When James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley in January 2014 the talent level of the Penn State Football team was at one of its lowest points in modern program history. This was to be expected as the Nittany Lions were still dealing with some of the worst sanctions in NCAA history.
Upon Franklin’s arrival, the talent level at Penn State was nowhere near that of the Big Ten’s gold standard - the Ohio State Buckeyes. However, over the course of the past four years CJF has continued to chip away at the Buckeyes. Due to a combination of winning on both the recruiting trail and the football field, James Franklin is closing the talent gap between the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes.
Average recruit ranking is a better way to judge recruiting classes than overall class ranking is. Penn State’s 2019 recruiting class will be a good example of why. Due to scholarship space being tighter, the Nittany Lions will sign fewer players in 2019 than they did in 2018. This will cause the overall class ranking to be lower despite the fact that the average rating is currently higher and very well may finish that way.
Beginning with the 2015 recruiting cycle, Franklin’s first full cycle at the helm for Penn State, the Nittany Lions have been recruiting at their highest level in a long time. Using the composite rankings of 247 Sports, you can see where Penn State’s average ranking has been in comparison to Ohio State in each cycle under Franklin.
2015: Ohio State 90.31 — Penn State 89.05
2016: Ohio State 91.56 — Penn State 88.08
2017: Ohio State 94.59 — Penn State 88.32
2018: Ohio State 94.29 — Penn State 91.70
2019: Ohio State 92.80 — Penn State 91.86
While the Nittany Lions have not yet caught the Buckeyes on the recruiting trail, they certainly are getting closer to doing so.
The Nittany Lions have recruited at a high level each year under Franklin, finishing in the top 20 nationally in recruiting each season. Starting with their strong finish to the 2017 cycle though, Franklin has started to take Penn State recruiting to a new level. This has been especially true in the 2018 and 2019 cycles.
A big step in Franklin closing the talent gap has been the ability to beat Meyer head-to-head on the recruiting trail. In 2018 it was Jayson Oweh, Justin Shorter, Micah Parsons, and Rasheed Walker. This cycle, the Nittany Lions have already landed Brandon Smith and Devyn Ford despite the Buckeyes being in hot pursuit.
While it has happened more often in the current and most recent recruiting cycles, it goes back further than this. In 2016 the Nittany Lions held off the Buckeyes for players such as Miles Sanders and Shane Simmons. They did it again in 2017 for Lamont Wade.
Things would look much different in the Big Ten had those players chose the Buckeyes over the Nittany Lions.
While Penn State does not have as deep a roster as Ohio State does, and the top end talent is not equal yet either, the Nittany Lions are now recruiting at an elite level. As long as a program does this they have the ability to beat any team in the country on any given Saturday.
Hell, in 2016 Penn State beat Ohio State and then had them on the ropes for 58 minutes inside the Horseshoe last season, and that was with a roster featuring a larger talent gap than will exist moving forward. In the coming years, there will be no reason that Penn State can not compete with — and defeat Ohio State — on a yearly basis.
Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes remain the Big Ten’s gold standard. However, if anyone can challenge that school in Columbus, it’s James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.