Can Notre Dame, Big Ten Catch the SEC?

Can Notre Dame, Big Ten close the talent gap with the SEC?
Despite a 12-0 regular season in 2012, the talent gap between Notre Dame and the SEC powers was on display during the BCS National Championship last January. (Photo: Matthew Emmons / USA TODAY Sports)

There’s an elephant in the room within the college football landscape, and it extends far beyond the one residing in Tuscaloosa. The Southeastern Conference is the best conference in the nation, and it’s not even close. Seven consecutive national championships and four Heisman Trophy winners in six years – that’s a lot of hardware. The question isn’t whether the SEC is truly the best – though some conferences prefer denial by continually arguing the point – but what can be done about it?

How the SEC dominance began

Before the SEC’s dominance can be addressed, what has led to the conference’s success has to be understood. While enough variables exist to extend far beyond the reaches of this article, one factor is easily observable: America’s top high school talent has shifted to the South. Within the Rivals 250 for the Class of 2014, 152 of the top 250 high school athletes in America hails from the South, a total of 61%. In its simplified form, why is the SEC the best conference in America? Because the best talent is in the South.

If the best talent is in the South, the next logical move would be to fight for a foothold in growing hotspots such as Georgia and Virginia. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has done an excellent job aligning the Fighting Irish with the Atlantic Coast Conference, which will give ND a stronger Southern presence, with matches against the likes of Florida State, Miami, Clemson and Virginia Tech. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has also done his part, making Southern recruiting a high priority since taking control in South Bend. To better gauge the effectiveness of Notre Dame’s Southern strategy, it helps to make comparisons to other programs similarly situated.

What strategy has the Big Ten implemented to account for the SEC’s dominance? Have Big Ten schools made it a priority to heavily recruit SEC territory? The most reasonable way to answer this question is to examine Big Ten programs with national prestige, ones with a rich enough history and tradition to offer Southern recruits a reason to move far away from home: Michigan and Ohio State. Ohio State will be particularly interesting to watch moving forward given Ohio State head coach, Urban Meyer, has deep ties to the South after his championship runs at the University of Florida. However, considering Meyer has only been in Columbus for one season, he hasn’t accumulated enough recruiting classes to get an accurate indication of his recruiting priorities.

Where is Notre Dame and Big Ten Talent coming from?

Michigan head coach Brady Hoke has recruited extremely well since arriving in Ann Arbor, hauling in top ten classes. But where are the recruits coming from? Do any hail below the Mason-Dixon line?

Michigan (2012-2014) Notre Dame (2011-2013)
State Number of Recruits State Number of Recruits
Virginia 2 Florida 7
Florida 1 Texas 6
Kentucky 1 North Carolina 3
North Carolina 1 Georgia 2
Tennessee 1 South Carolina 2
Total 6 Virginia 2
    Kentucky 1
    Total 23

The table above contains recruiting information from Brady Hoke’s first three recruiting classes at Michigan (2012, 2013, 2014) and Brian Kelly’s first three recruiting classes at Notre Dame (2011, 2012, 2013). Brian Kelly’s fourth recruiting class was excluded to keep within the three year timeframe. In addition, information was gathered by signing date, meaning transfers are still included. Defections were left in to show recruiting intent. For example, though former Notre Dame star and Florida native Aaron Lynch is no longer on the team, his transfer in no way lessens the fact Brian Kelly has put an extreme emphasis on recruiting talent from Florida, as indicated by the table.

The results clearly indicate Notre Dame has placed a premium on bringing in talent from SEC territory while Michigan and the Big Ten have not, with the Fighting Irish signing nearly four times as many Southern recruits as the Wolverines. The criticism from Big Ten country can already be heard loud and clear: “So what? What difference does it make if Notre Dame has more Southern talent?”

The Big Ten is more than capable of winning large quantities of games with the talent they do recruit. While not hailing from the South, Michigan landed the #2 recruit in the country in Jabrill Peppers (New Jersey), and the Wolverines are in the mix for the #1 overall recruit, Da’Shawn Hand (Maryland). And Michigan and Notre Dame have fought over recruits from the Midwest, such as tight end Nic Weishar (Notre Dame) and Michael Ferns (Michigan). So does it matter if the Big Ten refreshes its roster with talent from the Midwest rather than the South? Not for now, at least.

Ohio State illustrated last season a Big Ten team can compete at the highest levels of college football. However, it cannot be ignored that the Southern swing in college football is more than a fad – it’s the future. Recruiting from the Midwest only is not a viable long-term strategy – it’s a hand with diminishing returns by the year. Notre Dame defeated Michigan on its way to an unblemished regular season largely due to outstanding defensive line play courtesy of Kapron Lewis-Moore (Texas), Louis Nix (Florida) and Stephon Tuitt (Georgia).

The 21st Century of college football belongs to the South, and based on recruiting evidence, Notre Dame is light years ahead of its Northern brethren in stemming the SEC tide.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at



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  1. Another huge factor is the weather. Say what you want but when an 18 yr old gets off the plane in Dec-Jan. in South Bend, Ann Arbor or Columbus and freezes his A– off, he’s staying put. Yea, I know he may have to play in Buffalo in the NFL, but hes getting paid there and really doesn’t have a choice where he’s drafted.

  2. Interestingly enough,

    The Mayor of Gary Indiana announced this week: “we will let certain area’s of the city go back to the wilderness.” Chicago over the prior weekend, 7 shot dead 30 wounded. People who I grew up with in the South Bend area are not happy with how South Bend is being adversely affected. Unfortunately, South Bend is definately fertile ground for gangs only 90 miles away, and many Chicago gang influences are indeed affecting both Gary and South Bend. Not good news for the South Bend or Gary being closer to Chicago with NEW city wilderness territories opening up for gang control.

    1. Interesting that you brought up Gary. If anyone is interested, look at the amazing roster of great athletes that came out of that town. Now, it’s going back to the wilderness. Not too many five stars grow up in the woods…

      1. Amen ripperduck,

        Further, South Bend Indiana slowly but surely will become the next Gary Indiana in my opinion.

        “The population of South Bend has declined since a peak 132,445 in 1960, chiefly due to migration to suburban area’s with lower property taxes as well as the demise of Studebaker and other heavy industry.”,_indiana

        Smart money has left South Bend to Mishawaka “the princess city” and elsewhere. Since 2000, South Bend’s population has declined 6.2% to 101,081. Mishawaka Indiana has increased in the same period by 3.6% to 48,238.

        South Bend is it’s own worse enemy with a big tyrannical city government who refuses to listen to it’s citizens. Sound familiar? I love they are finding out the hard way other people’s money does indeed run out. Seems to be a trend indignant people in government around the country are now learning.

        I remember vividly, one summer day in 1988 I had bought a new boat. I made the mistake of pulling it out of my garage and waxing it for the first time in my drive, and then returning it to my garage immediately. Howbeit three days later, to my chagrin I received a citation from our lovely neighborhood code enforcement.

        Well, bless their heart, I thumb my nose in the air at city officials everytime I land in South Bend. Hahaha!


  3. It cannot be overlooked that the Midwest is losing population. Detroit, and surrounding environs, has lost over 60% of its population from its peak, Cleveland, not to the same extent, but significant numbers have left. Chicago is closing schools, Kansas City shut down nearly half of its schools. Point being, the Midwestern population centers are shrinking, which impacts hs sports and academics. The Southern states have major economic problems, but not to the extent of the Rust Belt. It’s impossible for the Big10 to compete any longer with the SEC, not only because of the much bigger pool of potential players in the South, but because their state budgets haven’t imploded quite to the point as have their Northern rivals. But it will happen eventually….

  4. I like Swarbrick’s move to the ACC. The big ten is the rust belt. Think Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago.

    Much better to align with the more robust areas of the country…NC, VA, Fl, TX and CA.

    We will be in the hunt for the NC every year with this formula for success.

    GO IRISH!!!!


  5. Point of order. Conjoining the Big Ten and Notre Dame makes me squeamish.
    We are an Army of one.

    The Big Ten reached its height with Ohio State’s National Championship
    in 1968, and has lost ground since then. Even with Bo and Woody
    it was the Big 2 and the little 8.It is very close to being the same Big
    2 with a little ten this year, and little 12 next year.

    They are an archive, not a modern competitive football conference. If you disbelieve that, then look at their ludicrous name, which has been a lie
    ever since Penn State joined the conference.
    They insist on celebrating the past rather than being truthful about the present.

    Second, you can study the history of college football by studying demographics. Demographics have shifted away from the Big Ten/Twelve/soon to be 14.

    A couple of years ago Miami Northwestern High School had more four star prospects than the State of Indiana. Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa
    are vast wastelands of high school football.

    The Pac 12-which has always observed truth in labeling- is vastly better.

    But it is programs, not conferences, which have a chance to compete with the SEC. There are seven: USC, Nd, Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Florida State and Miami. Miami is currently off the list because, regardless of the outcome of the probation, their off campus stadium is a mausoleum.
    It cannot be overcome. Florida State’s coach is no Bowden, and will remain a career mediocrity. Mack Brown has taken more money under false pretenses than any coach to the South or West of Lawrence Kansas.
    Two conference championships in 14 years? A pathetic underachievement
    as is his five straight losses to football’s urchin, Kansas State.

    USC was right there with the SEC with Carroll. Haden’s replacement
    of Kiffin will be telling. They can snap back in the third year
    of the new coach. Southern California still has players like Ju Ju Smith
    Adoree Jackson, Josh Rosen and Reno Rosene there. Get another Carroll
    (John Gruden??) and they are there.

    Notre Dame has a chance. Recruiting will be the key. And the object is to win on the field of honor, not to point out the moral academic and social foibles of SEC teams. That is an occupation for losers and whiners.
    It is not worthy of Notre Dame.

    1. “And the object is to win on the field of honor, not to point out the moral academic and social foibles of SEC teams. That is an occupation for losers and whiners.”

      I’m not sure to whom you’re directing that comment. Note that I’ve been very complimentary of your articles and posts in the past. If it’s in my direction, I would argue that bringing up the issue of “oversigning” is hardly whining. It is a significant issue and should be outlawed by the NCAA.

      I have always been one to harshly criticize Notre Dame for their hypocrisy, stupidity etc. when deserved. And they have certainly deserved that in the recent decades. And I’ll do the same with other programs.

      1. JDH, I respect what you’re saying, but Notre Dame wins when it puts its head down and focuses on its own agenda, without confessing the sins of others.

        What’s going on now is child’s play and I’ll give you two examples. Miami, don’t forget, got the death penalty. Two Live Crew? Luther Campbell, “makin’ it rain” in the South Beach clubs. But Holtz and Alvarez ignored that, they focused on their team and controlled what they could. the result was 10/15/88, and a win in South Bend two years later.

        Similarly with some of the stuff going on at FSU and the Seminole rap sheet. Saint Bobby wasn’t one. but on that glorious November day in ’93, the Irish won.

        It’s Notre Dame football,
        not Notre Dame compliance.

        Now advocate as you will,
        but my own humble opinion is capsulized above. Doesn’t make it right or official, but it’s the method I prefer.

      2. You and I are in agreement. I wholeheartedly agree that ND controls its own destiny, despite whatever ills the “playing field” may or may not contain. My comment on oversigning was not meant to imply that ND cannot compete with the SEC/Bama. Only to mention a practice which I feel is wrong on many levels and no team should be allowed to engage in it.

    2. I agree, that Mack Brown has done less with more, and clearly has under achieved given the obvious advantages at Texas, but characterizing Kansas State as college football’s “urchin” displays a preconceived lack of understanding.

      In his two seperate terms as head coach Bill Snyder has resurrected that program from the grave.

      He did it with honor, hard work, dedication, and perseverance.

      If any program can lay claim that they have truely earned respect, it should be K-State.

      I for one have far more respect for Kansas State and their success, than I ever could for all the USC’s, Ohio State’s, or Miami Hurricanes of the world.

      As Notre Dame fans, I would think being able to acknowledge what Bill Snyder has done, how he did it, and their teams accomplishments over the last 20 years, as being much more worthy when we speak of Honor and respect.

      1. I’m always enlightened by a oxymoron (not bad,huh)

        Here are a few of my favorites:

        “A fine mess”
        “A little pregnant”
        “Accurate sterotype”
        “Approximately Equal”
        “confessing the sins of others” (oops, my bad, that one may fall under hypocrisy)

        And last but not least….
        (drum-roll please)

        “my humble opinion” !

        Happy National Fip-Flop day everyone!

        Now,in true Camp Sunshine tradition, let us all hold hands and join together in a jolly verse of kumbaya…

        “Someone’s laughing, lord, kumbaya
        Someone’s laughing, lord, kumbaya
        Someone’s laughing, lord, kumbaya
        Oh lord, kumbaya”

      2. Yeah but Shaz,

        You left out your “Real ND Man” stuff like…Cryptic Legaleze Intimidation, Religious Heretic Diatribes and Malicious False Accusatorial BS…what gives?

        Hahaha! You’re such an angel! Kumbaya, hahahaha!

      3. Decided to go easy on everyone…

        after all, it being Friday, The Solstice, Kupala,(fertility rite day!) and of course National Flip-Flop day!

        Didn’t want to kill anyone’s buzz!

        (especially mine!)


        Now where was I,,, OH YES..

        “Someone’s drinking Lord, kumbayaaa
        “Someone’s drinking Lord, kumbaya
        Someone’s drinking Lord, kumbaya..
        Oh lordy, I’ll have another kumbayaaaa!

    3. It would be worthy to work on getting the NCAA to change the rules to give the student-athletes definite 4 year scholarships, prohibit so-called “oversigning” and make all the schools, including the Holy SEC, play by the same rules. Who cares what these coaches want. They will always choose whatever is best for their careers, salaries and influence, not what’s best for the students. I think it’s appalling that the NCAA will rigorously enforce rules prohibiting a coach from buying a kid a milkshake but let this kind of exploitative tomfoolery go on.

      1. For the record, as of Feb this past year there were 15 schools who “over signed”. 5 SEC, 3 Big 10, 3 PAC 12, 2 ACC, Texas and Notre Dame. Granted, Bama is way out in front and has turned it into an art form. Most of the others are 2 to 3 over.

      2. You may want to recheck the record.

        Here’s what I show that ND has signed over the last 5 years of recruiting.

        2009 – 18 players signed
        2010 – 23 players signed
        2011 – 24 players signed
        2012 – 18 players signed
        2013 – 25 players signed

        If I’m not mistaken, the NCAA set number of signees per recruiting season is 25.

        You may be correct that there are 15 schools who oversigned, but ND doesn’t appear to be one of them.

        This appears to be acurate given that when Vanderdoes reniged on his LOI, his scholarship was then given to walk-on Joe Schmidt.

      3. Over signing does not completely apply to the yearly number. ND signed a total of 81 players from 09 – 12. They have 63 returning in 13 and signed a total of 24 in 13. That gives a total of 87 total scholarships. That number must be at 85 before fall camp. Keep in mind this is within normal limits. Bama currently leads this with 95 total so they have some work to do. Also, this is data from February so they may actually be at 85 already.

        I merely point this out as a lot of people just throw this term around as an SEC only issue. I know facts tend to get in the way of a good argument but it is what it is.

        Stay classy!

      4. 81 players over four years is an average of 20.2 (lets just say 21)players per year. That’s still under the yearly average.

        I can see where 63 returning, plus 24 new signees in 13′, appears to put ND over the limit.

        But 2 players will earn their ND degrees as medical hardships / scholarships (Tate Nichols / Brad Carrico) which does not count against the 85 player total.

        Now factor in the the transfer of Gunner Kiel and the defection of Eddie Vanderdoes and ND actually has scholarships to spare.

        One was recently given to walk on Joe Schmidt
        (and perhaps one to 5th year senior Nick Tausch?? not sure)

        People throw around the term oversigning and the SEC for good reason.

        People should not throw around ND and oversigning for good reason as well.

        as you say… it is what it is.

  6. A good article, but a VITAL factor that is not mentioned is the SEC’s penchant for oversigning players. Alabama is a master at doing it well. It’s immoral, leaves kids stranded/SOL, and creates unfair advantage to the teams that engage in it. And it’s a practice ND would never even consider.

  7. Need to consider the oversigning issue and four year scholarships as this is the crux of the talent gap (not Southern versus Northern talent).

    The Big Ten and ND have committed to not oversigning kids and to offering 4 year scholarships. Meanwhile the SEC teams are oversigning and then effectively cutting 8-11 players per year on average. SEC teams commit to a one year scholarship. This combined policy allows SEC teams a free look at much more talent (up to 30% more guys in the most aggregious cases).

    It also makes the term “student athlete” laughable at these schools. A kid who wants to stdy and focus on his degree constantly has in the back of his mind that he could get cut. This is tragic, but reality in the SEC.

    ND and the Big 10 should uncover this crap publicly for what it is, an abuse of these kids and their families.

    1. That explains a lot. I never heard this before. I thought once a kid was given a scholarship it had to be a 4 year deal and that coaches would engage in abusive behavior to try to drive unwanted kids out in order to free up their scholarships. This one year deal changes a lot.

  8. Ohio State doesn’t compete at a high level. They play teams like Miami (Oh), UCF, UAB, Indiana, and Illinois. Next year they play Buffalo, San Diego St, Florida A&M, Northwestern, Illinois, and Indiana. Hardly a high level of competition. They could recruit out of Alaska and still win games.

  9. Very informative Scott,

    Masterfully, you have presented a convincingly strategic plan, where Notre Dame is actively engaged in moving towards championship football in the 21st century!


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