The four-way tie atop the Big Ten East will give way to a two-way tie on Saturday, guaranteed.
There can be only two winners as Penn State heads to Ohio State and Michigan State visits Michigan, but the early-season conference success of the quartet of programs is not a fluke -- all four teams are recruiting at a high level.
Consider the current ESPN recruiting class rankings, where Ohio State is ranked No. 1, Penn State sits at 4, Michigan at 10 and Michigan State at 12.
What's more, because of different recruiting strategies, it would appear possible for all four teams to coexist and field excellent teams in the future. That’s good for fans of those teams, not so good for the rest of the Big Ten East division. But how long will it be until one or more of those programs falls off the recruiting pace?
“I do think each one of these schools, there are some geographic things and there are enough players in each one of our footprints to sustain it to a degree," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I think what’s going to be interesting is to look at it over the long haul, over the next five to ten years, and is that still the case?”
As Michigan State and Michigan prepare to play for the unofficial "state championship" on Saturday, the Spartans are ranked No. 7 in the AP Top 25 and the Wolverines are No. 12. The winner will claim a leg up in the conference race and bragging rights in the state, but Mark Dantonio is among those who thinks the success of one doesn't necessarily have to diminish the other.
“I think both teams can have good football teams, if that's what you're asking,” Dantonio said, when asked if the two teams can coexist. “It's been done before, and both teams have gone to, you know, big bowls in the past, at the same time, and things of that nature so, yeah, it can happen. We can coexist.”
Dantonio's contention -- and the case for Penn State and Ohio State as well -- is bolstered by an examination of where the programs are winning their recruiting battles.
When you compare the volume of top prospects within the geographic footprint of the Big Ten and, for example, the SEC, it’s impressive what these four teams are doing on the recruiting front. The states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are home to 26 ESPN 300 prospects in the 2016 class, whereas Florida, Louisiana and Georgia combined have 99 ESPN 300 prospects in this class alone. That means Big Ten teams have less talent locally to pull from, and have to recruit outside of their home states to fill recruiting classes.
Penn State typically recruits the East Coast, Ohio State builds the foundation of its teams in Ohio and then expands out across the East Coast and Southeast, Michigan under Jim Harbaugh has extended its net out to the Southeast, Texas and California and Michigan State has made a home in the Midwest and sprinkled in some national recruits as well.
Michigan has extended 31 offers to prospects in the 2016 class from the state of California, while Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State have offered a combined total of 15 in the state.
Penn State seems to have successfully built its wall around the state of Pennsylvania, landing eight ESPN 300 prospects in the 2015 and 2016 classes. The other three schools have landed zero in the same timeframe.
Florida is a state where all four schools have allocated resources with Michigan offering 39 prospects, Ohio State offering 35, Penn State offering 25 and Michigan State with 21 offers in the 2016 class. In 2015 and 2016, Michigan has landed seven prospects from Florida, Ohio State with four and Michigan State with one.
Penn State had a rocky start to the season before recovering to start league play, but if recruiting is any indication of how competitive these four teams will be in the future, the potential of a four-headed Big Ten East monster is there.
While Franklin agrees it is a simultaneous success story for now, he wonders if it is sustainable for the future.
“I don’t know that four teams in the same division on the same side all can sustain it at the same time for the same duration. Timing factors into it, how many scholarships people have available, but it’s really competitive right now and it’s a real challenge.”