Penn State Football: Why haven’t the Nittany Lions been more successful, despite having so many NFL Draft picks?

STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 20: Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks on before the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium on November 20, 2021 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 20: Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks on before the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium on November 20, 2021 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

With the 2022 NFL Draft come and gone, the topic of Penn State Football having so many draft picks, but not producing more wins, has understandably emerged once again.

The Nittany Lions had eight players drafted throughout this year’s draft, including a first rounder in Jahan Dotson. That puts Penn State Football at No. 4 in the nation for total players drafted in 2022.

So, what gives?

Certainly, the first thing that comes to mind is the coaching, and I’m not here to dispute that as (probably) the primary reason for failing to meet expectations. However, there may be another reason that seems to get overlooked by a large portion of the fanbase.

So, coaching aside, what has held Penn State Football back from delivering another Big Ten title and reaching the College Football Playoff?

Many of you have probably heard the old saying – “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” – and while that may be cliché, there is definitely some truth to it.

Fans tend to think of some of the very best Penn State Football players from the past six seasons – Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin, Mike Gesicki, Miles Sanders, Trace McSorley, KJ Hamler, Yetur Gross-Matos, Micah Parsons, Odafe Oweh, Pat Freiermuth, Jahan Dotson, Arnold Ebiketie, and Jaquan Brisker, to name a few – and they think that, based on those names alone, Penn State had to have accomplished more than they did.

Here’s the deal; in any given season, Penn State’s best five to 10 players are right up there with the best five to 10 players on any team in the country, but what about the rest of the guys who start or regularly see playing time?

I’m talking about all 22 starters on offense and defense, their backups who help provide necessary depth, and some key special teamers such as kickers, punters, and returners. For the sake of argument, we’ll put a ballpark number of around 50 players who are key contributors each season.

As an example, let’s examine the 2017 Penn State Football team; a team that many feel was the most talented of the James Franklin era, that should have made the College Football Playoff, but wound up 11-2 and settling for a Fiesta Bowl victory.

“That 2017 team had guys like Barkley, McSorley, Gesicki, and Hamilton, and they couldn’t make the playoff!?”

What do all of those players have in common? They were all offensive skill players. None of those players listed were offensive linemen, and none of them were defensive players.

Take a look at the starters of that 2017 Penn State Football defense, and what they went on to accomplish (or not accomplish) on the gridiron, after leaving Penn State.

As of 2021, none of them were regular starters in the NFL, a few are playing different positions (Marcus Allen and Troy Apke), and one is even playing on the other side of the ball (Jason Cabinda). There are many players who started on that defense that aren’t even playing football anymore.

Additionally, only two out of five starters along the offensive line for Penn State in 2017 were drafted (Connor McGovern and Will Fries), neither of which were regular starters in the NFL as of the 2021 season, and the rest are no longer playing football.

*Make note that this is not meant to be disrespectful or degrading to those who did not stick in the NFL, as it is a very difficult thing to do, and it is the nature of the sport (business). These players are all far better and more successful athletes than I, and probably anyone reading this, ever was or ever will be. This is just meant to bring to light of some of the talent differences between Penn State Football, and some of the country’s top programs over the past decade.

I encourage you to take a look at the depth charts, for each season, of some of the perennial powers in the sport over the past six seasons – Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Ohio State, etc. – and then reference where many of them are now. For the most part, they have more players starting across the NFL, and less former players that are no longer playing the game. Many of them are at least in backup roles or on practice squads, though they do still have a few that are out of the league, as every school does.

The Nittany Lions had one of the best groups of offensive skill players in the country in that 2017 season, but that is only a handful of players. Looking at players one through 50, were they one of the four or five best teams in the country that season? No, and the same can be said about each and every season for Penn State.

2019 was another 11-2 season for Penn State Football in which they were a few plays away from perhaps a playoff berth, but ultimately had to settle for a win in the Cotton Bowl over Memphis.

In that season, the Nittany Lions were led by some phenomenal players such as KJ Hamler, Journey Brown, Jahan Dotson, Pat Freiermuth, Micah Parsons, Yetur Gross-Matos, etc., which is an outstanding core, perhaps one of the best in the country, but could the rest of the roster match up with some of the best teams in the country that season? Once again, the answer is no.

What about recruiting? Has James Franklin truly brought in as much talent as many of us like to think?

Penn State’s average ranking of their recruiting classes under James Franklin (excluding the 2022 class, since they have not yet played in a game) is about 16th nationally, with just one top 10 class (2018), and zero top five classes.

An average of 16th nationally is great, and most schools in the country would love to be able to recruit at that level, but it pales in comparison to schools such as Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, and Clemson, who are all consistently making the playoff, which is the ultimate expectation by Penn State Football fans (as it should be).

For reference, Ohio State’s average recruiting class ranking from 2014 to 2021 is about fourth, so does Penn State truly have enough talent to consistently beat the Buckeyes? Unfortunately, no.

As for Michigan, their average ranking from 2014 to 2021 is about the same as Penn State’s, right around 16th, but that is mostly skewed by an outlier class that ranked 37th in 2015, Jim Harbaugh’s first season with the Wolverines.

However, Michigan has had a higher ranked recruiting class than Penn State in five of the last six recruiting cycles (again, excluding the 2022 class that has yet to play a season), yet the Nittany Lions have beaten the Wolverines in two of the last three meetings, and three of the last five.

So, the Nittany Lions almost certainly have never had a top five roster – top to bottom, which means all positions, as well as depth at those positions – in the country at any point in James Franklin’s tenure, and have probably only had a top 10 roster one or two times in that span.

In a sport where only four teams make the playoff, it makes sense as to why Penn State Football has yet to accomplish that feat. They just haven’t had quite the same level of talent throughout their entire roster as teams that have reached the elusive semifinals, even if on the surface, it seems like they do.

Let me also point out that I am not using this as an excuse for going 11-11 over the past two seasons, or losing to teams such as Illinois, Nebraska, or Maryland. They certainly had more than enough talent to beat those teams.

The Nittany Lions certainly should have won more games than they did, but in terms of winning more championships and reaching the coveted College Football Playoff, they’re about on par for the course.

Ultimately, my message is this – Penn State Football has had many talented players over the past eight years, but their teams as a whole have not been quite as talented as many of us may think.

So when you look at how much talent the Nittany Lions roll out there on the field each season, don’t just look at the top five to 10 guys, because it takes a lot more than that to win championships. Instead, look at the top fifty players, and ask yourself, truthfully – How do these fifty players stack up against some of the best fifty players for some of the nation’s best teams?

Top to bottom, is this truly one of the 10-15 best rosters in the country?

Is this a roster that is more likely to produce seven/eight wins, or more likely to produce 11+ wins, compete for a Big Ten title, and be playoff contenders?

The answer is usually going to somewhere in the middle.

Next. Some bigtime official visits to Happy Valley are on the horizon. dark