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Penn State Football is “Very Close” to Contending for a National Title, James Franklin Says

by on March 08, 2020 7:00 PM

Although Penn State’s season opener is 26 weeks away, it is already knocking on the national title discussion door. Some preseason polls have the Nittany Lions ranked in the Top 5 for 2020.

It’s not new territory:

Penn State was ranked as high as No. 2 in The Associated Press poll for two consecutive weeks in 2017. Last season, PSU was No. 4 spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings.

“We’re close,” James Franklin said on a national podcast the other day. “Obviously, we’ve been very close.

“Look at us: We’ve played in three New Year’s Six bowl games in the last four years. We’ve been ranked as high as No. 2 in the country. So, we’re close.”

Franklin’s comments came on Clay Travis’ “Wins and Losses” podcast released on Friday, in response to a question about how close Penn State is to contending for a national championship.

Travis, based in Nashville, has been close to Franklin since the Penn State head coach’s days there at Vanderbilt, dating back to 2011. Click here for a link to the entire 52-minute conversation — during which Franklin reveals that after Vandy’s 2013 season he interviewed for head coaching jobs with the Houston Texans (which went to Bill O’Brien), the University of Texas, the Washington Redskins and the Detroit Lions — in addition to Penn State.

(About Travis: Franklin works very hard to foster close, personal ties with national media. That includes Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, who last week ranked Franklin as the No. 3 head coach in college football. Read about it here.)

BIG HURDLE: BIG TEN EAST

With his team’s official spring practices slated to begin in 10 days, Franklin stated the obvious to Travis: That Penn State’s in-division Big Ten Conference games are annual challenges, and that the next step for the Nittany Lions is to be a sustained presence in the national landscape currently occupied by Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and — as of late — LSU.

“Our conference — the Big Ten East — is a little bit like the SEC West,” said Franklin. “You got Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State all on the same side of the conference. So, it’s challenge. And it is a battle, there’s no doubt about it.”

Under Franklin, Penn State has been ranked in the AP Top 25 for 57 consecutive weeks. The Nittany Lions were first ranked in the Top 25 in October 2016 and the Top 10 in November of that season. They opened the 2017 season ranked No. 7, and rose to No. 2 six games later. Their high-water mark in 2019 was a No. 4 ranking after knocking off Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State in consecutive weeks.

“It’s hard to get in the Top 25. It’s hard to go from the Top 25 to the Top 15,” Franklin told Travis. “And I would make the argument that it’s even more challenging getting into that Top 4, because (after) the top four to five programs in the country, the drop-off to the Top 10 is significant — probably much more significant than anywhere else.”

For Penn State, closing the gap — and keeping it closed — is the next step. 

Among the top Power 5 teams the past four seasons (2016-19), Penn State is tied with LSU for the fifth-best record. Each of the other top six teams has been to the College Football Playoff. In fact, of the top 10 programs with the best winning percentage since 2016, the only two teams to not make the CFP in that time are both in the Big Ten — Penn State and Wisconsin.

THE CFP IS ELITE

It’s no secret what Franklin thinks will help the Nittany Lions close the gap and get them in the CFP. And he’s working on it:

A bigger and better strength and conditioning space, continued improvements to Holuba Hall, enhanced housing for his players, a new turf job for the team’s practice fields and a number of recent changes to the offensive coaching staff.

“Those things are really, really important — that you keep battling and scratching and clawing for all those little margins of error that you’re trying to close the gap,” Franklin said. 

When Franklin arrived at Penn State, the Nittany Lions were fighting sanctions and coming off a stretch where they won just 16 of 28 games. Franklin opened his reign with two campaigns of 7-6, then a 2-2 start in 2016. Since then, the Nittany Lions have had a record of 40-9.

Among those nine losses, there’s been a number of common denominators: Six have been to division foes. Most have been by close margins — 1, 1, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, 11 and 35 points. None of that is new.

But dig a bit deeper, and this may be:

In Penn State’s four most recent losses, covering 2018-19, it never led in any of those contests (vs. Michigan, Kentucky, Minnesota and Ohio State). That’s in direct contrast to their five losses before that, when Penn State was ahead or tied late in the fourth quarter, with just 81 seconds, 109 seconds, 1 second, 124 seconds and 20 seconds remaining in the game.

Penn State’s last four losses also came the road, with one in the Citrus Bowl. Going back to 2017, the losses have usually come in pairs. The two losses in 2017 were in consecutive games, as was the case with the initial two in 2018. And in 2019, the Nittany Lions lost twice over the course of three games.

Slow starts, bad last-second finishes, rising to the occasion on the road, and not letting one loss turn into two. These are some key areas that will decide how close — there’s the key word again — the Nittany Lions get to the CFP in 2020.

Franklin told Travis that quickly moving on from losses is something he’s tried to improve upon. 

“That’s an area where the last couple of years where I knew I had to get better,” Franklin explained. “Because as a head coach I think that if you don’t get over it, then nobody does. The assistant coaches don’t get over it, the players don’t get over it. And that’s after wins or losses. You got to move on, you got to flush it and move on. It’s poison to get caught up in either the praise or the criticism.

“And I probably didn’t do a good enough job without that in my past — of how to manage the losses, of how to move on from the losses. It depends on how you handle them. The reality is that everyone gets defensive after a loss. You hope to be able to grow through the wins.”

THAT DABO COMPARISON

Much has been made about how Franklin’s time at Penn State — he is entering Year 7 — has seemingly mirrored Dabo Swinney’s at Clemson. That’s true, in some regards.

Franklin said so himself, in February. Though he did throw some shade about how quickly Clemson entered (and seemingly has won) the facilities arms race.

“You know, it’s interesting because if you look at his career and ours here, kind of very similar for a period of time, kind of the growth and things like that,” Franklin said then. “Obviously, they’ve made tremendous commitments, as well, which we’re doing, as well. Maybe those things happened a little bit earlier in the process in terms of facilities and things like that.”

Swinney took over at Clemson midway through the 2008 season, after Tommy Bowden quit. Before Dabo took the reins, Clemson had gone 34-21 in its previous 4.5 seasons. Good, but not great.

Swinney then went 19-15 in his first 2.5 seasons: 4-3, 9-5 and 6-7. (Franklin started 16-14.) In Year 4, Clemson went 10-4, losing in the Orange Bowl, and in the process has had nine straight double-digit win seasons and two national championships (2016, 2018). Clemson made the playoffs in his seventh season and won the title in his eighth.

Along the way Swinney shed the heavy mantle of Clemsoning — defined by the Urban Dictionary as “1. The act of failing miserably in a grad athletic stage, or when the stake are high. 2. Record-setting failure, usually reserved for college football.”

(Again, Franklin is somewhat aligned here given the spate of late, close, come-from-ahead losses.)

Despite his success, Swinney was burdened by a 77-30 loss to West Virginia in that 2011 Orange Bowl, as well as a 51-14 home loss to No. 5 Florida State when the Tigers were ranked No. 3 in 2013. Throw in narrow losses to Pitt at home in 2016 and at Syracuse in 2017, and Swinney received his fair share of criticism, despite going 55-4 over the past four seasons.

Among the Top 10 teams over the past four seasons, the toughest path to national prominence would include — in addition to Franklin — that of Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly and Washington’s recently-retired Chris Petersen. The Fighting Irish were 16-21 in the three seasons before Kelly arrived in South Bend in 2009, while Washington was 35-41 in the six seasons before Petersen arrived from Boise State. Both Kelly and Petersen had their teams in the playoffs and/or national title game in Year 3.

Even Nick Saban’s path at Alabama wasn’t the easiest. Under Mike Shula, the Tide was 26-24 — with just one season over .500 — in the four years before Saban arrived. I know: Poor Nick.

Of course, current Top 10 head coaches Ryan Day at Ohio State, Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma and Kirby Smart of Georgia inherited programs on a roll. LSU was 27-14 before Ed Odgeron took over in mid-2016 from Les Miles, and Wisconsin was 28-13 in the three seasons before Paul Chryst became head coach.



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