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Closing The Gap: How Does Penn State Rejoin College Football's Elite?

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The talent and depth of the best of the best in college football was on display over the three games of the inaugural playoff. What do the Nittany Lions need to do to regain their spot among the best in the country?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

A little less than three months ago, Penn State played the now national champion Ohio State Buckeyes as close as anyone not named Virginia Tech did this season. A swarming PSU defense and an opportunistic offense forced overtime, before falling in the second extra session. If you're anything like me, watching the Buckeyes over their last three games made the gap between the Lions and our neighbors to the west appear so much larger than it did on that October night. Not to mention the distance between the rosters of Alabama, Florida State and Oregon, and PSU's.

This is not meant as another "woe is we" rant. We all know why Penn State faces such an uphill climb to rejoin the ranks of the best in the country. If the early recruiting trail returns are any indication, they are on their way to doing just that. But when do the Lions break through? When will we be talking about James Franklin and Penn State contending for division, conference, and national championships?

By now, most of you are probably sick of the "only ___ healthy scholarship players". The fact is, PSU is in a deep hole just in sheer numbers. As Coach Franklin was fond of saying this season, "We have great players, but we just need more of them." A quick glance at the two deeps of the playoff teams, and then Penn State's, would show you just as much.

The best teams seemingly roll in wave after wave of top end talent on both sides of the ball. Sure, OSU leans heavily on guys like Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett on the defensive line, for example, but their talented backups see plenty of time and gain plenty of experience, as well. Conversely, Penn State has been forced to lean significantly on their starting 11, something that became quite clear in the closing stretch of this past season. More practice reps, more game reps and more hits eventually take their toll.

"We have great kids, great players. We just need more of them." -James Franklin

So step one, if you will, is restocking the cabinet. Franklin and Co. are well on their way to doing just that. In just about a month on the job in 2014, the staff put together a consensus top 25 recruiting class, with limited scholarships, lingering sanctions, and a rather pedestrian 7-5 season. With just a few weeks until the Class of 2015 puts pen to paper, a top ten class seems likely.

Perhaps the first true glimpse of Penn State's recruiting prowess will come in 2016. By the time the bowl ban was lifted, and a full allotment of scholarships restored this past September, PSU had verbal commitments for what figures to be the majority of players that will sign in February. Sure, a few open slots remained, but with what appeared to be limited numbers, the staff had begun to move their focus to the Class of 2016, while solidifying the last few slots for the current year.

That work has already paid off with 5-star DE Shane Simmons, high 4-star RB Miles "Boobie" Sanders, and 4-star QB Jake Zembiec verbally committing to the Lions. We will get into the remaining top targets for 2016 as the off season moves along, but rest assured that PSU is sitting pretty with a number of top end high school prospects. Those waves of talented depth are coming.

Now you have these players on campus. The next step is developing these blue chip prospects, and getting them experience. Penn State is in a unique situation with such a young roster. In many cases over the past few seasons, players that would have typically played supporting roles or even redshirted, have been forced into action early in their careers. While every team has a star freshman or two, the strength of every team is experience.

Ohio State returns, as of now, seven starters on offense and defense, but they were not forced to rely on freshman in many situations. Even the 3rd string quarterback, Cardale Jones, just completed his third season in Columbus, and with a year of prep school at Fork Union, is 4 seasons removed from high school. Bosa just completed his sophomore season, Bennett graduates and even star "freshman" linebacker Darron Lee redshirted a year ago. Urban Meyer and his staff have been able to bring their incredibly talented recruiting classes along at an appropriate speed, while surrounded by experienced veterans who have been through the grind before.

Look no further than Ohio State's offensive line. A year ago, they started 4 seniors, all of whom went on to the NFL in varying capacities. They were replaced by a senior, two juniors, a true sophomore, and redshirt freshman. Contrast that with PSU's starting line at one point this year that was made up of a redshirt freshman at LT, another redshirt freshman at LG, a center making his 2nd career start, a converted defensive tackle at RG, and the former center at RT.

So what's step two? Patience. By any measure you choose, Penn State is one of, if not the youngest team in the country. Not just on the offensive line, but all over the field, PSU has been forced to lean heavily on players that while capable, would be much better served by a slower "easing in". To compound things, those inexperienced players do not have the veteran experience around them to make the transition easier.

The final part of the equation is consistently bringing in that top level talent. Going back to 2011, Ohio State has signed the 7th, 5th, 2nd, and 3rd ranked classes nationally. All of those were tops in the Big 10 as well. Over that same time frame, Penn State has gone 31st, 46th, 33rd, and and 24th. Yes, there were certainly extenuating circumstances at play, but when you look at it that way, it's a minor miracle PSU very nearly upset the Buckeyes in October.

If you go back even further, however you see much of the same. Sure, Penn State putting a class in the top 10 to 15 was not impossible, but it has never been an annual thing the way it has been in Columbus, Tallahassee, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, and many others. Don't think those stars and rankings matter? Just take a look at where the playoff teams' recruiting classes fall.

I laugh when I see comments wondering whether PSU can get back to a time when competing for championships was a nearly annual expectation, not an every now and then surprise. The first thing I ever wrote for BSD when I joined the staff last spring dealt with some of the shock surrounding Franklin's early successes on the recruiting trail. Sure, there have been a couple players flipped to other schools, and others that chose other high level programs over Penn State. But the Class of 2015, as it currently stands, will have the best collection of talent since a 2010 class which was blown apart by transfers, dismissals and other issues. Just as important, it follows up a top 25 class from a year earlier, and precedes what could very likely be another top 10 class a year from now.

Not too long after that, we may be talking about Penn State and playoffs.