- The gap between Michigan and its elite Big Ten division rivals has been the subject of plenty of jabs directed at Ann Arbor in the past few years, but with recruiting in a rut and the schedule only getting more difficult, next year's results on the field and on signing day could have serious long-term effects.
Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class is, judging by the simplest measures available, a letdown. On National Signing Day, the Wolverines watched their top-ranked offensive line target, Berkeley (Fla.) Prep five-star Nicholas Petit-Frere, sign with rival Ohio State even after they practiced at his high school in advance of their bowl game on New Year’s Day. Within a half hour, a coveted linebacker who’d been verbally committed to Michigan since June 2016, Lee County (Ga.) High’s Otis Reese, had flipped to Georgia.
Those two decisions left the Wolverines’ 2018 haul with zero players ranked in the top 100 in the nation and a team ranking of No. 21 in the nation, according to the 247Sports Composite. That team ranking is 16 spots better than that of the first class head coach Jim Harbaugh signed in Ann Arbor in February 2015, but Harbaugh had only one full month to assemble that group after being hired the previous December. By contrast, the Wolverines’ ’16 and ’17 classes ranked eighth and fifth in the country, respectively, with higher average player ratings in both years (89.86 in ’16, 91.20 in ’17) than the ’18 class’s 88.75, according to the 247Sports Composite.
It would be misguided to ignore the possibility of the rankings underselling at least a few members of Michigan’s 2018 haul. One intriguing possibility is Cameron McGrone, an outside linebacker out of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis whom Rivals and Scout both rank outside the top 190 in the class of 2018 but whom 247Sports assessed a five-star rating in January after he bounced back from a knee injury suffered during his junior season to earn a spot on the Indianapolis Star’s Central Indiana Super Team as a senior. “Some guys may check a couple boxes, but McGrone checks them all,” 247Sports director of football recruiting Steve Wiltfong said of McGrone.
Plus, although this player won’t be filed away as part of Michigan’s 2018 recruiting class, the Wolverines are bringing in one of the most esteemed prizes on the transfer market. In December, Ole Miss sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson, who passed for 2,259 yards and 17 touchdowns against nine interceptions over seven games for the Rebels last season, announced he would transfer to Michigan. Depending on whether he’s granted immediate eligibility on appeal, Patterson could make a bigger instant impact than any class of 2018 recruit the Wolverines could have signed.
That said, as SB Nation’s Bud Elliott has detailed using his Blue-Chip Ratio, today’s national champions are fueled by four- and five-star recruits, and Michigan’s 2018 class has seven fewer of those than its 2016 class did and 14 fewer than its 2017 class did, according to the 247Sports Composite. Part of that is a result of a lousy closing stretch that culminated with Petit-Frere picking Ohio State and Reese’s flip to Georgia. On a recent episode of the Michigan site MGoBlog’s podcast, founder Brian Cook was asked about Michigan’s finish to the 2018 recruiting cycle. “It’s bad,” he said. “It’s not good. It needs to be better.”
One of the most troubling aspects of the class has nothing to do with the players Michigan received National Letters of Intent from on the first Wednesday of February. It’s who joined other Big Ten East heavyweights. Ohio State (No. 2) and Penn State (No. 5) both signed classes ranked in the top five nationally, with 19 top-100 high school players combined, according to the 247Sports Composite. The Buckeyes and Nittany Lions now check in first and eighth, respectively, in Bill Connelly’s two-year recruiting rankings, compared to 15th for Michigan.
Those numbers reflect the grim reality that the Wolverines’ recruiting downturn in the 2018 cycle coincided with a pair of Big Ten East competitors infusing their rosters with a lot of top-end prospects. As two of Michigan’s biggest obstacles to national contention—whose College Football Playoff aspirations are in direct conflict with the Wolverines’ by virtue of their residence in the same division—were putting the finishing touches on classes stuffed with elite high schoolers, Michigan was building a strong candidacy for the “loser” columns of media outlets’ NSD postmortems.
The MGoBlog discussion touched on the notion that the Wolverines’ 2018 recruiting may well have been affected by a season that included losses to the four Big Ten teams ranked above them in Football Outsiders’ final S&P+ ratings (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State) and ended with a total dud, a 26–19 defeat to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl that dropped the Wolverines’ win-loss record to 8–5. Their underwhelming efforts on fall Saturdays, unsurprisingly, did not seem to help matters on the recruiting trail.
Only one of the players in Michigan’s 2018 class who issued his verbal pledge after July, according to Rivals’ tracking of the program’s commitments, ranked better than 25th at his respective position in the 247Sports Composite: Ridge Point (Tex.) High tight end Mustapha Muhammad. Harbaugh’s efforts to add an offensive tackle prospect to that list were foiled when Mission Viejo (Calif.) High four-star offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson reportedly cut Michigan from his list of schools in late January (he later committed to Notre Dame) and Petit-Frere picked Ohio State on signing day. (It’s worth mentioning that Michigan is still in the mix for highly touted Rice graduate transfer tackle Calvin Anderson.)
The early returns on the Wolverines’ 2019 recruiting are encouraging. Already they’ve secured verbal commitments from one top-20 prospect, Greater Atlanta Christian (Ga.) School defensive end Chris Hinton, in addition to two other top-70 prospects, according to the 247Sports Composite. Plus, Michigan should have an opportunity to make up for its offensive tackle misses in 2018 by reeling in one of four bluechip OTs in 2019 who hail from within state lines, including uncommitted five-star Devontae Dobbs.
Another subpar season, though, could undermine whatever progress the Wolverines make on their 2019 class through the summer. This was already shaping up as a pivotal campaign for Harbaugh, who has come under fire for his perceived inability to back up prolific headline generation off the field with favorable results on it: He’s posted a 3–6 record against Big Ten East challengers Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State, including an 0–3 mark in 2017, and is coming off a third consecutive finish of third place or worse in the division. Another failure to break into the top two would make the post-Outback Bowl criticism Harbaugh incurred feel tame by comparison.
Michigan should be better this fall than it was in 2017, a transition season in which it brought back only five starters, fewer than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team, according to analyst Phil Steele. Title odds from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook peg the Wolverines at 12/1, behind only four squads (Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State), and they made the top 15 of some early top 25 rankings. Getting Patterson eligible would be a nice boost, although the schedule looks brutal: Conference road games against Michigan State and Ohio State, conference home games against Penn State and Wisconsin, and the opener at Notre Dame. All five of those teams sit in the top 12 of the early S&P+ ratings for 2018.
The best way for Michigan to protect against another lackluster recruiting cycle is to strengthen its pitch to prospects by making tangible on-field progress from last season. Anything less could result in another signing day that feels a lot like the one that came and went earlier this month.