Penn State spent the first quarter of 2017 securely perched atop the 247Sports’ Composite Big Ten recruiting class rankings for the 2018 cycle. A strong start to class construction — including commitments from three 5-star prospects — propelled the Nittany Lions into that enviable position.
However, anyone who assumed Penn State would cruise toward National Signing Day on Feb. 7 without significant competition for this status hasn’t paid recent attention to the college football recruiting trail.
Nittany Lions coach James Franklin, fresh off his first Big Ten championship, shares the conference with fellow ace recruiters Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer. These rivals bring a Super Bowl appearance and three national titles to the table, respectively.
Harbaugh quickly emerged as a superstar with the pursuit of top prospects following his return to Ann Arbor. The track record in this department runs much deeper for Meyer, who has built champions at Florida and Ohio State.
By now, you’re surely familiar with the stars who’ve emerged under his watch: Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin, J.T. Barrett, Joey Bosa, Cardale Jones, Ezekiel Elliott and six of the top 70 selections of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Meyer perennially provides himself with strong chances to cultivate high-impact recruiting classes by bringing in large volumes of talent. Here’s a glimpse at where his past 10 prospect hauls finished in composite National Signing Day rankings, dating back to 2006, which was Meyer’s first full recruiting cycle in Gainesville.
- 2006 (Florida): No. 2 overall
- 2007 (Florida): No. 1 overall
- 2008 (Florida): No. 6 overall
- 2009 (Florida): No. 7 overall
- 2010 (Florida): No. 1 overall
- 2013 (Ohio State): No. 2 overall
- 2014 (Ohio State): No. 3 overall
- 2015 (Ohio State): No. 7 overall
- 2016 (Ohio State): No. 4 overall
- 2017 (Ohio State): No. 2 overall
Unless your name is Nick Saban — the owner of seven consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes in composite rankings — it doesn’t get any more consistent in college football this century.
Bring it back to present day, and Meyer is delivering more of the same. Ohio State has surged this spring, securing six blue-chip commitments since April began. Tuesday, the Buckeyes bagged top-ranked Ohio linebacker Dallas Gant, who had included Penn State on his list of finalists.
“It’s just the best place for me,” Gant told Jeremy Birmingham, Land of 10’s Ohio State recruiting reporter. “It’s at home; I’m not leaving the state. Meyer is a great coach, and a great guy.”
This pledge pushed Ohio State to the top of 2018 Big Ten class rankings, ending a lengthy Nittany Lions reign. The Buckeyes’ scintillating six-week run features four top-100 overall prospects in 247Sports’ Composite rankings, headlined by 5-star DT Taron Vincent.
During this same time frame, Penn State suffered a crucial recruiting loss. Micah Parsons, a 5-star recruit considered the nation’s No. 1 defensive end, ended a 14-month commitment to Franklin on April 23.
The Nittany Lions remain a contender for the in-state standout, though Parsons told Land of 10 he’s embracing a “fresh start”. His recruitment could prove to be the determining factor in whether Ohio State or Penn State ultimately finishes this cycle sitting at No. 1 in conference class rankings.
Parsons visited Columbus on April 15 for the spring game, and the Buckeyes quickly became a favorite in the 247Sports Crystal Ball (63 percent) following his decommitment. Though he mentioned schools such as Alabama, Clemson, Florida and Nebraska as potential destinations, Parsons expressed plenty of intrigue about a future at Ohio State.
“Their defense has won them a lot of games, and I think I could help make that kind of impact,” he said. “I also want to be in a great defensive corps, where I can trust all the people around me and stay on my assignments.”
His decision to reopen the recruitment process puts the tenuous nature of recruiting rankings on display. This early in the cycle, every college football coaching staff is at risk of watching a prized prospect walk away from its class.
As Zach Abolverdi of SEC Country pointed out Monday, Florida Gators offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has shifted “all of his focus” toward a pair of Georgia quarterbacks: Justin Fields and Emory Jones. Committed to Penn State and Ohio State, respectively, since last year, both Elite 11 finalists continue to field immense interest from elsewhere.
On the flip side, both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions should be considered predatory on the recruiting trail. Given their recent success and strong class foundations, these teams are more likely to poach elite prospects away from other programs.
Though Penn State holds a quantitative edge over Ohio State (13 commits versus 10 commits) this cycle, Meyer’s haul is held in higher esteem based on quality, as determined by recruiting-industry leaders. The average rating of a Buckeyes commit is 96.34 (No. 1 nationally), while Nittany Lions pledges carry an average rating of 91.65 (No. 5 nationally).
From an overall class rating standpoint, the situation is much tighter.
Ohio State is a slight notch ahead, holding a 226.95-226.29 advantage. No other Big Ten team even reaches a class score of 170, while only two other programs — LSU and Miami — have surpassed 200 at this stage.
Though Franklin has enjoyed tremendous recruiting streaks since his arrival in Happy Valley, sustaining this pace would put the program in uncharted territory for recent history. Penn State signed a top-20 class overall and top-4 class in the conference during each of Franklin’s first three full recruiting cycles, though the Nittany Lions peaked at No. 15 overall in 2015 and 2017.
Staying power in this case will depend on the program’s ability to avoid costly decommitments, most notably from Fields, who is listed No. 1 among dual-threat quarterbacks. Only Ohio State and Miami currently claim more top-100 commits than Penn State (five), so the stage is set for Franklin to build.
Surpassing the Buckeyes and regaining conference supremacy in class rankings likely requires a strong percentage of signings on the Nittany Lions’ targets list. This includes prized prospects such as Parsons, 4-star DE Dorian Hardy and 4-star WR Jahan Dotson from New Jersey, 4-star OT Rasheed Walker and 4-star WR Daniel George from Maryland, and 4-star S Isheem Young of Philadelphia.
Each of these recruits, with the exception of Parsons, is projected to sign with Penn State in the 247Sports Crystal Ball. It’s rather doubtful that outlook will come to fruition, so a few wild-card targets such as 5-star DE KJ Henry of North Carolina, 4-star DT Matthew Jones of New York and 4-star CB Jordan Miner of Florida might need to surprise the majority of recruiting experts to elevate the Nittany Lions above Ohio State.
Don’t expect the Meyer recruiting machine to slow in Columbus, but doubt Franklin at your own risk. He’s already accomplished more — without the consistent influx of talent set to enroll in 2018 — than most realistically anticipated.
Already a conference champion, his success proves the Penn State roster doesn’t require three consecutive top-ranked recruiting classes. Still, overtaking Ohio State for the No. 1 spot in Big Ten class rankings this winter would resonate as another statement about the Nittany Lions’ ascension.