Yesterday BSD's Matt asked how Penn State could return to the college football elite. Return, rejoin, whatever word you choose - the inital premise here is that Penn State once crushed opponents on the foosball grid iron, in part because they recruited at a nationally elite level. That, friends, may be more accurate than you might have guessed.
Although online databases of recruiting starz only stretch back to Penn State's dark ages, we can approximate recruiting starz by looking at the make up of NFL rosters. Given that the average career of an NFL player is approximately four years, then the change in rostered NFL players for a particular school closely mimics its recruiting cycle. A linebacker leaves college for the NFL, and is replaced on the team by another recruited linebacker. Four years later, linebacker B enters the NFL as linebacker A's stint draws to a close (on average, at least).
In other words, the more talent you put into the NFL, the better your recruiting classes were. And that, friends, is our tenuous proxy for recruiting rankings before the birth of starz rankings. At least, it is for this post, in which we'll draw wild conclusions of doom and glory.
National Landscape By Conference
Let's first look at the makeup of NFL rosters from a wider lens, the conference level. Because of the glut of conference realignment that began in the early 1990's, we've normalized the conference data for members by taking today's rolls, and applying them equally across all time points. Thus, the "1990 Big Ten" in the table below - which had just 10 actual members back then - includes Penn State (who was independent), Nebraska (who was in the Big 8 (which doesn't exist now)), Maryland (ACC), and Rutgers (Independent), for the purposes of this exercise.
The graph for the table above is your cover photo to this post. The SEC and Big Ten were long time peers in terms of putting talent into the NFL. But the SEC took off in the last cycle, and hasn't looked back. On a per team basis, an average school for each conference was sending the following talent to the pros:
The Big Ten and Penn State's Decline
Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990 (but wouldn't begin competing in conference until 1993). At that point, Penn State had a sizable lead on its new conference brethren among NFL rosters. Our Lions played for three national titles in the 1980s, winning two. None of Michigan State, Michigan, nor Ohio State had played for a single national championship in more than a decade.
After Penn State joined the conference, it didn't take Ohio State and Michigan long to wake up. Nebraska, as well, was enjoying its greatest run of football since Bob Devaney roamed the sideline in a hilarious red fedora. Call it age, complacency, nepotism, an unwillingness to spend, a stodgy focus on academics, or what have you, but Penn State's pool of talent peaked in 1995, and dropped thereafter, despite the NFL increasing its roster spots (via league expansion from 28 to 32 teams, and via simple roster numbers (from 45 to 48 to 53 to 61, including practice squads). What had been an 8-player advantage over the next best conference mate in 1990, fell to a T-4th place mark in 2010, and a 12 player deficit to Ohio State.
|PSU vs. OSU||12||-2||-1||-7||-12||-9|
|PSU vs. Michigan||12||12||-1||-9||-3||0|
|PSU vs. Nebraska||8||10||2||-1||0||2|
|PSU vs. Sparty||8||15||9||11||5||4|
|PSU vs. Iowa||13||23||21||8||-2||-2|
|PSU vs. Wisconsin||18||17||10||4||10||-6|
|PSU vs. Rutgers||26||30||26||23||11||7|
|PSU vs. Maryland||16||23||22||7||5||11|
|PSU vs. Illinois||16||14||17||13||9||5|
|PSU vs. Purdue||19||22||21||7||6||12|
|PSU vs. jNW||26||26||26||20||19||18|
|PSU vs. Indiana||22||19||25||23||24||19|
|PSU vs. Minnesota||20||28||27||20||19||22|
|Summed Net Advantage:
|PSU's Conf. Rank:||1st||2nd||3rd
Tell me if this surprises you: Penn State's recent teams, as reflected by future pro talent, had slipped a bit. But, relative to the competition, Penn State slipped a lot. In other words, it wasn't so much that Penn State changed from what it had always done, more or less. It was that the world around Penn State changed, and Penn State didn't (yes - for both better and worse). In the table below, we divide every school's count of rostered NFL players per year by four (to approximate a "per recruiting class" figure), and order them from largest to smallest (which gives us an approximated "recruiting class rank"). Penn State's rate of talent production (and, by extension, acquisition) didn't fall off the planet. But it's rank relative to its peers did.
|Penn State Pros/Class||7.75||8.75||8.25||7.50||7.50||7.00|
|Penn State Natl Rank||3||4||6||10||14||22|
Penn State's Road Back
Great players make great coaches. There's an argument to be made for the reverse of that, too, of course. But if Ohio State's 30+ Lombardi-era power traps in the recent national championship taught us anything, it's that football, by and large, remains a game based on physical domination, less about trickeration. And the coach with the biggest, fastest, and strongest players looks smarter than a coach whose roster is only big, or only fast.
To that end, James Franklin, despite the sanctions handicap, is well on his way to signing Penn State's best recruiting class in many years. He also has something to offer that almost no other blue blood program can offer today - playing time, and lots of it. With a truncated roster, incoming recruits stand an excellent chance of seeing the field early and often.
Talent Ranks - Penn State and Key Conference Foes
Talent Ranks - Coaching Change, Sanctions, or (sometimes) Both
Keep in mind that, since we're ranking rostered NFL players, the cause precedes the results shown in the table. Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson won a ton of games in Miami with a ton of talented players from the 1980's and early 90's. The Canes got smacked by sanctions in 1995, and by 2000, their count of NFL players had fallen from 1st to 10th. But between 2000 - 2002, they lost just twice, while producing a string of NFL talent rarely seen. And by 2005, more Canes were in the NFL - again - than from any other college team.
Oklahoma got spanked in the 1980's. By 1990, the program was a shell of its wishbone glory, and a series of poor coaching hires kept the Sooners out of the running in the talent acquisition game. Then Bob Stoops came to Norman, and returned OU to the land of the living. Alabama cut a similar path.
UNC's fall and Texas' rise are the result of the same man - Mack Brown. Spurrier boosted Florida, and Meyer kept it going, though that's likely to wane in a similar fashion to Tennessee, who bumbled a canning of Phil Fulmer for Lane Kiffen and Derek Dooley (and finally, Butch Jones). Nebraska, similarly but in stronger fashion, hasn't been able to recapture its Tom Osbourne glory - and Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini play a role in that.
It's certainly possible that Penn State's talent count drops (from #22 in 2014) before it gets better. But with the young talent on hand, and the talent expected to sign in a few weeks (and, the talent committed to 2016 as well as the still openly gaping holes in our roster), we're more likely to see a Miami style recovery than an Oklahoma one.