FOX Sports talks exclusively about Ohio State senior Jack Mewhort about what they're playing for…
Ohio State and Michigan will battle for three-and-a-half hours Nov. 30 on the artificial turf in Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium – and might do so again seven days later in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
However, those battles are nothing compared to the 24/7/365 competition each year the two teams wage on the recruiting trail.
And they've been darn good at it, too, especially since head coaches Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer came along. Hoke's first class, the class of 2012, checked in fourth in the nation, then the Michigan coach jumped his effort to No. 2 in the Scout rankings in the class of 2013 with freshmen that will be entering school this year.
Of course, Meyer has one-upped him each time. The Buckeyes' coach sprinted to the finish in 2012, picking up 10 commits in the last two months to build the nation's third-best class, then he finished strong again this past year with five-star safety Vonn Bell on National Signing Day to vault the Buckeyes to No. 1 in the nation – and allowing OSU to finish one spot ahead of Michigan for the second straight year.
Scout.com Midwest recruiting analyst Allen Trieu has been impressed with both efforts.
"No doubt," he said. "They have ramped it up a level. If you look at the classes Michigan had before Brady got there and the recruiting classes Ohio State had before Urban got there, they weren't bad recruiting classes, but they were at the level they've been under both of those guys.
"They've certainly taken a good product and expanded upon it. Both schools have enough built-in advantages and traditional fan bases and that kind of thing, but you still have to go out there and do the work, and I think both guys have done that really well."
There have been plenty of plot points along the way as well, including the efforts of both schools to get into rival territory. Nobody has done that better than Hoke, who has turned around what had been a troubling trend for the Wolverines.
Former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel put up a proverbial fence around the border of the state of Ohio, one of the main reasons he posted a 9-1 record against the Wolverines. According to Scout.com records, Tressel allowed Michigan to pick up just 21 scholarship recruits from the Buckeye State from 2002-09, an average of just 2.6 per year. Of those athletes, just nine had scholarship offers from Ohio State and interest in the Buckeyes – and one of those, Justin Boren, transferred back to OSU and became an All-Big Ten player for the Buckeyes.
That simply doesn't work at Michigan, which must recruit Ohio well in order to succeed at a national level because the Wolverine State doesn't produce the depth of high-level recruits as its southern neighbor.
To wit, look simply at some of the most successful players in Wolverines history. The school's two Heisman Trophy winners of the 1990s, Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson, hailed from Ohio, and in the rivalry's heyday of the 1970s, four of Michigan's 10 consensus All-Americans were from the Buckeye State.
"Look, Michigan has never been at its peak since World War II without recruiting a fair number of players from the state of Ohio," said best-selling author and longtime Michigan observer John U. Bacon. "Of course, nobody did that better than Bo (Schembechler), whose entire staff was from Ohio, and a good part of Hoke's staff is from Ohio also, including Hoke himself.
"They know the high schools, they know the coaches, they know Massillon is serious and so is McKinley. They know these players. It is essential for any successful Michigan coach to get a solid five to 10 very good players from the state of Ohio."
As Bacon said, Hoke has done a great job of setting up roots south of the border. A native of Kettering, Ohio, Hoke has put a stamp in the Buckeye State from almost the day he was hired.
Just nine days after he was named Michigan head coach in January 2011, Hoke picked up his first verbal commitment, and it was from an Ohioan in Pickerington Central cornerback Tamani Carter. By the home his sprint to the finish in recruiting was done, he had picked up three more Ohioans as well.
That was nothing, though, compared to his 2012 effort. With Ohio State recruiting going through a short lull as the program transitioned from Tressel to Luke Fickell to Meyer, Hoke pulled in eight Ohioans, including players like Chris Wormley, Allen Gant and Tom Strobel that had at one point seriously considered the Buckeyes. But the coup de grace in that class was five-star offensive tackle Kyle Kalis, who was once committed to OSU but switched his pledge in the midst of the Tressel situation.
Hoke's ties to the Buckeye State continued into 2013, as that class had nine Ohioans, including the son of a former Ohio State player in linebacker Michael McCray. Michigan's 11th-rated 2014 class has two Buckeye Staters in the group.
"For him to come in and get the handful of kids that he's gotten, I think it not only says something about him and his staff, but it's also contributed to the rivalry because in turn Ohio State has come up and taken some kids out of Michigan," Trieu said. "It just adds another layer to the existing rivalry."
As Trieu has alluded to, Ohio State hasn't been shy about trying to "plant the flag," as the OSU coaches say, in the state up north, as well. Meyer made that with his trek to be one of the key speakers at last year's Sound Mind Sound Body camp – a key recruiting event held each summer in Detroit – while assistants Mike Vrabel and Kerry Coombs have made passionate and honest public statements about getting into Michigan.
That has paid off with the January commitment of Damon Webb, the No. 6 cornerback in the class of 2014 and a player at Detroit's talent-laden Cass Technical High School. Ohio State also earned a pledge from Southfield, Mich., defensive lineman Lawrence Marshall this winter before he changed his mind days later – and pledged to Michigan.
Whether the Buckeyes will be able to keep adding to its list of top players from the Wolverine State like national championship quarterback Craig Krenzel and sackmaster Vernon Gholston remains to be seen, but it won't be through lack of effort.
"Certainly, Ohio State makes no mistakes about coming up and planting the flag, as they say, in Michigan," Trieu said. "And Michigan has made no bones about the fact that they want to kids gets out of Ohio. I think it's both very purposeful in getting talent but also sticking it to your rival a little bit."
And for a variety of reasons, the two teams are starting to separate a bit from the rest of the Big Ten. Take, for example, last year's recruiting class. Of the 18 Scout 100 players to sign with Big Ten schools, seven picked OSU and six went with Michigan, leaving five such players for the rest of the league. All five five-star players to sign with the conference picked OSU or Michigan, as did 25 of the 43 of the four-star players.
More than ever, it seems, that on the recruiting front, the battle is Ohio State vs. Michigan with everyone else on the sideline. And with both schools recruiting the heck out of the Big Ten footprint's most talent-rich state, the battles will continue to be fought each day.
"If you're a good player in the state of Ohio, chances are both programs are coming at you hard," Bacon said. "Chances are they pick one or the other and they have something to say about it. That's part of the new environment, and there's no way to not fuel the rivalry."
Next up: The men who have restored the rivalry.