The battle for the Midwest

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With this week’s news exposing Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel as not quite the virtuous character his sweatervest and pious nature portend, this is a remarkably turbulent time for the powers of Midwestern college football.

Consider the state of the Big Ten conference. After firing Lloyd Carr for failing to keep Michigan up-to-speed with their archrivals in Columbus, the Wolverines bottomed out their program with three years of Rich Rodriguez, a failed attempt at wooing Jim Harbaugh, and settled for hiring Brady Hoke, he of a sub .500 head coaching record.

Ohio State, now short their head coach for at least two games (and if the NCAA has anything to say about it, likely longer) will open the season without senior quarterback Terrelle Pryor for five games, last season’s preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. They’ll also miss four other contributors, with DeVier Posey, Dan Herron, left tackle Mike Adams, and Solomon Thomas sitting out that stretch, too.

Sure, the Buckeyes will only have one conference opponent to beat among those five foes (though playing down in Miami won’t be easy), but the secondary effect of Tressel and the Buckeyes wearing the scarlet letter could be worth watching. The stench coming from a Midwestern power that relies significantly on recruits culled from within its geographical corridor could bring some upheaval to the status quo.

And that’s where these next few years get interesting. Joe Paterno can’t coach forever, and Tom Bradley’s pursuit of other head coaching jobs likely means there’ll be transition in Happy Valley soon. As Nebraska enters the fray, and programs like Wisconsin and Michigan State continue to rise, the Big Ten could be looking at a significant shake up in their ranks.

For the first time in nearly two decades, you can easily argue that Notre Dame is the most stable of the (perceived) elite programs in the Midwest, and with both Michigan and Ohio State on far shakier ground than they’ve ever been, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have an opening that they’re uniquely qualified to jump through.

Just about every coach on Kelly’s staff has roots in either the state of Ohio or Michigan. Whether it was on Kelly’s staff at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, or Cincinnati, this staff has relationships at the high schools where students primarily look at the Buckeyes and Michigan as the top program on the proverbial heap.

If you’re looking closely, the move is already happening. Of the 85-odd scholarships the Irish have offered, there are reportedly 12 offers out to Ohio natives. According to IrishSportsDaily.com, here’s who the Irish have offered from the state of Ohio:

Maty Mauk, QB — Kenton, Ohio
Will Mahone, RB — Austintown, Ohio
Warren Ball, RB — Columbus, Ohio (an Ohio State commit)
Dwayne Stanford, WR — Cincinnati, Ohio
Corey Smith, WR — Akron, Ohio
Taylor Decker, OL — Vandalia, Ohio (an Irish commit)
Tom Strobel, DE — Mentor, Ohio
Greg McMullen, DE — Akron, Ohio
Adolphus Washington, DE — Cincinnati, Ohio
Sevon Pittman, DE — Canton, Ohio
Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB — Centerville, Ohio
Jarrod Wilson, FS — Akron, Ohio

These scholarships were obviously offered well before the Irish caught wind of any controversy in Columbus, but there’s no better time for Notre Dame to target the state, which appears to be incredibly talented this year and Ohio State already low on available scholarships.

All this isn’t to say that the Irish will have free reign across the Midwest. While Rich Rodriguez looked south for speed during his time in Ann Arbor, Brady Hoke has recommitted to the program’s roots, bringing with him a defensive coordinator that knows the area, and the Irish, well. Former Baltimore Ravens, Florida Gators, and Irish defensive coordinator Greg Mattison returns to Ann Arbor where he’s already worked as a coordinator and Mattison is well known for his recruiting exploits, often labeled as a negative recruiter against the Irish when he worked under Urban Meyer in Gainesville. He’ll likely have to change his tune, now that Notre Dame has completely upgraded its facilities since Mattison coached in South Bend, and with the Irish already showing they’re willing and able to combat negative tactics, evident when you consider Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt will be in Irish uniforms next season.

Obviously, any story talking about recruiting and program momentum can only truly be judged once the games start being played. So while the Irish happily possess the type of hope and progress that comes with rattling off four straight victories to close the 2010 season, they’re still building off a five-loss year with a head coach entering his second season. But, if trends turn into results and Kelly and company build on a promising season and recruiting class, the dynamics of the college football food-chain might be shifting.

And for the first time in a long time, Notre Dame is in position to do some damage.