At the start of the 2021 season, James Franklin was looking to rebound after a crazy covid year that resulted in a disappointing 4-5 record in an all-conference game season. The beginning of this year couldn’t have started any better. Started the season off with a road win against Wisconsin, and then defeated Auburn and Indiana under the lights in Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions were 5-0 and ranked 4th in the country as they traveled to Iowa City to take on the #3 ranked Hawkeyes in a top 5 battle. Early in the second quarter Penn State was up 14-3 despite two interceptions by Quarterback Sean Clifford. Besides the two turnovers, the Lions were in control and looking to add to their lead as they were once again in Hawkeye territory. Clifford takes a rough hit and he would not return to the game. The quarterback room isn’t deep with Will Levis and Micah Bowens transferring in the offseason. To make matters even worse defensive linemen PJ Mustipher suffers a season-ending injury and is the fourth defensive lineman since camp to see their season cut short. Iowa’s defense and special teams paralyzed Penn State’s offense and would go on to win 23-20.
The bye week seemed to come at the perfect time. Penn State had a slew of injuries at Iowa and they had two weeks to get healthy before they played Big Ten bottom-feeder Illinois. Surprisingly enough Sean Clifford trotted out for the first series, but it was clear he was not 100%. Franklin admitted post-game that Clifford wasn’t fully healthy and they played him in a limited role. Illinois’s defense took advantage of the trenches on both sides of the ball. Clifford’s inability to run made the offense, even more, one-dimensional along with Penn State’s offensive line failing to provide support in the running game. The Fighting Illini ran overload/jumbo sets all afternoon, the majority of the time featuring 9 men on the line of scrimmage. This was the perfect strategy after losing defensive bedrock P.J. Mustipher on a defensive line that was already thin. The Penn State defense did force 3 turnovers but could only muster 10 points in regulation. The game went into 9 overtimes (new rules are awful) and Penn State lost 20-18. Out of 7 two-point conversions in the new “shootout” format, the Penn State offense could only score once.
This leads into the biggest division currently within the Penn State fanbase. “Is James Franklin holding Penn State back?”. To answer this question you need to ask yourself another. “What is Penn State football?”.
The Penn State football program is consistently good and will compete for a conference title once every 4 or 5 years with the seasons in between being ranked 20th or higher. Looking back at James Franklin’s tenure he has done that and has given even more. His first two years were the most difficult because his upperclassmen classes were sanctioned, but still managed to remain over .500 both seasons. Since 2016 he has had three 11 win seasons, with wins in the Fiesta Bowl, Cotton Bowl, and a Big Ten title. A down year in 2018 where they only won 9 games, and last year’s Covid year where it seemed like everything went wrong. 2021 started to look like the comeback everyone was hoping for. Sean Clifford’s injury derailed this offense that was just starting to come together, and the defensive line has gotten thinner as the season has gone on resulting in a 5-2 record.
James Franklin’s contract extends until 2025, but he is constantly being mentioned for other jobs, most recently the LSU and USC positions. If Penn State is one of the top programs in the country, why would Franklin leave? It doesn’t have to do with money but what resources his program has. Penn State’s board of trustees does not believe that there is a College Football arms race taking place. Franklin wants his assistants to be paid more so there is more incentive for them to stay, and that their facilities stay updated to allure the top recruits in the country to attend school in State College, Pennsylvania, in the middle of nowhere. If James Franklin went to USC, or LSU the schools, not to mention boosters, would give him blank checks for whatever he desired to build his football empire. Penn State refuses to go all-in with its football program. The school may be reluctant because of its tarnished reputation during the Sandusky scandal. They were heavily criticized as “only caring about football”. Their stance on these issues could very well stem from that, but they need to invest more than what they have. There are also powerful people involved with the university who can not distance themselves from Joe Paterno. No matter what their stance was on the man, they need to realize that there is a new coach who is going to do things differently. As long as the players are doing well in the classroom, community, and on the field, James Franklin should get their full cooperation.
Now Penn State is at a fork in the road. They can either invest fully into the football program to persuade James Franklin to stay or let him walk. As stated above, besides for 2020, James Franklin has been consistent with Penn State teams in the past. If Penn State fully invests in the program, and Franklin stays, the football program will be consistently ranked, and competing for a conference title most of the time with the hopes of getting into the playoff. For 95% of College Football, that would be more than enough.
Although James Franklin has done an excellent job bringing Penn State football back to the national spotlight, there are some concerns. First, he has lost back-to-back games in 6 seasons at Penn State. Second, he is 2-5 after a bye week. Third, he has had some clock management miscues. Lastly, he hasn’t been to the College Football Playoff yet. These are legitimate concerns that need to be looked at. With that being said the letting a coach like James Franklin walk is a gamble. Penn State fans have it pretty well in the grand scheme of things. Get a new coach and the Nittany Lions could be the new Clemson (prior to this year). The other side of getting a new coach is that Penn State could join Nebraska, Tennessee, Florida State, and other top programs that fell from grace when a coaching change was made. Both scenarios are closer than they appear.