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Recruiting Historical: Penn State's Decline and Resurrection

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In the run to National Signing Day, we look at how the recruiting landscape has changed, Penn State's place, and its road back to the top.

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.

Conf 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
Big Ten 218 253 258 301 329 309
ACC 222 270 273 283 290 324
B12 115 87 110 137 157 180
Pac12 209 258 250 241 231 284
SEC 211 242 261 306 323 406
ALL OTHER 538 575 596 615 608 449

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:

Conf 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
Big Ten 15.6 18.1 18.4 21.5 23.5 22.1
ACC 15.9 19.3 19.5 20.2 20.7 23.1
B12 11.5 8.7 11.0 13.7 15.7 18.0
Pac12 14.9 18.4 17.9 17.2 16.5 20.3
SEC 15.1 17.3 18.6 21.9 23.1 29.0

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.

SKOOL 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
Penn State 31 35 33 30 30 28
Nebraska 23 25 31 31 30 26
Michigan State 23 20 24 19 25 24
Ohio State 19 37 34 37 42 37
Michigan 19 23 34 39 33 28
Iowa 18 12 12 22 32 30
Illinois 15 21 16 17 21 23
Maryland 15 12 11 23 25 17
Wisconsin 13 18 23 26 20 34
Purdue 12 13 12 23 24 16
Minnesota 11 7 6 10 11 6
Indiana 9 16 8 7 6 9
Rutgers 5 5 7 7 19 21
Northwestern 5 9 7 10 11 10

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.

Net Players 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
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:
216 237 204 119 91 83
PSU's Conf. Rank: 1st 2nd 3rd
4th
4th
4th

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.

1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
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

National Ranks 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
Penn State 3 4 6 10 14 22
Ohio State 20 2 3 5 2 8
Michigan NR 17 4 3 9 21
Wisconsin NR NR NR 20 16 12
Michigan State 11 24 18 NR 19 NR

Talent Ranks - Coaching Change, Sanctions, or (sometimes) Both

National Ranks 1990 1995 2000 2005 2010 2014
Alabama 25 18 NR NR 17 2
Oklahoma NR NR NR 17 15 13
Miami 1 1 10 2 1 1
Nebraska 12 15 7 9 13 25
Kansas State NR NR NR 21 NR NR
Texas 18 NR NR NR 3 10
Florida State 10 3 1 1 12 5
UNC 21 7 5 14 NR 23
Oregon NR NR NR NR 25 9
Clemson 24 20 NR NR NR 20
Washington 4 6 15 19 NR NR
LSU 13 25 22 8 4 4
Tennessee 9 5 8 4 8 11
Florida 16 16 2 6 6 7

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.