WOGENRICH: Here's a formula for how Penn State can get closer to being a playoff contender
- Penn State has never made the College Football Playoff.
- PSU has finished in the top 12 in each of the last four final CFP rankings.
- The Lions have won 42 games over the past four seasons.
Six years after hiring James Franklin, Penn State football sits at a new crossroads, one that dozens of programs would like to find.
Penn State is one of only four teams (with Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma) to place in the top 12 of the final College Football Playoff rankings the past four seasons. The Lions have won 42 games in four years, played in three New Year’s 6 bowl games and extended their coach’s contract through 2025.
“It’s as good a program as there is out there,” the Big Ten Network’s Matt Millen said. “The way they recruit, the way they attack practices, the way they are with their academics, everything. [Franklin] has rebuilt a really classy program.”
A playoff appearance still looms as the next step. On Monday, as Clemson faces LSU in the CFP championship game, Penn State and Franklin will watch for grace notes and context clues on how to get there themselves. It involves expansive recruiting, upgraded places to house and train those recruits, and creative ways to pay for all of it.
Complicating the process are expectations at Penn State to continue funding a curriculum with 31 varsity sports.
“We want to be one of those programs that are the elite of college football that people are talking about year in and year out,” Franklin said after the Cotton Bowl. “But it will never come at the expense of doing all the other things right, which makes it that much more difficult.”
How does that translate into making the playoffs? Let’s get creative.
Move south (or at least recruit there more): Southern teams have made the CFP title game their exclusive dominion the past five years. Only once (the first year in 20141-15) have teams outside the South reached the championship game (Ohio State beat Oregon).
Further, Oklahoma and Ohio State have combined for seven CFP appearances. Those programs recruit heavily in Texas and Florida, states fertile with prospects.
“Population base for the talent; pretty simple,” ESPN’s Chris Fowler said on a recent conference call. "You look at the top of the recruiting rankings, I think the personnel link to performance is stronger than ever in the sport, and it’s why I think both of us [Fowler and analyst Kirk Herbstreit] pay more attention to recruiting than we used to."
Penn State has made national recruiting, particularly in competitive states like Florida, a broader part of its strategy. The 2020 class includes running backs from Florida (Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee) and a receiver from Texas (Parker Washington) who could contribute early.
Penn State’s traditional recruiting territory remains the 200-mile radius around State College. Anymore, though, that’s merely a starting point.
A larger financial commitment: Football, long the driver of Penn State’s athletic department finances, needs even more resources. It might be antithetical to the college experience, but it’s reality.
According to the most recent data reported to the U.S. Department of Education, Penn State spent 64.6% of its men’s sports budget on football. Alabama spent 75.2%, Clemson and Georgia 73% each.
The comparison isn’t squarely parallel since Penn State sponsors significantly more varsity sports (31) than Alabama (21), Clemson and Georgia (19 each). Sandy Barbour, Penn State’s athletic director, said at the Cotton Bowl that the university’s commitment to its total varsity program remains vital.
Still, Barbour said that Penn State has set a football funding benchmark: To be among the Big Ten’s top three and the national top 10 in spending on coaching and personnel salaries, facilities, academic services, etc.
“I think, in many of the things we’ve done, we’re top one or two [in the Big Ten] and top five-ish nationally,” Barbour said. "But this is an all-around a commitment to compete in everything we do."
That might require a funding reframe. Three years ago, when Penn State introduced its Athletics Master Plan, the first phase focused primarily on non-football projects: a new natatorium, indoor tennis facility, indoor all-sports practice facility and the all-purpose “Center for Excellence.”
All are vital projects. But so is the $69 million renovation of the Lasch Football Building, which could be expanded and further updated. Holuba Hall needs work, and weight rooms require constant refreshing.
Beyond that, football staffs go far beyond 10 assistant coaches. Playoff teams are built around analysts, player-personnel staffs and booming recruiting operations. Those are positions where Penn State needs to grow further.
“As it relates to the assistant coaches, as it relates to facilities, those are conversations we have, frankly, almost daily, certainly weekly, about our ability to compete,” Barbour said. “… James is always pushing what’s going to help Penn State be competitive."
New revenue streams: Penn State is fortunate to reap the benefits of being in the Big Ten, which reported $759 million in revenue in fiscal year 2018, according to USA Today. That helped Penn State generate a record $155.2 million in athletics revenue in fiscal year 2018, more than $100 million of which was generated by football.
And the university is looking for more. Barbour has said that selling naming rights to Beaver Stadium is “absolutely something we would consider,” and alcohol has been sold on a limited basis at sporting events for several years.
Penn State should explore expanding alcohol sales stadium-wide during football season. Nationwide, alcohol sales have proven to be successful revenue-generating programs in college football.
Without a marquee donor like Terry Pegula, whose $102 million donation created two successful hockey programs, Penn State football also must fundraise differently. Last year, the program received a $1.5 million donation to help fund the Lasch renovations. It needs more of those.
"We need to continually press and look at and find that sweet spot between bringing value to our fans and our customers, making sure we’re in the right place from a market standpoint, and also making sure that we can create the kinds of resources that are necessary to fund all of this success," Barbour said.
Personnel: During the season, ESPN’s Herbstreit said that Penn State’s “brand is back.” So how does it take the next step? Here’s what Herbstreit saw.
“In an era of offensive football, they need five, six, seven options at the skill spots, not two or three,” he said. “And I think that’s the area of the program, when I look at them, that I still think they’re developing and still growing: the playmakers at the skill spots, the depth. Obviously they have some pretty good players, but the depth of that spot I think is key when you look at some of the premier offenses and teams that are ranked in the top in the country.”
Play Ohio State at home: Penn State has won four Big Ten titles, only one of which (2008) included a road win at Ohio State. The Lions are 2-12 in Columbus since joining the Big Ten.
Penn State hosts Ohio State on Oct. 24. That could be the next crossroad on Penn State’s path to the playoff.