous Big 12. The SEC then could add Clemson or Florida State from the ACC, which could raid the Big East for Louisville or West Virginia.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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