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Big Ten: Winners and losers from the 2021 recruiting cycle

Nolan Rucci
Nolan Rucci (

Both Signing Days for the class of 2021 are now complete, and while there may still be a recruitment or two ongoing that involves Big Ten programs, the script for this class is pretty well complete. We look back over the strangest of recruiting years, and declare winners and losers for the Conference.


NSD 2021: Mind of Mike | Winners and losers from NSD | Alabama wins recruiting title | Top 25 recruiters | NSD blog | Announcement Guide

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly | Alabama coach Nick Saban | Ohio State coach Ryan Day | Clemson coach Dabo Swinney | Auburn's Bryan Harsin | South Carolina's Shane Beamer | Vanderbilt's Clark Lea | Kentucky's Mark Stoops | Iowa's Kirk Ferentz | Boston College's Jeff Hafley | Mizzou's Eli Drinkwitz | UNC coach Mack Brown | Florida State coach Mike Norvell | Penn State coach James Franklin | USC coach Clay Helton | Arkansas coach Sam Pittman | Georgia coach Kirby Smart | Maryland coach Mike Locksley | Miami coach Manny Diaz

CLASS OF 2021 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | Position | Team | State

CLASS OF 2022 RANKINGS: Rivals250 | Position | Team | State

COVERAGE: Rivals Transfer Tracker | Rivals Camp Series




Wisconsin's Backfield

Few teams can boast the success of their offensive line development like Wisconsin, which has had 12 linemen drafted in the last 10 years, including four first-rounders. That is easier to do when you are bringing in four and five-stars every class, but Wisconsin rarely does. Ryan Ramczyk was a walk-on. Tyler Biadasz was a three-star defensive tackle prospect in the 2016 class. David Edwards was 225 pounds and played quarterback in high school.

This year, however, Wisconsin is bringing in four and five-stars at the offensive line position. The Badgers signed their highest-ranked class in the Rivals era, and the class is headlined by its offensive line talent. Nolan Rucci is Wisconsin’s first five-star offensive lineman since Josh Oglesby in the 2007 class. He is joined in this class by four-stars JP Benzschawel and Riley Mahlman, and all three stand at least 6-foot-7. NFL general managers are already salivating at the prospects of that talent in Wisconsin’s system, but in the nearer term the Badger’s quarterback and running back rooms have to be ecstatic.



Players in the Transfer Portal

The number of prospects signed by the Big Ten in 2021 is down over 16 percent compared to the previous class. More than 50 fewer players signed letters of intent with the Big Ten, and that is a significant amount. That is a significantly greater drop than the rest of the Power Five Conferences, which are down less than 10 percent year-over-year with eight weeks still left in the Late Signing Period.

The drop in Big Ten signings could be attributed to several factors, including scholarship crunches at several schools and less players signed due to COVID-19 restricting coaches’ ability to evaluate prospects. Likely the biggest contributor to this drop, however, is the Transfer Portal. The frequency with which head coaches talked about getting ready to be active in the Transfer Portal on the Rivals’ NSD Live Show this year was up considerably from previous years.


Future Indiana Offenses

When I consider the most impactful, single pick-up in the Big Ten for this 2021 class, I really think it is Donaven McCulley. There are prospects ranked higher who signed with Big Ten programs, but Indiana has never signed a prospect ranked as high as McCulley. The Hoosiers have improved their winning percentage each of the last three seasons under Tom Allen, but they have never had an offensive weapon as dynamic as McCulley. He has the talent to bring the Hoosier’s football program to heights it has never before seen.


Donaven McCulley
Donaven McCulley (Josh Helmholdt / Rivals)


Michigan-Michigan State Rivalry

It was unclear where the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry was headed over the last year, with the two programs at completely different stages. Michigan State still held the optimism and anticipation that comes with a first-year head coach, while Michigan went from uncertainty about Jim Harbaugh’s future to an overhaul of his staff.

The emotions of this rivalry have been rekindled, however, and part of the credit goes to recruiting. Michigan went into the Spartans’ backyard and landed a commitment from East Lansing High receiver Andrel Anthony, then flipped Rivals100 defensive tackle Rayshaun Benny on Signing Day. You also have Mike Hart back at Michigan, this time as the Wolverines’ running backs coach. His “little brother” comment was the tinder that helped spark a stretch where Michigan State won seven of the next eight meetings between the two teams.

The Spartans beat Michigan in Ann Arbor back in October, and now have added fuel from the 2021 recruiting class. It’s looking like a fun, few years upcoming in the Great Lakes State.




Nebraska Tight Ends Coach Sean Beckton

There are several strong position groups heading to different programs within the Big Ten. We highlighted the offensive line haul at Wisconsin. Ohio State has a pair of Rivals100 running backs headed its way. Maryland loaded up at linebacker, and Iowa signed four versatile prospects who all got the “Athlete” designation.

The most unique single-position haul, though, may be at Nebraska, which signed three tight ends including the top-ranked prospect at the position, four-star Thomas Fidone. Omaha three-star A.J. Rollins committed to the Cornhuskers two days after Fidone. Deciding he still had room for one tight end in this class, position coach Sean Beckton offered local prospect James Carnie, who had blown up on the recruiting scene in recent months. Carnie committed in October, giving the Cornhuskers a talented trio of tight ends in this class.

The tight end position is seeing a renaissance in college football offenses of the day, but signing three in one class is really unique. Coincidentally, Maryland signed four tight ends in this class, though not quite on the talent level as those going to Nebraska.




Programs Not Named Ohio State

Emeka Egbuka
Emeka Egbuka

The rich got richer in the Big Ten, as Ohio State won its tenth conference team rankings title in the last 11 classes. Frankly, the race was never close. Let’s look at some of the numbers.

The Buckeye’s class was over 500 points better than its next closest pursuer. They tallied more than double the points of seven schools in the conference. Ohio State signed more five-stars (3) than the rest of the conference combined (2). It had nearly as many Rivals100 prospects (10) as the rest of the conference (14), and still has a shot to increase that number with five-star J.T. Tuimoloau’s decision.

Ohio State has won the last four Big Ten Championships, has four of the league's five College Football Playoff appearances and is currently on a 21-game win streak against conference foes. The rest of the Big Ten needs to step up its game.



Every, Single 2021 Prospect Who Signed

No recruiting class I have covered (since 2004) faced more challenges and received as little assistance from the NCAA as this 2021 class.

Things could have been done to alleviate the setbacks and obstacles these prospective student-athletes faced while trying to make the biggest decisions of their young lives. Official visits could have been accomplished under current guidelines and well within the safety parameters, but they were sacrificed for the small threat they were to the college football season. The Early Signing Period could have been eliminated, giving prospective student-athletes more time to research their options, but with no representation in the NCAA, the topic was never seriously discussed.

The class of 2021 had to make the same, life-changing decisions as every class before it, but with far fewer resources. The best the NCAA could do to help was allow college programs more staffers with which to call, text and annoy recruits.