In the final College Football Playoff rankings, Penn State checked in one spot ahead of its Peach Bowl counterpart Ole Miss. With massive realignment coming, both schools are in danger of moving down the totem pole in their respective conferences next season, but Lane Kiffin is the only coach doing something about it.
James Franklin had another ho-hum National Signing Day with a top 15 class in the country and no big surprises or flips. That is a positive, but he’s also been overly pragmatic with his reluctance to embrace the transfer portal to fill holes on his roster, adding just a kicker and a Division II offensive tackle, who later decommitted and flipped to Maryland.
Meanwhile, Kiffin is in an arms race with the top teams in the country, and he might be winning it. Ole Miss is No. 2 in the transfer portal rankings, only behind Coach Prime and Colorado. Kiffin has already added 10 players through the portal to supplement his top 20 recruiting class.
Sure, Franklin out-recruited Ole Miss, but High School recruiting isn’t the only game anymore. Especially for the teams that aren’t getting top 5 recruiting classes, like Alabama and Georgia. There isn’t a huge difference between the high school classes that Franklin and Kiffin put together, but there is a massive difference in portal additions.
Teams are looking to get better right now by adding veterans who have impressed with their performance at other college programs.
Two of the four teams in the College Football Playoff have transfer quarterbacks, and even Alabama’s leading receiver was a 2022 transfer from Georgia. You can’t keep pace without adding in the portal, just look at Dabo Swinney at Clemson.
In 2020, Clemson made the College Football Playoff for the second straight year. Then, that offseason, Swinney took zero transfers, and the team dropped to 10-3 with a win in the Cheez-It Bowl.
Following that year, Swinney took one transfer, backup quarterback Hunter Johnson and the Tigers went 10-3 with a loss in the Orange Bowl.
Finally, before last season, Swinney brought in just one transfer, another backup quarterback, and Clemson went 8-4 and is preparing to play in the Gator Bowl. That’s what happens to programs that don’t embrace the portal, and Franklin might be leading Penn State down that path.
There is still plenty of time for Franklin to act, but Kiffin didn’t waste any. He has already amassed a class that can essentially rebuild the Rebels defense and adds two contributors on offense, Gerquan Scott an offensive guard and Antwane Wells Jr. a wide receiver.
On defense, Ole Miss’s weaker side of the ball, Kiffin got commitments from two safeties and two cornerbacks, but the headliners are edge rushers Tyler Baron and Princely Umanmielen. Baron ranked 36th in the country with 41 quarterback pressures for Tennessee, and Umanmielen, the former Florida Gator, ranked 25th with 45. The Rebels are also a finalist for the top available transfer, defensive lineman Walter Nolen from Texas A&M.
Pass-rush was the team’s biggest weakness, so they aggressively addressed it. That would be like James Franklin adding two elite wide receivers, and being in on a third. Instead, the Nittany Lions are waiting desperately for Julian Fleming, an Ohio State cast-off to officially commit and save the offense.
With the Big Ten and SEC emerging as the two mega-conferences, the Nittany Lions will be competing with schools like Ole Miss and Missouri, for the final spots in the 12-team playoff for the foreseeable future. The landscape of college football is undergoing a tectonic shift, but James Franklin is operating like Penn State will still have three built-in wins over the Big Ten West and a clear path to 10 wins next season.
Instead, the Nittany Lions have added UCLA, USC, and Washington to a schedule that perennially features matchups with Ohio State.
Franklin is stuck in his ways and that means Penn State is falling way behind in the race to the top of college football, even with the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff.
Right now the only constant in college football is change, and like Brad Pitt said as Billy Beane in Moneyball, “adapt or die.” I’m worried Penn State football is choosing the latter.
The Nittany Lions are favored over Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, but a win in that game could be a misleading measuring stick. Lane Kiffin is winning the offseason and that might be more important.