In one of the most stunning mid-season turnarounds in recent memory, James Franklin's Nittany Lions went from a seemingly perennial Big Ten East afterthought to the champions of the best division in football. This is the same Penn State that lost to Pitt in the second week of the season and was pummeled by Michigan, 49-10, in September, but now owns not only that Big Ten title but a top six finish nationally.
It is safe to say I did not see this coming. After two straight years of struggles in Happy Valley, I predicted that coach James Franklin's downfall would begin after a loss to Pitt. Penn State fans don't take kindly to losing to Pitt, and the Nittany Lions didn't seem like the better team. A PSU fan even asked to bet me a case of beer on that game. I obliged, Pitt won and I won. I was feeling good about my prediction, and even better after the blowout loss to Michigan.
But ever since that loss, Penn State has been on a tear. That's thanks to an incredible offensive turnaround, predicated by Franklin's outstanding hires and staff decisions this past offseason. In that way, Franklin has proven his ability to be a big-time college football coach. Nittany Lions fans also haven't let me forget what I have said about Franklin. So to clear the air, here are some revised thoughts:
- I don't think Franklin, himself, is a great X's and O's coach.
- Franklin is a great recruiter.
- I don't think Franklin is a very good person, based off of how he treated women at Vanderbilt—using women to recruit athletes and contacting one of those women after she was raped by his players. He has refused to address that use of women.
- Whatever his shortcomings as a coach, Franklin made the best assistant coach hire of the offseason by bringing on offensive guru Joe Moorhead and leaving the offense to him. Few coaches would make such a wholesale change, and doing so proved brilliant. He deserves credit for that.
I still believe that, without a coach like Moorhead, Franklin would be in trouble. But half of being a good coach is making good hires to cover up your own weaknesses, and in that way, Franklin has succeeded. Many other coaches haven't been able to do the same.
Hiring Moorhead reinvigorated the Penn State program, and it's one of the reasons the Nittany Lions can make it to Indianapolis over very good teams from Michigan and Ohio State if the right pieces fall into place. New starter Trace McSorley was the best quarterback in the Big Ten this year, and he had weapons around him at wide receiver to lead an explosive, non-Big Ten-like passing attack. Saquon Barkley was the best running back in the Big Ten, adding an explosive element to the run game, as well.
In the first two years under Franklin, Penn State was known as a team that couldn't get out of its own way on offense. In year three under Franklin, and year one under Moorhead, the offense was an explosive juggernaut, and it showed that off against Wisconsin, with touchdown passes of 40 and 70 yards in the Big Ten title game.
Statistically, Penn State is probably the third best team in the Big Ten East, but the Nittany Lions have the offense to be relevant in the division for years to come, even as Ohio State and Michigan continue to dominate the national headlines. That means, as we learned this year, Franklin's team also has enough talent to win the conference, and enough to be in the College Football Playoff conversation.
No, Franklin is not going to be fired, and after a lackluster two-and-a-half years, his Penn State program looks like it can be a major success.