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Loss of No. 1 recruit Da'Shawn Hand to Alabama puts Michigan on the ropes

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

As the Alabama machine rolls relentlessly on, trampling everything in its path, let us pause for a moment to consider the victims.

Specifically today's victim: Michigan.

The Wolverines were demolished on the field by the Crimson Tide last year. Then they were gut-punched by the Tide on Thursday, when Rivals' No. 1 recruit in America, defensive end Da'Shawn Hand of Woodbridge, Va., chose Alabama over Michigan live on NBC Sports Net's "SportsDash."

To the casual observer, this was probably an unsurprising result. The way the Tide is rolling, who doesn't want to play for Nick Saban?

But this was something of an upset, and a bitter one for Brady Hoke and all Wolverines fans. Michigan had recruited Hand hard and smart for a long time, and was widely considered the leader to land the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder.

Michigan sold its excellent academic reputation to a young man who is serious about his studies. It sold the chance to return the program to the elite of college football, as opposed to merely being another cog in the machine at a place that has been on top for five years. It sold an instant-impact opportunity on the field, as opposed to the wait-your-turn stockpiling of talent in Tuscaloosa.

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Rivals No. 1 recruit Da’Shawn Hand turned his back on Michigan and made Alabama stronger. (Rivals)

It sold all that, and thought it would land Hand.

But Alabama closed the deal. Again.

And now Hoke has one less reason to convince Michigan fans that he is the long-term cure for the program's struggles. He has produced diminishing returns during his three-year tenure in Ann Arbor, going from an 11-2 debut season to an 8-5 disappointment last year to a very wobbly 6-3 this year. The Wolverines are an underdog to 4-5 Northwestern on Saturday, and figure to be underdogs the next two weeks against Iowa and Ohio State.

A 6-6 season, ending with five straight defeats, is quite possible. And that would accentuate Hoke's downward trajectory.

All the "Michigan Man" hokum that fans loved when Hoke was hired – the opposite of despised program outsider Rich Rodriguez – won't matter much in 2014. Just because he coached at the school under Lloyd Carr and refers to the arch-rival as "Ohio" and hates the Buckeyes doesn't mean he can win Big Ten titles and compete for national titles. And that's the expectation at Michigan.

What Hoke has been able to sell over the past two rocky seasons is the future. He has recruited very well, signing a 2014 recruiting class, currently No. 18 in the country, that features Rivals' No. 2 player, defensive back Jabrill Peppers of Paramus, N.J. It's a good class. But landing the 1-2 prospects would have made it sensational, and would have changed the subject from the on-field foibles of 2013.

Now this is one more negative headline in the state of Michigan, one more addition to the Wolverines' losing streak.

And it is yet another blow to the Big Ten, inflicted yet again by the Southeastern Conference. The SEC has dominated on the field for years, largely because it has dominated recruiting for years. And the imbalance has only been magnified as the nation's population shifts more to warmer climates and away from places like the upper Midwest.

The state of Michigan has been hit hardest of all in recent years. It was the only state in America to lose population in the U.S. Census from 2000 to 2010, and the city of Detroit, in particular, has been abandoned by thousands. That diminishes the number of in-state prospects for the Wolverines to go after; currently only four of their 15 verbal commitments for the Class of '14 are from Michigan.

So recruiting the Sun Belt is vital to continued viability. That's a big reason why Urban Meyer will keep Ohio State strong – he has ties and a sellable name in the South after his national championships at Florida.

Under Hoke, Michigan has had some success there, too – certainly more than most Big Ten schools. But being unable to close the deal on Da'Shawn Hand after being the presumed leader for a long time knocks a hole in the school's recruiting reach.

Nick Saban wins again, and the richest program in the country in terms of talent accrual and on-field accomplishment gets richer.

Brady Hoke and Michigan take another one on the chin. Now it's time to wobble back to their stool and hope they can regroup and do better in what's shaping up to be a make-or-break 2014 season.

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