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Penn State Football: Inside James Franklin’s Battle for the Big Ten East

by on May 13, 2018 9:15 PM

“All animals are equal,” George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “but some animals are more equal than others.”

For the modern-day football team at what was once Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania, that’s also true.

An Ohio State or a Michigan is more important than an Appalachian State or a Kent State. Year-round. 

Although head coach James Franklin is usually loathe to admit such things. #hatesit.

That was originally the case along the Coaches Caravan last week, at the Day 2 stop in Philadelphia, as he pooh-poohed a question of mine.

“As you know, App State is our first opponent,” Franklin pointed out. “I’m focused on App State. What the fans and what the media and what others talk and think about is great. But we don’t think like that. We don’t talk like that. … For us, we just focus on one game at a time.”

Earlier that day, while answering a question about scheduling Pitt, and later the next day, in Washington, D.C., Franklin was much more forthcoming. Conference games are different. And division opponents are critical, both on the field and off it, during the season and during the other eight months as well.

To assess what Penn State has done the past two seasons you need to also consider what it has done in its own division, against some very heady competition — especially in the persons of Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio. Combined, those three head coaches have a college coaching record of 381-131 (.744), with three national titles (Meyer) and three NFC Conference game appearances and one Super Bowl appearance (Harbaugh). Dantonio has had 12- and 13-win seasons.

To get anywhere important, Franklin has had to combat the heavy effects of the Sandusky scandal, as well go through those three head coaches. On the field and off it, 24/7/365. And he’s been quite successful at it. You know the litany of numbers over the past two seasons:




No doubt, competing as a member of the Big Four of the East takes some special strategies. Franklin is an inveterate bench-marker, so it matters what the other three schools are doing. Especially Ohio State.

Last week, the Penn State coach shared a few of his thoughts about competing — and succeeding — in the Big Ten East:


In a nutshell: The Big Ten is getting tougher. Scott Frost could be a killer at Nebraska. At Minnesota, PJ Fleck is more aggressive than Jerry Kill. Jeff Brohm is making Purdue relevant. Maryland and Rutgers are invested in their head coaches over the long haul. Tens of millions of new Big Ten Network TV money is helping all 14 teams upgrade their facilities, staffs and operations, as well as turning up the pressure on the usual also-rans.

What Franklin said: “The Big Ten’s probably changed. Urban and I had a pretty good conversation about this at the Big Ten meetings in Arizona about how the league has changed from when he first got here to now. It’s interesting, but that’s what has made it so exciting. That is why people are so prideful in the Big Ten and what the Big Ten is doing.”


In a nutshell:  The division is tough enough, plus there are three cross-over games a year with the Big Ten West. So why make the schedule any tougher?

What Franklin said: “…Based on your institution and based on your program, you have to do everything in your power to be undefeated and to win your conference championship. All of the other variables, you can’t control. So, do everything you possibly can — especially when you play in the Big Ten East — to give yourself the best chance to win your conference championship and be undefeated. All of the other variables are going to change year to year, because there are going to be different people who come off the committee and come on the committee. They are all going to have their personal biases.

“To me, if Pitt makes sense and helps us with that then wonderful. But to me, that’s what I’m really looking at — I’m looking at what can we do to put Penn State in the best position to win conference championships and have a chance to get in the College Football Playoff. If Pitt equals into that equation, then wonderful. But if they don’t, that’s my point.”


In a nutshell: It is as much about spending money on what other programs already have as what Penn State doesn’t — i.e., keeping up with the Khakis and the Buckeyes, as well as the Tigers and ever-rising Tide.

What Franklin said:  "Obviously, it shows up in recruiting. We're pretty much recruiting — for every single one of our recruits — against Top 10, Top 5 programs. You're trying to really differentiate yourself. But really, in that group, it's almost impossible to differentiate yourself. What you can't do is — you can't have the glaring weaknesses. That's what ends up being the differentiator from a negative perspective. It stands out because it's so obvious.” 


In a nutshell: No one likes bench-marking, analytics and OCD-level preparation better than CJF.

What Franklin said: “You are going to have some opponents who you are going to play every year who are going to be challenging. How do you make sure in the off-season from a coaching perspective that you emphasize them? Everybody in the country does summer studies or summer game plans against certain opponents, whether it’s the first four games plus two or three (additional) opponents. I know that some of these teams that have long-standing rivalries treat those teams completely differently and approach them differently all year along, with countdown clocks type of thing in their building.

“For us, it’s more of an awareness. Every year we’re in the league, we get more familiar. I think the biggest thing is the things that are outside the conference that you can control. The conference is what it is. It’s all the other thing outside of the conference from the standpoint — from a scheduling perspective, from a facilities perspective, from a technology perspective — that there are things that we can try to control to find an edge.

“The best teams have identified what you weaknesses are on film and they’ve identified what your weaknesses are as an organization. That’s why it’s so challenging. And you see the passion from the fan bases. Sometimes the aggressiveness comes from the coaching staffs from a competitive standpoint, because that’s what is happening year-round. People are identifying what your weaknesses are as an organization and as a program. And they’re attacking them year-round. They’re attacking from the football field, on scheme. They’re attacking it from recruiting, through knowledge that they’ve earned about your organization. That’s why it is so challenging.”

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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