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Penn State Football: Harbaugh Hire A Good Challenge For Penn State, Big Ten

by on December 30, 2014 1:00 PM

"Compete in everything we do."

That's one of the phrases you hear probably more than anything else when it comes to James Franklin's budding program.

It might be a half-cliche half-honest mission statement but it all -- in theory -- carries over to success on the field. That's at least the hope.

There isn't any doubt that Penn State's football team has work to do if it wants to be considered one of the nation's elite. Scholarship restrictions will do that to a program. And while Penn State's unexpected success over the past few years doesn't mean the Nittany Lions can't get back to national relevance sooner rather than later, there is a fair amount of traveling left to be done between Point A and Point B.

So with Michigan's soon-to-be official hiring of former player turned Super Bowl *losing* coach Jim Harbaugh, the question becomes how that hire impacts Penn State's goals moving forward. Both within the conference, within the division and off the field on the recruiting trail.

Best guess: Short term problems, long term benefits.

Harbaugh will recruit well to start and perhaps even long term, but Michigan's recruiting base generally lies west of Penn State's. Michigan's "brand" is frequently a driving force in recruiting more than the coach or success on the field. That will pull some players from Penn State's stronghold of New York, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and New Jersey, but the same can be said in the opposite direction.

More specifically, on Michigan's current roster just over 10 players hail from Penn State's primary recruiting grounds. That could shift under Harbaugh and national recruiting battles will only get harder, but Penn State's staff appears well-equipped to win its fair share of those pitches. Simply put, recruiting is never easy, and recruiting against Michigan is never anything but hard even when the Wolverines struggle.

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On the field, Penn State will still be the underdog for the time being. The Nittany Lions will be better next season but even with the sanctions officially over the impact will still be felt across the roster.

Penn State might be a step or two behind Harbaugh's program as a whole. It's hard to say without coaching a single game how Harbaugh's version of Michigan will look, but in general it's safe to assume the Nittany Lions won't be making up ground over night.

But back to "Compete in everything we do."

Franklin's short term 7-6 success at Penn State may not look fantastic on paper. However it was a small first step in what Franklin hopes will be the foundation of a championship program. 

And to win championships you have to face real challenges.

For whatever reason this past season the Nittany Lions put together some of their best performances in the biggest moments. There was a last minute win against UCF at Croke Park, a signature comeback win against Rutgers, a near double-overtime upset of Ohio State, and a not-soon-to-be forgotten Pinstripe Bowl victory in overtime.

The rest, has largely been forgettable. 

But if Penn State is going to be "for real" in the national picture, that's going to require experience against top teams, wins against top teams and consistent play against top teams. Couple that with what ought to be a knife fight between Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan State, an improving Maryland and Michigan and Franklin will get plenty of opportunities to rise to the occasion each year. Franklin will have opportunities to sharpen his teeth by competing in everything he and his staff do. Because the better the Big Ten is the harder you have to work. And hard work rarely yields bad results.

Even more importantly, the better the Big Ten looks, the better Penn State's wins look.

James Franklin hasn't been around long enough to really gauge how things will go under his watch, but it's safe to say he and his staff thrive under the bright lights. They have that so called "SEC swagger" and camera-friendly charm to shape the narrative the best they can. That hasn't always resulted in success with a crippled roster, but it's clear this staff finds a certain comfort that comes with a big game. They appear to enjoy being who they are: Coaches at a major college football program. They just are a ways from having their job titles matched by equally impressive wins on the field.

Ultimately Penn State's success with James Franklin at the helm will have far more to do with his choices and recruiting than the existence of Jim Harbaugh in the Big Ten. But if Penn State wants to fight for something worth putting in a trophy case at the end of the season the Nittany Lions will have to go through big name coaches and teams sooner or later. If Franklin and Co. are unable to do that on a regular basis then the next questions to be asked will be much different ones.

And if Harbaugh can turn Michigan around, the Big Ten and Penn State are only going to benefit from the experience of playing a good Wolverine program each year.

Because if you want to make the playoffs, you don't get there beating Purdue each week.

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