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Penn State Football: Measuring The Talent Gap

by on January 05, 2015 2:00 PM

For anyone, let alone an athlete, so much happens physically, mentally and emotionally between the junior year of high school and senior year of college.

In turn, it's impossible to predict with 100 percent accuracy how a career will unfold over all those years. It's impossible to know who will deliver on the field and who will turn out to be a bust. 

And that's why the debate continues to rage on: "How much do recruiting star ratings really matter?"

It is true that like all things there are exceptions to the rule. Unrated players will become household names and walk-on players can become the best weapon on the team.

But at large, the rating system is an accurate assessment of what kind of players a program is taking in each year. A rating isn't an absolute guarantee for any one specific athlete, but the historical accuracy of what a five-star prospect brings to the table is still high. So as a result there is something to be said for a football program bringing in dozens of top prospects, even if they don't all turn out to be future Hall of Fame players.

With that understanding, as Penn State looks to create a championship level program, it's reasonable to ask how the Nittany Lions stack up against some of the best teams playing in this season's biggest games. How far does James Franklin have left to go if he wants to make good on all the hype?

The answer: It depends on how he wants to win.

Taking a look at the three biggest games of the past week: Michigan State/Baylor, and the two national semifinal games between Florida State/Oregon and Ohio State/Alabama one thing is clear. There is a lot of talent on the field. (Breaking news at its finest.)

To get a gauge of how these teams all compare, I took the box score player participation chart for the offense and defense of each team. It lists -- with relative accuracy -- which players started the game for each team on both sides of the ball. From there it was simply time to find all 22 players for each team in a recruiting database to see how they rated back in high school.

For the sake of consistency I used, largely because their services are easier to search through. Recruiting sites often vary between how they rate 4-star and 5-star players, but those kinds of discrepancies wouldn't make a big difference in the overall picture. Good players are good.

Unsurprisingly the best teams of the past few years have a lot of 5-star players across the starting 22.

  • Alabama: 10
  • Florida State:8 
  • Ohio State: 5
  • Oregon: 2

Bump that out to players rated 4 or 5 stars and the gap between Oregon and Alabama closes but the overall volume of talent increases greatly.

  • Alabama: 18
  • Ohio State: 16
  • Florida State: 15
  • Oregon: 12

While it is interesting to see that the teams with the most 5-star players lost their respective bowl games, it's hard to say that it's truly related to the outcome of the game; or rather that it somehow is a discredit to the ranking system. At a high level the margin between the two teams will only decrease, but measure out Alabama against most of your average teams in America and those five-star athletes are making a bigger and bigger impact.

What's perhaps even more interesting though is how Michigan State and Baylor compare. Those two teams have played football as well as anyone in the nation and have done it more than just this season.

The five stars: Michigan State started 2. Baylor started 0.

The four and five stars: Michigan State started 4. Baylor started 5

So how did they do it?

For one both teams rely a lot on experience. For example, the Spartans started 8 players who didn't even receive a recruiting ranking or star rating while in high school -- unknown prospects who were coached up over time. In fact, Michigan Start started 11 players from the 2011 recruiting class. While some programs see players come and go in fairly short order with a good dose of freshman and sophomore talent, Michigan State and Baylor have both won over time with players who have gotten better and better over time.

And Baylor? Seventeen players who started against the Spartans were rated a 3-star or lower in high school. You don't have to have talent to win.

But how does Penn State compare?

Despite hefty scholarship restrictions Penn State has done okay for itself on the talent scale thanks to solid recruiting by Bill O'Brien and Franklin. Even so, the Nittany Lions are in a noticeably lower standing when it comes to who is starting.

Taking the starting 22 from Penn State's bowl game against Boston College, the breakdown looks like this. 

  • Five stars: 2 (Hackenberg/Hull)
  • Four/Five stars: 10 (would have been listed last among Top 4 teams, see above)

It's an imperfect measure that doesn't account for depth, the rest of the roster and injuries, but even just shrinking down the teams to 22 players it's clear that there is a large gap between where Alabama is and where Penn State is operating. That isn't a surprise for anyone with an internet connection, but it becomes more tangible as you map it out.

To flip it around, ranking all of the teams by number of players starting who were rated 3-stars or below.*

  • Baylor: 17
  • Penn State: 12
  • Oregon: 10
  • Michigan State: 9
  • Florida State: 7
  • Ohio State: 6
  • Alabama: 4

So it becomes clear as Penn State moves forward into the post action era: You can win without top talent overflowing on the roster, but it takes coaching and hard work and even more time. It takes the right kinds of players and the right kind of player development to make up for what other teams might have more naturally. Some of that you can already see with what O'Brien, Franklin and to a more specific point, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop have done with their teams despite lesser talent overall.

Or you can recruit at a high level. Bring in top talent, coach it up and let things run their course. That too takes time but it's kind of the difference between building your own gaming computer or going to BestBuy to pick one up that you know will work when you take it out of the box. Maybe it breaks, but you like your chances that it will work.

Ultimately, there isn't a right answer to how to go about it. But even with Penn State's seemingly strong recruiting under Franklin, there is still some work left to be done.

How much work?

According to Bud Elliot at SBnation, his February 2014 story on championship grade recruiting has some pretty incredible numbers. For example 73-percent of the players Alabama has signed for the average recruiting class have been considered "blue chip" recruits. There are about 300 of those kinds of players per year. Elliot would go on to list the Top 11 programs in the nation landing blue chip prospects and noting that every national title since 2002 had been won by a team on that Top 11 list. No team was below 51-percent. (Read Bud's story here.)

Penn State's percentage? 21-percent of the average class is made up of blue chips. Even in the early going of the Franklin tenure that average was still more or less held.

None of this is to say Penn State won't turn things around, or that Penn State won't win under Franklin. Michigan State and Baylor are proof that you don't need top talent to win top tier games. The words "Penn State" and "sanctions" have been written so many times that we don't need to rehash those issues. They have their own role to play in how Penn State got to this point in the first place.

But regardless of how or why the Nittany Lions are here, the hill is only going to get steeper to climb from here on out in a post-sanction era. With the introduction of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, James Franklin will have his hands full trying to get Penn State into a new Top 11 anytime soon.

And if Ohio State goes on to win the national title, Franklin's biggest recruiting opposition will have a pretty big ace to play.


*This again is an imperfect method, Gregg Garrity is listed as a starter for Penn State against Boston College as well as Jordan Lucas who was "suspended" for the first quarter. Even so the general picture at large is not impacted even if these details are corrected on the official record.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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