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For Penn State And Franklin The Next Four Weeks Are Everything

by on September 24, 2016 10:20 PM

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour and deputy director of athletics Phil Esten stood deep underneath Michigan Stadium on Saturday evening as James Franklin spoke to the media following the Nittany Lions' 49-10 loss to the Wolverines.

They both just watched, taking it all in. You could describe their facial expressions as emotionless, not giving any sort of tell to a room full of cameras, but a 49-10 score leaves little room for interpretation.

In truth Esten and Barbour are regular attendees at Franklin's postgame interviews and Barbour in particular is as visible as any athletic director in the country. So it isn't unexpected to see her lurking.

But it is a reminder.

A reminder that Penn State has, for better or worse, won four of its last 11 games. An unfavorable and undeniably difficult slate to be sure, but a record that has resulted in more questions than answers. A reminder that the Nittany Lions have gotten better on offense but seemingly and perhaps predictably worse on defense.

A reminder that Penn State faces an important few years ahead. The athletic department at last check is scheduled within the next month to release an extensive master plan that will include a costly renovation of Beaver Stadium and with it an aggressive fundraising program to help foot the bill.

So Barbour and company must navigate a complicated dilemma. They and Franklin may very well (and likely are) on similar pages when it comes to the state of the program and the progress being made. The challenges arise with not only conveying that message to fans, but getting them to buy into it and getting them to stay that way.

Because ultimately coaches are investments, and Franklin is only a worthwhile investment for as long the progress matches the return.

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The moment that the fan infrastructure around the program begins to deteriorate faster than the tangible steps being taken forward is the moment that Barbour's hand will likely be forced. It won't matter if Franklin has done everything he can and if Barbour agrees with that premise if fans don't buy into it. That's the bizarre irony of college athletics. It's a machine dictated by million dollar contracts and television deals that can see logic being trumped by a group of people who are quite literally, fanatics.

That's the difficulty Barbour faces, for many it doesn't matter that Penn State has had some of the absolute worst luck with injuries the past two seasons or that scholarship restrictions are the nuclear fallout of penalties. Or that finally having 85 scholarships and good recruiting classes is the kind of thing that takes years to fully integrate into a program.

For the past several years Penn State has existed in a soup of realities and NCAA imposed hurdles that often makes it difficult to separate avoidable missteps from unavoidable handicaps. It's easy to conceptually understand how the sanctions have hurt the program, it's harder to see it and point to a single mistake or a single loss and say "that's the sanctions at work" and know for certain that it wasn't something else.

And that makes the next few weeks some of the most interesting in the Franklin era. Saturday's loss to Michigan was hardly a surprise or even an issue in the grand scheme of things. But Penn State's offense, that had scored 30+ points in three straight games and showed tangible signs of progress under Joe Moorhead was largely the exact opposite against Michigan.

If Penn State had lost on Saturday but managed to at least score somewhat infrequently to the tune of a 49-28 loss, that could have been digestible for most fans. The team showed progress, but it lost to an experienced roster with national title ambitions.

That's not what happened though.

And so Franklin and Barbour and Penn State are looking down the barrel of two straight weeks of winnable but far from automatic games. A Minnesota team that is 3-0 and has scored 30+ in every game this season, and then Maryland on Homecoming that has also done the same with an identical record.

These teams aren't Michigan, but they aren't Purdue or Northwestern either. If Franklin can manage to enter into the bye week at 4-2 then Penn State looks at the back half of the schedule with some promise and some hope that another bowl bid isn't out of the question.

Lose, with our without a legitimately deflated defense, and things get dicy. At 3-3 or worse Penn State prepares to face Ohio State at Beaver Stadium in front of a primetime crowd. If anything was the saving grace of Penn State's blowout loss on Saturday it was that it didn't happen in front of the Penn State faithful. 

Come October 22nd though and everything could be crashing down.

It may not matter if Penn State is injury plagued, young and inexperienced. It may not matter that Franklin has probably done as much as anyone reasonably could have in his situation. It may not matter that it's fair to think he deserves and has earned another year on the job without "this" kind of pressure. The Nittany Lions could be looking at a 3-4 record or worse heading into November.

And by then Barbour's presence will once again be a reminder that everyone is an investment and no amount of slow and steady progress and legitimate obstacles can save Franklin from the illogical realities of college football.

So for Penn State football, it isn't what happened on a beautiful day in Ann Arbor that will dictate the next few years for the program, but it might be what happens in the next few weeks.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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