On signing day three years ago, Penn State announced a class that included a quarterback who had previously committed to Vanderbilt. He was a three-star prospect who was rated as the 60th-best player at his position that year, according to ESPN's Recruiting Nation. Most other schools saw him as a safety. The Nittany Lions signed a higher-rated quarterback, four-star Michael O'Connor, in that same class.
No one was doing cartwheels over that letter of intent from Trace McSorley. Yet, arguably no player had a bigger impact on the Big Ten race in 2016 than McSorley did as a redshirt sophomore. He was the league's top-rated passer, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns, and was named MVP of the Big Ten championship game.
McSorley led the Nittany Lions to victory in Indianapolis over Wisconsin, which was a second-half collapse away from staking a claim to the College Football Playoff. Those are the same Badgers whose previous four recruiting classes were ranked by ESPN, on average, as no better than the 36th-best in the country.
So consider this the annual reminder that signing day, while no doubt extremely important, doesn't always tell the full story in the Big Ten.
Only a fool would dismiss the comings and goings of each team's fax machines on Wednesday. Championships can be won on the decisions of high schoolers. Look no further than Ohio State's ridiculous 2013 class, which formed the backbone of the Buckeyes' national title team less than 24 months later. That crop included Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa, who were named the NFL's offensive and defensive rookies of the year, respectively, by the Pro Football Writers Association earlier this month.
This year's Ohio State class could be compared to that 2013 group in the near future. As of Monday afternoon, the Buckeyes counted 19 commitments, 18 of whom are ranked as either four- or five-star players by ESPN; sixteen of them are in the ESPN 300. Michigan also had 16 ESPN 300 commits as of Monday, with coach Jim Harbaugh still working the trail for some last-minute additions. The rest of the Big Ten, combined, accounted for 18 ESPN 300 commits.
Ohio State and Michigan should both land top-five classes, with Penn State and its seven ESPN 300 commits likely to finish with the third-best class in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions are also off to a flying start in the 2018 class after last season's Rose Bowl run. The three best and most aggressive recruiters in the league -- Harbaugh, Urban Meyer and James Franklin -- are at the height of their powers right now.
That trend line seems to reinforce the notion that the Big Ten East will continue to be one of the toughest, if not the most rugged, divisions in college football. An also-ran in that division, Maryland, looks to make a signing day splash with eight current four-star commits and five ESPN 300 prospects. That has to feel good for Terrapins fans and head coach D.J. Durkin, who saw their talent raided last January during the coaching transition from Randy Edsall.
Durkin and the Terps are angling toward a top-20 finish, which would be quite an accomplishment. Yet, it guarantees little.
If it did, then how would we explain Michigan State's recent success? The Spartans recruit a lot better than the national narrative would often have you believe, but they still generally place outside of the top 20 to 25 teams on signing day. Still, they've won one more Big Ten title in the past four years than Ohio State, while Michigan hasn't won a league championship since 2004.
Or how about the 2015 Iowa team that came within a couple of inches of beating Michigan State for that season's Big Ten crown? Or the poster child for downplaying signing day freakouts: Wisconsin. The Badgers just keep racking up double-digit wins, despite classes that don't excite the recruitniks.
There's no substitute for talent, and it's nearly impossible to win a national title without recruiting at the level Meyer, Harbaugh and Franklin are reaching. But there's also still room in the Big Ten for developmental programs and for coaches who know how to find the right needs for their own styles, regardless of the star ratings.
And there is plenty of room for guys like McSorley, who did nothing but win in high school and whose best measurable was his heart. Don't overlook the importance of Wednesday's developments and class rankings. But don't assume those will tell the whole story in the Big Ten.