The Future Is Still Unbelievably Bright

By Nick Polak on November 8, 2017 at 7:30 am
James Franklin

Adriana Lacy, Roar Lions Roar


Penn State's chances at a second straight Big Ten title game, and first ever College Football Playoff berth are essentially dead. Barring a Michigan State-losing-to-Rutgers-and-Maryland-level chaos, the Nittany Lions will not end this year playing for a championship. I'd go into my thoughts on what this season has been to this point, but why waste my time doing that when John already did so beautifully?

Instead, I'll take the long-term viewpoint. I've preached the importance of recruiting both here on Roar Lions Roar and on my previous platforms at SB Nation for years now. Simply put- recruiting success leads to on-field success. But the term "recruiting success" means many different things to different people.

For Wisconsin, recruiting success means pulling in more than five blue chip (four or five-star rated) players in a single class. That's not meant to be a dig on Wisconsin, but an acknowledgment of the challenges they face based on their location.

Want to win this? Then you need to recruit as many blue chippers as possible. (Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports)

For LSU, recruiting success means taking their pick of Louisiana-based talent and supplementing a top-ten/top-five class with blue chippers from Texas, Florida, and other talent-laden southern states.

For Old Dominion, recruiting success means getting one or two blue-chip players of the hundreds they seem to offer every year.

For Stanford, recruiting success means finding as many talented players as possible, but only if they meet their rigorous academic standards.

The point is, success is a relative term, especially in the world of recruiting. But for any program that considers success to be playing for a national championship, there is an undeniable correlation between what percentage of your roster is composed of blue chip players and championships. Until proven otherwise, for a team to be a national title contender in today's college football landscape, at least 50 percent of the scholarship roster needs to be former blue-chip recruits.

In the past 17 years, here are the teams that have won national championships.

Alabama (4), Ohio State (2), LSU (2), Florida (2), Oklahoma, Miami, USC, Texas, Auburn, Florida State, Clemson

Reliable and comprehensive recruiting rankings don't quite go back far enough for us to analyze the makeup of Oklahoma's 2000 National Championship team, but when we look at everyone else on the list, it's a who's who of recruiting powerhouses. And in the cases of Miami (2001), Texas (2005), and Florida (2006 and 2008), while they don't currently meet that 50 percent threshold, they did when they were winning said championships.

Why am I telling you all of this? Simple. Penn State isn't quite at this level of roster talent yet. And that fact is one of the reasons why this 2017 team fell short of preseason expectations.

Of the 85 players on the current Penn State roster, 34 of them are former blue-chip recruits. That means that exactly 40 percent of the scholarships on the team are held by former four and five-star players. It's close to the threshold, but not quite meeting it. Of course, that's not the only factor to consider.

Of those 34 players, only 22 of them have been regular contributors in 2017 (it would be 23 if cornerback John Reid was healthy). So it's safe to say that only around 26% of the scholarship athletes that have played noticeable roles this season. And that number even includes Zech McPhearson and Garrett Taylor who have both done basically all of their work as gunners on the kick and punt units.

You don't have to recruit quite on the same level as Alabama to win, but the blue-chip percentage doesn't lie. (Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports)

Compare those numbers to Ohio State, who has a blue-chip percentage of 74.1. Or Alabama at 81.2. Or Georgia at 63.5. Or USC with 57.6.

That's significant. And while those players aren't the only ones who play regularly and have an impact on game outcomes, having more quality players on the roster means you have more quality depth. Whether or not they pan out at the college level is measured on a case-by-case basis, but recruits are ranked highly for a reason. Those players often turn out to be the true impact playmakers at the next level.

This isn't to say that non-blue chip players are irrelevant. Some of the best players in the country were two or three stars or even unranked! But quality depth is most easily built through stockpiling high-end talent, and depth is often the difference between winning and losing. Ohio State was routinely getting pressure on Trace McSorley in the fourth quarter partially because the Nittany Lions offensive line was struggling, but they were also able to have nearly three full units of former blue-chip players coming at the tiring blocking unit, wave after wave.

The good news is that James Franklin, above all else, is an excellent recruiter. Check out what he's done with his recruiting classes at Penn State (I included the class of 2014 even though he was only on the job for about three weeks before National Signing Day).

2014 20%
2015 52%
2016 40%
2017 50%
2018 (committed) 55%*

*The 2018 class is expected to add at least two more blue-chip recruits before Signing Day, which would bring this up to 58 percent

It doesn't take a genius to know why Penn State wasn't recruiting as well from 2011-2014, but the point is that Franklin is rapidly building a talented and deep roster. We don't know exactly who will leave the program this offseason, but using educated guessing and logic, somewhere between 44 and 50 percent of the 2018 Penn State should be composed of former blue chippers.

Franklin is doing exactly what you need to do to be successful in college football. He's building a roster that is deeper and more talented than any seen in recent Penn State history. Now, getting the talent on campus is only step one in the process, to be sure. But as recent history has proven, it's vitally important. Going two at a time might work on your stairs at home, but there's no precedent to prove that you can finish the season as the undisputed champ without that first step.

The common argument to this hypothesis is "WHAT ABOUT JJ WATT? WHAT ABOUT KHALIL MACK?". The best answer I can give you to that question is this. You can't plan to find superstars and diamonds in the rough. Penn State knew Saquon Barkley was a great player. So did Rutgers. Did either one know he was going to be a Heisman contender down the road? Of course not, that's an impossible thing to predict. And that's the point. No one can look at a high schooler and know with absolute certainty that they'll be a superstar. Coaches can dream, but no one can know for sure. All you can do is recruit the best players you can, and hope for the best.

With the path that James Franklin has Penn State on, coaches and fans alike will have much more hope on a year-to-year basis. The staff struck gold with Barkley, but in the end, they just didn't have enough around him to allow that stardom to propel them to more.

There may never be another Saquon Barkley. But the next time this roster plays host to a superstar, they may finally have the necessary reinforcements to supplement their greatness and find themselves as the last men standing in January.