A couple months ago, we delved into how Penn State recruiting has changed over the past decade. Despite what many think, Joe Paterno actually held his own in the twilight of his career, averaging a top 20 class, good for about third in the conference. Paterno’s classes were often chock full of lower-rated players, however, and seemed to get by on quantity, not quality.
Bill O’Brien was dealt unarguably a tough hand for a rookie head coach, first having to follow the legendary Paterno, and then being smacked with some of the harshest sanctions the NCAA has ever doled out. Still, under O’Brien, Penn State averaged a top 40 class, good for fifth in the conference.
James Franklin then came aboard, and has slowly but surely stoked the embers of Penn State recruiting into a conflagration of stars, tweets, commitment videos, and loads of hype following a Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl appearance. With Franklin at the helm, the Lions are entering the season with a top 10 ranking and aspirations of a College Football Playoff appearance.
But what has changed about college football recruiting? Would a top class in 2009 stack up with one in 2017? Do the rich really get richer when it comes to college football? Is Franklin really that good at recruiting? Let’s take a look.
College Football Recruiting was Much Different 10 Years Ago
When I began to compile data for a 10-year recruiting analysis, I thought for sure I’d find out that Penn State really had been bad at recruiting under Paterno. After all, the man had mailed it in, and was no longer out on the trail, visiting players in their homes, eating lasagna, and checking out whether a prospective linebacker could also shoot some hoops, right. I was shocked to see that the Lions were bringing in nationally relevant classes - especially in 2010, which had a 76% Blue Chip Ratio and finished tenth in the country.
One year in particular stood out to me, though not in a good way, and that was 2009. Penn State had 24 members in that class, but just six blue chip players, a blue chip ratio of just 25%. Furthermore, there were only five three-star players on the roster. That’s right - the Lions had a top 25 class with 54% of their class having less than three stars. How is such a thing possible? Well, for starters, the player pool was much, much smaller a decade ago.
The 2018 class is still underway, and so the current number of national recruits will continue to rise. For simplicity’s sake, compare the most recent complete class of 2017 to 2009 - the number of players tracked has nearly tripled in just a decade. What changed? Has football suddenly become popular in the United States? The easiest answer is the ubiquity of the Internet.
Facebook launched in 2004. Twitter in 2006. Instagram came online in 2010, and Snapchat in 2011. With each new social media platform - and ever-tumbling high speed Internet prices - more and more recruits are gaining exposure to recruiting services and their scouts. The more players can be evaluated, the better recruiting services can truly rate how good a prospect stacks up against his peers. Which is why another interesting trend emerged - blue chip players.
From 2010 to 2014, the number of blue chip players increased by almost two-thirds, from 256 up to 422. While the number of very highly touted players increased, the total player pool grew at an even faster clip, more than doubling over the same span. The result? More blue chip players to go around, but fewer in the total available players. This started the real phenomenon of the coveted blue chip ratio: the goal for a team to have more than half of its roster be comprised of 4- and 5-star players.
This has since been compounded by the fact that the overall number of blue chip players has actually been on the decline since 2014, down from 422 to just 343 in the current class. Meanwhile, the total number of high school players being evaluated has continued to increase - over 9,000 last year. Now, a team can get by with a plethora of three star players - a la Penn State in 2009 - and shoot for quantity over quality. But if a team really wants to be good, they need to continue to bring in blue chip players, all the while the prospect pool gets smaller and smaller. The top teams each year bring in more than their fair share of blue chip players, leaving the lesser teams to fight it out over whichever highly touted prospects remain. Speaking of which . . .
How is Alabama Always So Good?
If you haven’t heard, Alabama has been really good since Nick Saban took over in 2006. After a rocky start, the Crimson Tide have risen to the top of the college football world, and have stayed there, winning titles in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015. There have been three editions of the College Football Playoff, and all three have featured Bama. How can one team be so consistently good? Short answer: recruiting.
The Alabama Crimson Tide have had the number one overall recruiting class for 7 straight years. That is absurd. Think about how ecstatic Penn State fans are that we’re currently in the running for a single top ten finish. Then think about what it must be like to have finished on top of the recruiting world for 70% of a decade. Oh, and those odd years of 2010 and 2009? Alabama finished fourth, and third, respectively, in those years. The easiest path to winning in college football starts with accumulating the best talent.
That’s not to belittle the coaching staff that Nick Saban has - he and his assistants are excellent coaches, to be sure. Even high end talent needs to be molded, especially when some of that talent comes with personalities and egos to match. Still, it’s much easier to grow crops in fertile soil, rather than struggling to scratch out a living with fields full of weeds and rocks.
What About Penn State?
So where does that leave the Nittany Lions? Are James Franklin’s efforts in vain? Should the Lions pack it in, and bow to the machine that is Alabama - or Ohio State, for that matter? Well, no, of course not. As it stands right now, the class of 2018 sits at number four in the country, and has a whopping 65% blue chip ratio, with several other highly touted prospects still mulling their college options. Even if the class stands pat, they’re all but assured to be a top ten class.
Regardless of whether Franklin is able to add another player or two between now and National Signing Day(s), he’ll have brought in the single highest-rated class in the past decade. For the first time in the age of modern recruiting, Penn State will be over the 50% mark for their roster’s blue chip ratio, putting them firmly into the top tier of teams nationally. As was already examined, if you have superb talent on your roster, winning becomes that much easier.
But let’s not forget about the fact that despite Alabama having the top recruiting class 7 years running, they’ve “only” won three titles in that span. Talent is a vital component of winning, but so are coaching, preparation, hard work, and even some luck. Franklin has made improvements to his coaching staff since arriving in State College, and whatever shakeups may happen in the future, I trust him and his coaching tree to keep the Lions on the rise, both on the field, and in the recruiting rankings. Franklin really is that good at recruiting.
Because of James Franklin and his coaching staff, the Penn State Nittany Lions will have the horses to regularly stay in the race for the College Football Playoffs for the foreseeable future, if not this season. But on any given Saturday, any given team can win a football game - just ask Alabama. So for now?
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