Penn State is home to one of the country’s most storied college football programs with an array of on-field accomplishments across decades. With two national championships, four Big Ten Conference titles, 50 bowl game appearances and 13 undefeated seasons, the Nittany Lions have been a football empire.
That’s no longer the case. Despite top-tier recruiting, facilities, and a tough homestand for opponents — the Nittany Lions have struggled to win the games that really matter — and head coach James Franklin is at fault.
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Hired away from Vanderbilt to rebuild the Nittany Lions football program in 2014, Franklin quickly proved to be an asset for Penn State. He earned the school’s fourth Big Ten title (2016) and delivered bowl appearances from 2014-’19.
- James Franklin coaching record (2015-’19): 49-17, (.742%)
However, things have spiraled since Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorely left the program. This includes Franklin’s first losing record with the Nittany Lions in 2020, a disappointing year that saw Penn State lose to Maryland for the first time since 2014.
With two of the program’s most impactful leaders and best players gone, Franklin has been unsuccessful in rebuilding his roster to fill the two all-time greats’ shoes.
James Franklin’s failures to rebuild Nittany Lions, earn his contract extension
Franklin and the Nittany Lions entered the 2021 season with confidence. After beating a pair of ranked opponents, Penn State climbed to No. 4 in the college football rankings. While former Nittany Lions quarterback Will Levis thrived at Kentucky – after feeling poorly utilized by Franklin – things looked up for Penn State’s football program. Months later, Levis’s departure became costly for everyone but Franklin.
Everything came crashing down after that 5-0 stretch to open the season. Starting quarterback Sean Clifford suffered an injury against Iowa, causing a domino effect that brought everything crashing down. The Nittany Lions won just two of their final seven games, causing speculation about his future with Penn State.
In the midst of that 2-5 stretch, the Nittany Lions made Franklin one of the highest-paid college football coaches with a massive 10-year, $70 million contract extension. While it put an end to speculation around his future, it fueled doubts about the Nittany Lions entering the 2022 season.
- James Franklin record (2020-’22): 17-13, (.566%)
In some ways, Franklin has created a lot of success for the program. However, there is one major problem that is negatively impacting the overall success of the football program, and that is Franklin’s inability to win key games.
James Franklin vs Top 10 teams, choosing loyalty over talent
Franklin is 2-15 against top-10 ranked teams and 1-10 against top-5 teams. Even more alarming is how his teams fare against the best teams in the Big Ten. Since arriving in Happy Valley, Franklin has losing records against Ohio State (1-8), Michigan (3-6) and Michigan State (3-5).
These key upset losses have prevented them from touching a conference championship and the 2022 season has proved that following two major losses against No. 5 Michigan and No. 2 Ohio State.
Penn State had a pretty good 5-0 start to the season until they had to face a ranked Big Ten Michigan team. Franklin and the Nittany Lions suffered a 41-17 loss to the No. 5 Wolverines, exposing a pitiful offense and defense. Clifford threw for 120 yards and zero touchdowns, while the defense allowed over 400 rushing yards.
In order for Penn State to have any shot at a Big Ten title or a playoff appearance, it needed to beat the Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium. Predictably, warts on the roster, poor coaching and undying loyalty to a sixth-year quarterback proved costly.
Interception, interception, punt. Those were the first three drives for Penn State — and although Clifford brought it back by throwing two touchdowns — he still had two costly turnovers early. Entering the fourth quarter, Penn State had a 21-16 lead, which quickly turned into a nightmare for Franklin. With just under nine minutes left in the game, the turnover-savvy Penn State turned a two-point deficit into a 44-31 loss after the Buckeyes scored two touchdowns, one on a Clifford fumble, and another on a pick-six.
Clifford turned the ball over four times against Ohio State, with two of the turnovers being late in the game and ultimately losing them the game. So, what does Franklin have to say about this?
“To me, the game starts and ends with the turnovers. You can’t give that type of team a short field that many times and be successful, it’s going to make it really challenging.”James Franklin on the Penn State Nittany Lions’ loss to Ohio State
The real question now is whether or not Franklin will step up and make a quarterback change. Elephant in the room, Clifford’s four turnovers resulted in 21 points. If Franklin wants to start tacking on wins against top-5 teams, he must consider a change under center, especially after Clifford’s performance against Ohio State.
Franklin has a very talented, young arm with freshman Drew Allar on the bench and he deserves a start against Indiana this weekend. It is time for a change and Franklin must know that by now after losing to Ohio State for the sixth time in a row. A head coach who keeps starting a quarterback that is 0-7 against top 25 opponents is not earning a 10-year, $70 million extension, especially after patting him on the back following a disastrous loss.
The Nittany Lions have four games left in the season — including a game against Michigan State — will Franklin be brave and start Allar, or will he risk a potential 10-win season for a lasting relationship with Clifford? Either way, the Nittany Lions are stuck with Franklin as head coach for 10 years.