It won’t be a rivalry on the field until it becomes a rivalry on the recruiting trail

Football

On Saturday, Ohio State’s 56-27 drubbing of Michigan began well before the noon kickoff.

It began before this season. It began before any player on either side of the field even took a college class at their respective university. Rather, the gap in success on the recruiting trail laid the groundwork for U-M’s widely-expected loss on Saturday.

From top to bottom, players and coaches within Michigan’s program field the same questions after losing to the Buckeyes every year. Over the last three seasons, those losses have come in double-digit fashion. This year, the word “execution” once again surfaced as a default deflection of the real problem: the wide talent gap between the two programs, which starts with evaluating talent in the stands of high school football games, pitching the university in a prospect’s living room and building relationships with recruits.

Under Urban Meyer, few teams were better at the craft than Ohio State. Since Jim Harbaugh took over at Michigan in 2015, the Buckeyes have landed the Big Ten’s top-ranked recruiting class four times in five years leading up to Meyer’s retirement, per 247 Sports. Three of those four classes ranked top-five nationally, of which two checked in at No. 2.

The lone exception came in 2019, when Meyer’s sideline migraines forced him into retirement. Even in that cycle, the Wolverines’ top target — five-star defensive end Zach Harrison — signed with the Buckeyes.

With Ryan Day now at the helm, there’s been little drop-off. The Buckeyes are set to welcome a loaded group that ranks No. 1 in the conference and fourth-best nationally next season, while Michigan’s class — which doesn’t include a five-star recruit yet, though rankings are adjusted as the cycle progresses — currently sits at No. 12 in the country.

Part of the discrepancy is rooted in results like Saturday. Despite playing with two different quarterbacks and head coaches in the last two meetings, the Buckeyes have amassed 118 points and 1,144 yards against Don Brown’s once-vaunted defense. This isn’t a new trend, either, as Ohio State has now won 15 of the last 16 meetings.

It doesn’t go unnoticed. Recruits see the head-to-head results, which puts Jim Harbaugh and his staff at a severe disadvantage when the programs battle for the same prospects. Though Michigan has quite literally come within inches of snapping Ohio State’s winning streak under Harbaugh, the Wolverines’ utter inability to beat the Buckeyes has become somewhat of an expectation.

It’s kind of the same thing every year,” said senior tight end Sean McKeon. “Got to execute better. It gets old.”

Execution is difficult when the guy on the other side of the line of scrimmage knows his name is going to be called in the next NFL Draft. All the film in the world can’t change the fact that one team holds the clear edge in athleticism. While Michigan has shown an ability to develop players, that talent gap is nearly impossible to close.

To be clear, the Wolverines recruit at an extraordinarily high level. Since 2016, they’ve assembled three classes ranked top-10 nationally and Jim Harbaugh has won at least nine games in four of his five years.

But on the recruiting trail, that falls short of Ohio State — a program that seemingly stands in a league of its own with the top of the SEC and Clemson. Year in and year out, the fact that the Buckeyes manage to bring in better talent — even if it’s only a notch above Michigan’s — is all it takes.

Until that fact changes, the annual scoreboard on the Saturday after Thanksgiving won’t.

Dash can be reached on Twitter @danieldash428 or by email at dashdan@umich.edu.

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