Connect with us


Has Penn State football head coach James Franklin had an underrated career?

Penn State head coach James Franklin has had an underrated career at Penn State.



Penn State Football, James Franklin, AP Poll
Jan 1, 2022; Tampa, FL, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin waits to enter the field before the game against the Arkansas Razorbacks during the 2022 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

James Franklin has often gotten criticism for his tenure at Penn State Football for not getting the Nittany Lions to the next level. That next level is in contention for the College Football Playoff by finishing in the top 4 of the AP Poll in 2023 and a National Championship. What most don’t realize is that James Franklin has been underrated in his time at Penn State Football and the recruiting numbers back it up.

Measuring Talent

How do we define a talented roster? Is it the number of players drafted? Should we put much faith into recruiting rankings and go off high school star ratings? Some 5-star prospects like Micah Parsons are superstars from start to finish and it is obvious to everyone the level of talent. Other blue chippers such as Saquon Barkley and Jahan Dotson who were both 4-stars may not have garnered the attention that the 5-star prospects did out of high school but grew and developed into superstars. Then there is a player like Trace McSorley who was a 3-star prospect and ranked #571 coming out of high school. Many view McSorley as the best quarterback to ever wear the blue and white. However, from strictly a talent composite evaluation he would have been considered a 3-star on the roster all the way until graduation. The same goes for Saquon Barkley and Jahan Dotson who would have retained their 4-star ratings despite eventually being taken in the 1st round of the NFL Draft.

The reason why team talent composite rankings matter is it shows the big picture of the entire team. While a 3-star may develop and turn into an NFL draftable player, the same can be said about a 5-star who never really panned out. The name of the game is to accumulate as many 5 and 4-star talents as possible. According to Bud Elliot of CBS Sports, no team has ever won a national championship with a blue-chip ratio below 50%. A blue-chip prospect is anyone that is a 4-star recruit or higher.

In 2015 247 Sports began putting together a Team Talent Composite ranking. This takes all the high school ratings of all the scholarship players on a roster and gives them a score like what we see in team rankings year to year. What the Talent Composite shows is the depth that a particular program has. Whether specific players end up being gems or busts is irrelevant. The average of 85 scholarship players is where we tend to see the separation between the top teams and everyone else. In 2022, Alabama was the most talented team in the country with 85 scholarship players that amounted to 14 5-stars, 61 4-stars, and 9 3-stars. The top 5 were rounded out by Georgia, Ohio State, Texas A&M, and Clemson. Typically, the cutoff for the blue-chip ratio is around #15 which is where Penn State came in for 2022. Last season’s roster had 78 scholarship players with 3 5-stars, 40 4-stars, and 35 3-stars. While many have been disappointed in the way Penn State has performed in big games, it sort of makes sense if you look at the talent composite. Last season the only two losses were to Ohio State (#3) and Michigan (#13), both of which were more talented than Penn State when looking at the entirety of the roster.

How has Penn State finished compared to its Ranking in the James Franklin Era?


Talent Composite: #21

Final AP Poll: NR


Talent Composite: #20

Final AP Poll: #7


Talent Composite: #19

Final AP Poll: #8


Talent Composite: #13

Final AP Poll: #17


Talent Composite: #10

Final AP Poll: #9


Talent Composite: #13

Final AP Poll: NR


Talent Composite: #16

Final AP Poll: NR


Talent Composite: #15

Final AP Poll: #7


Is Penn State head coach James Franklin Underrated?

Looking back at the 9 seasons James Franklin has spent at Penn State the public perception of the head coach has been rocky at times. Many college football fans feel that Franklin has not lived up to the expectation that he has set on the recruiting trail. There is this perception that Coach Franklin doesn’t get the most out of his team. The 247 Team Talent Composite in comparison with the final AP Rankings tells a different story. Penn State has overachieved 50% (4/8) of the time since these rankings have been released.


In 2016 and 2017 were the most impressive with the talent coming in at #20 and #19 respectively, yet the team finished #7 and #8 in those years. Typically, a team ranked around the #19/20 rank finishes with a 9-4 record after the bowl game. The Nittany Lions finished 11-3 and 11-2 in those two seasons. This included a trip to the Rose Bowl in 2016 that saw the Nittany Lions lose a heartbreaker to a hot USC team led by Sam Darnold. In 2017 Penn State returned to an NY6 bowl where they took down a good Washington team in the Fiesta Bowl in what was Saquon Barkley’s final game. In 2019, the team had the 10th-best roster in the country and finished 1 spot above at #9. This was the most talented team in the James Franklin era and the result wasn’t as impressive as in the past, it still was better than expected and at the very least at expectation. Last season, Penn State performed significantly above expectations once again entering the season with the 15th-best roster and finishing with another 11-win season and a Rose Bowl win good enough for #7 in the nation. It is important to note that the Nittany Lions weren’t ranked entering the season and took two weeks before they even entered the polls. So, the expectations last season by much of the media were more negative despite the roster because of an underwhelming 2021. James Franklin in these 4 seasons not only achieved Top 10 finishes but did it with rosters that were more in line with ending the year playing in the Citrus or Outback Bowl


It is only fair to look at the other 4 seasons where Penn State Football did not achieve expectations. Let’s start in 2015, just the second year that James Franklin was at the helm. The team was still coming out of the sanction era and finished the season 7-6 with a loss to Georgia in the Gator Bowl. A game that saw starting QB Christian Hackenberg get hurt and flashed what was to come with then backup Trace McSorley. Penn State had the 21st best roster that season but it is understandable that they would have some hiccups in a new coach’s 2nd season. Flash forward to 2018 with the Nittany Lions coming off back-to-back 11-win seasons and the departure of Saquon Barkley and a litany of contributors. Trace McSorley was still at the helm and the team finished the year 4 spots below their expected #13 Talent Composite ranking. What you may not remember is that Penn State was #13 heading into their Citrus Bowl matchup with Kentucky and if they would have been able to pull off the win, ended up in that 10-12 range above their expected talent. So while finishing below the final ranking it was ultimately decided by a close bowl loss against the Wildcats.

That brings us to 2020 and the covid season. The Penn State football team started the year ranked #9 in the AP poll but quickly plummeted out after losing their first 5 games of the season. That year was a strange year for plenty of teams. We saw Indiana ranked as the 2nd best team in the Big Ten and Northwestern made the Big Ten title game. Iowa State had one of their best seasons in school history and BYU played a patchwork schedule all the way to 11-1. The point is that nothing was normal about the 2020 season except Alabama winning it all. Most of the public tends to write off the covid season as an outlier to the overall trends in college football so it also shouldn’t be used against Coach James Franklin.

The 2021 season is the one where critics have the best point. The Penn State football team was #16 in the composite and coming off of the weird covid season. The team started 5-0 and climbed all the way to #4 in the country with a road trip to #3 Iowa. While Penn State started the game well it ultimately ended with Sean Clifford getting hurt in the 2nd quarter and Iowa chipping away until they eventually took the game in the 4th. The team continued to fall to every other ranked team they played that season and finished the year 7-6 with an Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas. There was really no reason that the team couldn’t have had at least 9 wins when you factor in the collapse against Iowa, choke against a bad Illinois team in 9 overtimes at home, and a close loss to Michigan State on the road. There were too many games during the 2021 season where it seemed like Penn State was the better team and lost. It is that reason why the criticisms are valid.

Big Picture

Overall, in the 8 seasons that we have looked at 4 of them were overachieving and 3 of the 4 who fell below expectations were reasonable. This disproves the idea that James Franklin does less with more. Franklin has Penn State achieving right where the recruiting rankings say they should be on average. If anything, it leans slightly positive and James Franklin has been underrated in his time at Penn State. The real question is whether Penn State can elevate into that next tier and consistently have a top-10 roster in college football. Something that has only happened once in the last 9 years. Only time will tell whether that goal is achievable in Happy Valley.

Thank you for reading Basic Blues Nation. Please follow us on Facebook and Twitter for the latest news and insights on your favorite Penn State athletics. For feedback, questions, concerns, or to apply for a writing position, please email us at or direct message us on our social media. Also, be sure to check out our new site shop. It’s due to your support that we can become one of the market’s fastest-growing Penn State sports outlets!

Former contributor at Nittany Central, Patrick joined Basic Blues Nation in 2023 as the Social Media Director, Penn State Wrestling beat writer, and producer of the Penn State Roar Room spaces. Patrick is also a contributor of Penn State football, basketball, and ice hockey news for the site.


Spinstralia Casino: online pokies real money, real fun! Get in on the action today!