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It’s time to give James Franklin his flowers

After Penn State’s 14-point Rose Bowl win over Utah, it is time that we once again give James Franklin his flowers.



Oct 22, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin celebrates with running back Nicholas Singleton (10) after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Minnesota 45-17. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

During Penn State’s 2021 season, the Nittany Lions gave James Franklin a 10-year contract extension. At that same time, Penn State football was headed towards its first 7-6 season since 2015 — the season before the sanctions were lifted.

James Franklin takes Penn State from sanctions to Big Ten Champs

After Bill O’Brian left the program following the 2013 season, Penn State football looked for a new head coach. After a short search, James Franklin was hired from Vanderbilt — a school that he had built into a consistent 9-win team in the SEC. After getting Vandy ranked in back-to-back seasons, James Franklin was tasked with turning around the struggling Nittany Lions.

After the Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State’s program during the 2011 season, the NCAA gave PSU football a death sentence with its sanctions. Still, Penn State persevered and went 8-4 in 2012 and 7-5 in 2013. In 2014 and 2015 Penn State football was still under sections, and finished 7-6 in both seasons. In year one of James Franklin, Penn State was finally allowed to compete in bowl games again, and won its first bowl game (Pinstripe Bowl) since 2009.

A year later, PSU went 7-5 but lost to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. After two years, some were happy, but most were unimpressed with Franklin’s 14-12 record. The 2016 season needed to be a good one, and to say it was would be an understatement.

In 2016 — Penn State’s first season without sanctions since 2011 — the Nittany Lions were off to a rough start. Penn State lost at home to Pitt and got blown out by Michigan in Ann Arbor, 49-10. A 2-2 start to the season quickly turned into a 4-2 start with a narrow win over Minnesota and a solid win over Maryland. The game that followed was a daunting one: unranked Penn State was set to host No. 2 Ohio State in the White Out game.

Penn State’s hard-fought matchup against the Buckeyes was one that will forever live in Penn State football history — it was a win that changed PSU football forever. After blocking a field goal late in the game and returning it for a touchdown, the Nittany Lions manage to hold off Ohio State’s high-flying offense and won, 24-21. The win got Penn State back on the map and put PSU back into the top-25 for the first time in a long time.

In the weeks that followed, James Franklin had Penn State playing its best football. The Nittany Lions secured solid victories over a handful of unranked teams before securing a 38-31 comeback win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game.

Penn State’s 2016 conference title was the Lions first title since 2008 and is still Penn State’s only Big Ten Championship game appearance and win. Though PSU barely missed the College Football Playoff, the conference title sent Penn State to the Rose Bowl. In one of the most-thrilling Rose Bowl games of all time, the Nittany Lions fell to USC — the PAC-12 representative — 52-49.

Despite the loss, Penn State finished No. 7 in the polls with an 11-3 record — it was a monumental and historic season for Penn State, one that was essential for PSU to get back on the map.

A historic run for Penn State football

In the seasons that followed, Penn State could never quite reach the conference title game again. Still, the Nittany Lions were one of the best programs in the country year in and year out, and had a historic stretch of seasons.

In 2017, Penn State got off to another hot start and seemingly crushed everything in its path. The Nittany Lions could not overcome Ohio State in Columbus or Michigan State in East Lansing; however, PSU still finished 10-2 overall and had impressive wins such as a 42-13 win over No. 19 Michigan, a 21-19 win at Iowa, a 33-14 win over Pitt, and a 66-3 win at Maryland.

Penn State’s performance in 2017 was good enough to earn the Nittany Lions a spot in the Fiesta Bowl against No. 12 Washington — a game that Penn State won, 35-28.

The Fiesta Bowl was Penn State’s first New Year’s Six win since Joe Paterno’s Orange Bowl win in 2005 during PSU’s 11-1 Big Ten Championship season. It was Also Penn State’s first back-to-back 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes since 2008-09.

In 2018, Penn State started off hot yet could not sustain its success from the two seasons prior. The Nittany Lions dropped close games to Ohio State and Michigan State at home, and got a monumental beatdown in Ann Arbor for the second time since 2016 (42-7). PSU finished the regular season with a 9-3 overall record and went on to lose the Citrus Bowl to Kentucky. Still, Penn State finished No. 17 in the polls — it was the first time since 1997-1999 that the Nittany Lions had finished ranked in both major polls three times in a row.

After Penn State’s harsh 2018 season, the Lions made a return to the top with yet another 11-win season. Penn State football started the year 8-0 before losing in Columbus to Ohio State. The Nittany Lions also dropped a close one on the road at No. 17 Minnesota and finished the season 10-2 again. Penn State’s 2019 season saw a few major goals being accomplished despite the two losses. The Nittany Lions beat Pitt (17-10), No. 16 Michigan (28-21), and Michigan State (28-7), as well as an impressive 79-7 win over Idaho.

The Nittany Lions’ regular season earned them another New Year’s Six bid, this time, Penn State was sent to the Cotton Bowl to face off against No. 17 Memphis (12-1). In a shockingly high-scoring game, James Franklin coached Penn State to a 53-39 win and earned PSU another 11-win season and top-10 finish. The 11-2 record was Penn State’s third 11-win season in four seasons and saw its second NY6 win in three years.

From 2016-2019, Penn State football won its first-ever Big Ten Championship game and finished ranked in both polls four-straight times for the first time since 1996-1999. On top of that, Penn State secured three 11-win seasons in four years for the first time in program history, and won two NY6 games in three years for the first time since 1994-1996. If that was not enough, the Nittany Lions also finished in the top-10 three times in four seasons for the first time since 1993-1996.

Setbacks set unrealistic perception of James Franklin

In 2020, the COVID-19 season, Penn State football saw some major setbacks. Like Michigan and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions had a touch time navigating the pandemic season and ended up finishing with an uncharacteristically bad record. Penn State’s 4-5 finish was the program’s first losing season since the early 2000s. On top of that, Penn State saw its worst start in program history (0-5).

In 2021, everything was back to normal and Penn State started the season 5-0. That being said, the Nittany Lions saw many costly injuries, including a rib injury to starting QB and team captain Sean Clifford.

A 5-0 start and top-4 ranking turned into a 7-6 overall record and an unranked finish after the injuries. Many people wrote off Penn State football due to this performance; however, James Franklin had his team ready to go again in 2022.

Penn State, James Franklin rise again

In 2022, the Nittany Lions came into the season unranked for the first time since 2016 when Penn State was coming off of sanctions. In fairness, the 2021 season gave people little hope for PSU in 2022, yet the message was loud and clear: Penn State’s time at the top was assumed to be over.

Like 2021, Penn State started the year off with a 5-0 record and climbed its way into the top-10. A loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor was a small setback, but PSU got back in the win column with a 45-17 win in the White Out over a Minnesota team that finished 9-4 overall. Despite a valiant fight against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions dropped their second game of the season two weeks after the Michigan loss, and were largely written off again.

To close out the season, Penn State football again established itself as a top team in the sport with a series of huge wins. PSU started the streak with a 45-14 win at Indiana, and followed it up with a 30-0 win over Maryland, a 55-10 win at Rutgers, and finally a 35-16 win over Michigan State on Senior Day. Penn State’s 10-2 record placed them at No. 11 heading into Bowl Season and was good enough to earn the Nittany Lions their second Rose Bowl berth since 2016.

Additionally, Penn State only had two losses this season, both of which came to College Football Playoff teams (No. 2 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State). The only mark against Penn State and James Franklin in 2022 was the program’s lack of a ranked win this season. That all changed on January 2nd, 2023.

Penn State wins Rose Bowl, finishes 11-2 and top-10

Yet again, James Franklin has won 11 games and a New Year’s Six game as Penn State’s head coach. This season — despite not being ranked to start the year and having a projected win total of 7-8 games — Penn State football overcame adversity and got back on track.

Heading into the Rose Bowl game, Penn State football was a 1.5-point underdog against the No. 8 Utah Utes, the reigning back-to-back PAC-12 Champions. On top of that, as expected, the Nittany Lions were set to be missing a few starters for the game. The Rose Bowl was also Sean Clifford’s final game as the Lions’ starting quarterback.

After heading into halftime with a 14-14 tie, Penn State blew the game wide open in the second half. A late touchdown made the score closer than the game actually was, but Penn State walked away with a 14-point win nonetheless. The Nittany Lions’ 35-21 win over Utah was the program’s first top-10 win since 2016, Penn State’s first Rose Bowl win since 1995, and James Franklin’s first 11-win season/top-10 finish/New Year’s Six win since 2019.

Over the past six full seasons, here is Penn State’s resume under James Franklin:

  • 11-3, Big Ten Champions (top-10)
  • 11-2, Fiesta Bowl Champions (top-10)
  • 9-4 (No. 17)
  • 11-2, Cotton Bowl Champions (top-10)
  • 7-6
  • 11-2, Rose Bowl Champions (top-10)

Considering what Franklin inherited in 2014 and the resources that Penn State football currently has, this resume is astounding. The Nittany Lions are trending towards even bigger and better heading into 2023, which is equally (if not more) exciting for Penn State fans. It is time we stop these silly narratives about James Franklin and Penn State football and give them the respect that they deserve.


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