Ohio State is resurgent under Urban Meyer, fresh off an unbeaten season in which the Buckeyes rampaged through a schedule pockmarked by the craters where great Big Ten teams used to be and beat two 10-win teams: UCF (still Central Florida to most) and Nebraska, later mauled by Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Ohio State is recruiting well enough to rule the Big Ten hand in hand with Michigan for some time to come — read Land-Grant Holyland's magnificent recap of the Buckeyes' 2013 recruiting class if you need substantiation for that claim, or peer at any recruiting service's team rankings to see the Buckeyes and Wolverines sitting together in the top 10.
But Ohio State is not where Urban Meyer wants it to be, because its talent is not on par with the SEC's. And with his recruiting pitches at their most persuasive — Meyer is the only coach currently working with two BCS titles and two undefeated seasons — he must be worried to see Alabama, that team that chased him out of the SEC penthouse, and Florida, that team he spurned because of his own inability to reforge a program that had fallen into disarray under his stewardship, and Ole Miss, that team that ruined his shot at unprecedented flawlessness in Gainesville, bringing in top talent that may outstrip his own. How else to explain him exhorting his Big Ten brethren to beat the SEC on the recruiting trail?
It's not only important, it's essential [for the Big Ten to improve its recruiting against the SEC]. We do need to, as a conference, keep pushing that envelope to be better. All our conversations - we will have a Big Ten meeting on the 11th - and our conversations need to be how do we recruit. When you see 11 of the SEC teams are in the Top 25 in recruiting, that is something that we need to continue to work on and improve.
I will never credit Urban Meyer as anything less than brilliant and cunning when it comes to college football coaching, and I'll give him this much: He's right that the Big Ten needs to recruit better. It needs to siphon off some of the recruits that Alabama and Florida and Ole Miss and LSU and Georgia get, if only to make those SEC teams slightly less deep and slightly less juggernautish; it needs to heal itself to a point where steel can sharpen steel, rather than suffer death by a thousand cuts from the dull butter knife that was the Buckeyes' offense in 2012. (Braxton Miller ran more times in 12 games last season than Tim Tebow did in any of his three seasons as Florida's starter.)
And Meyer wants the biggest luxuries SEC memberships affords: The freedom to lose, and the spoils of victory.
The last two Alabama teams to claim titles have suffered losses during conference play and still churned their way to the BCS National Championship Game; only two of the seven SEC titlists in the last seven years have emerged from the SEC unblemished, and neither was Meyer's, as his Gators fell to Auburn and Mississippi in their championship campaigns. The optics of an SEC loss — it either comes to a fellow behemoth, or after a withering gauntlet run — are far, far better than the optics of a loss to Purdue (which Ohio State trailed 22-14 in the fourth quarter) or Indiana (which scored 49 points on the Buckeyes in a 52-49 loss).
And the SEC, for the last seven years, has gotten two slices of the enormous BCS pie each season, something the Big Ten didn't enjoy in 2012. (Despite going 4-8 in the six seasons prior to 2012, the Big Ten did place two teams in BCS bowls every year.) Missing out on a bit of BCS scrilla one time isn't a death blow, especially for a program with coffers as lucre-lined as Ohio State's, but missing out year after year leaves a conference's programs strapped like those in the BCS hinterlands of the ACC and Big East are, because BCS payouts help fund things like assistant coach salary pools and facilities upgrades, and BCS appearances help make boosters write checks.
Meyer doesn't encourage a rising tide to lift all boats like this out of the kindness of his heart; he wants his boat to float higher, and the rest is just a bonus. If Meyer can get the Big Ten to the point where a one-loss Big Ten team can get a title look (only 2007 Ohio State has gotten one, and that came in the strangest college football season of the BCS era), his title shot improves. If Meyer can get a couple million more per year, he can find uses for it that make his program better.
Meyer was a BCS outsider before he was a BCS insider (and he was for a playoff system before he was against it, because he is good at
being an inconstant star changing his mind), and he knows what being a have-not and being a have feel like in college football. He knows that every dollar counts. (Meyer being vocal about college football's new, more lax recruiting rules also sounds to me like the cry of a man who is on the other side of the SEC looking-glass, and gets how cumulative advantage works.)
And he knows that the SEC has the most, and, with every year's haul, distances itself not only from the have-nots in non-BCS conferences, but from the upper middle class of its BCS fraternity. Quite frankly, it sounds like he's scared of the SEC — as he should be.
Urban Meyer might have a better path to BCS bowls and the BCS National Championship Game at Ohio State, but Urban Meyer, with two titles and two unbeaten seasons, doesn't give two whits about participation ribbons. Titles are his brass rings, and he seems to be well aware of the fact that winning title bouts is hard when the other guy is equipped with brass knuckles.