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Reviewing 9 years of James Franklin as Penn State’s head coach

It has been a day over nine years since Penn State football hired James Franklin as its head coach from Vanderbilt. Has his tenure with the Nittany Lions been a success thus far?



Jan 2, 2023; Pasadena, California, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin celebrates with the trophy on the podium after the Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Utah Utes in the 109th Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Nine years ago yesterday, On January 11th, 2014, Penn State hired James Franklin as its newest head football coach. Franklin had seen great success during his three years with SEC embarrassment Vanderbilt, taking the Commadores to three-straight bowl games, back-to-back 9-win seasons, and back-to-back ranked finishes.

At the time, the Nittany Lions were still under the NCAA’s death sentence, and no one was sure if PSU would ever recover from its sanctions.

Yet, three years into James Franklin’s tenure, Penn State football was back to its usual self. Now that we are nearly a decade after the fact, where do the Nittany Lions stand under James Franklin?

The early years (2014-2015)

When the NCAA first imposed its sanctions on Penn State football in 2012, the rather apparent goal was to forever-cripple the Lions’ football program. That same year — even without many scholarships or the possibility of a bowl game berth — Penn State managed to finish 8-4 overall after a walk-off win over the Wisconsin Badgers. A year later, PSU again stayed above .500 with a 7-5 finish in Bill O’Brian’s second and final season as head coach in State College.

While the Bill O’Brian years treated Penn State okay, the main goal at the time was to merely keep the Nittany Lions’ program alive. In 2012-13, this seemed like a tall task, and frankly, it was. In early-2014, Penn State was forced to find a new head coach, and after a brief search, it landed on Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin.

At the time, Franklin was a rather young coaching prospect but had already proven himself to be a great college coach and a fantastic recruiter. Though Vanderbilt is globally known as the doormat of the SEC, Franklin had taken them to new heights: three-straight bowl game appearances, two bowl wins, two 9-win seasons, and two ranked finishes. Since 1916, Vandy has two 9-win seasons — both came under Franklin’s watch in 2012 and 2013.

In Franklin’s first season as head coach (2014) — the Nittany Lions’ first year allowed to compete in a bowl game since 2011 — he took the Nittany Lions to a 6-6 regular season finish (2-6 Big Ten). This was good enough to earn a bid to the Pinstripe Bowl against Boston College. After a nail-biting game, the Nittany Lions walked away with a 31-30 win and their first bowl victory since 2009. Penn State’s 7-6 season was the Nittany Lions 10th-straight winning season and a solid start to the James Franklin era. Still, PSU needed more.

The year after, Penn State finished one win better than it did in the previous regular season (7-5) before losing to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Despite the program still being under NCAA sanctions, Penn State football fans were getting a little disgruntled at Penn State’s lack of results. Franklin’s 14-12 record was okay considering the circumstances, but when it comes to college football fans, context simply doesn’t matter that much.

Narratives change (2016)

Penn State’s 2016 season cannot be talked about enough in State College. It was the Nittany Lions’ first season back from NCAA sanctions and was a monumental year for Penn State’s program as a whole. After losing two of its first four games — a 42-39 home loss to Pitt and a 49-10 road loss to Michigan — it seemed as if James Franklin may be on the hot season. In the following weeks, all of that changed for Franklin and Co.

Penn State eventually made its way to 4-2 overall heading into its famed “White Out” game against No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes were undefeated and it seemed as if Ohio State was unbeatable in 2016. On October 22nd, Penn State football proved that Ohio State was, in fact, beatable. Late in the second-half, PSU blocked a Buckeye field goal and managed to return it for a touchdown. This score gave Penn State a 24-21 lead, a score that would stand for the rest of the game.

Penn State’s win over Ohio State got PSU to 5-2 on the season and kicked off a massive winning streak — one that extended through the end of the season and the Big Ten Championship game against No. 6 Wisconsin. Although the Nittany Lions gave USC a good fight in the Rose Bowl, Penn State dropped to 11-3 overall with a 52-49 thrilling loss. Despite its three losses, Penn State’s Big Ten Championship and 11 wins were enough to get the Nittany Lions back on the map.

In the years to come, James Franklin’s program managed to string together more seasons like this one.

“Great but not elite”

In 2017, Penn State football had one of its best rosters in program history. Trace McSorley was under center, Saquon Barkley was in the backfield, and the Nittany Lions boasted a dangerous receiving corps with a defense to match.

Early on, it seemed as if the Nittany Lions were bound to repeat as Big Ten Champions. Penn State knocked off its first seven opponents — including a huge 42-13 win over No. 19 Michigan in the White Out game — before heading to Ohio State.

PSU took an early 28-3 lead over the Buckeyes in Columbus, yet could not hang on, and eventually lost 39-38 in a thriller. The loss was crushing for Franklin and led to another loss the week after at Michigan State. Penn State managed to finally recover and win the remainder of its games to improve to 10-2 overall, but it felt as if the damage had already been done. The Nittany Lions’ 10-2 record and top-10 ranking was enough to earn a bid to the Fiesta Bowl against No. 12 Washington (10-2) from the PAC-12.

The 2017 Fiesta Bowl — a game that Penn State won, 35-28 — was the Nittany Lions’ first New Year’s six win since Joe Paterno’s 2005 Orange Bowl win over Florida State. Additionally, it was Penn State’s first back-to-back 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes in nearly a decade (2008-2009) and proved that the Nittany Lions were trending towards being a Playoff team.

Sadly, Penn State could not retain this momentum heading into the 2018 season, and eventually fell to 9-4 overall.

Penn State’s 9-4 season in 2018 was a small setback during an incredible four-year stretch. The Nittany Lions dropped games to Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan in the regular season before losing to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. Still, the Nittany Lions found themselves at No. 17 by season’s end — it was the first time Penn State saw three-straight ranked finishes since 1997-1999.

A year later, during the 2019 season, Penn State football saw a season much like its 2017 campaign. After getting off to a hot start and into the top-5 with a win over No. 16 Michigan in the White Out, Penn State lost at Ohio State and at Minnesota, yet managed to finish 10-2 overall. The Nittany Lions’ season was good enough to get Penn State to another New Year’s Six bowl: the Cotton Bowl vs. Memphis.

PSU beat Memphis in an abnormally high-scoring affair to finish 11-2 overall and in the top-10 yet again. Whether some noticed this or not, Penn State’s 11-2 season in 2019 was a monumental moment for the Nittany Lions’ program under James Franklin.

Despite taking over a sanctioned program, Franklin won Penn State 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, Franklin and Co. 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, James Franklin’s Penn State teams also finished in the top-10 three times in four seasons for the first time since 1993-1996.

Still, there was work to be done. As James Franklin said after his loss to Ohio State in 2018, Penn State was a “great” program, but not “elite.”

11 wins, 11 losses

After gaining all of this momentum from 2016-2019, Penn State football saw a major setback in 2020 and 2021. The Nittany Lions fell to 4-5 overall during the COVID-19 season, and despite a great 5-0 start in 2021, Penn State still finished 7-6 overall. The Nittany Lions’ start to the 2020s was subpar to say the least, and rival fans, media members, and more made sure that PSU fans heard about it.

Heading into the 2022 season, all Penn State fans heard about was the Nittany Lions’ 11-11 record over the past two seasons, James Franklin’s inability to win big games, Sean Clifford’s shortcomings, and more.

For the first time since coming off of sanctions in 2016, Penn State football opened the year unranked in both major polls. For the first time in years, it felt as if all of James Franklin’s progress had been erased, and that Penn State football was back to square one.

2022 gets Penn State back on track

2022 was a monumental season for the Nittany Lions’ football program for many reasons, but mostly because it broke trends. Penn State football fell to 10-2 overall once again with losses to Michigan and Ohio State — two of the four College Football Playoff teams last season.

Despite these losses, PSU essentially wiped everyone else off of the map and managed to bounce-back from its losses with blowout wins.

Penn State beat 9-4 Minnesota 45-17 in the White Out the week after losing at Michigan, and beat Indiana 45-14 the week after losing to Ohio State. Additionally, Penn State compiled some impressive wins against Ohio (46-10), Auburn (41-12), Maryland (30-0), Rutgers (55-10), and Michigan State (35-16). Penn State’s offense went from 90th overall in 2021 to 20th overall in 2022 — a massive step in the right direction heading into 2023.

Since Ohio State and Michigan made the CFP, Penn State punched its ticket as the Big Ten representative in the Rose Bowl game against No. 8 Utah. Before the Rose Bowl game, James Franklin’s last win over a top-10 team came against No. 6 Wisconsin way back in the 2016 Big Ten Championship game. Regardless, the Nittany Lions managed to lay on the gas in the second half and route Utah, 35-21.

The Rose Bowl win was Penn State’s first since 1995, its third NY6 win under James Franklin, its fourth 11-win season over the past six full seasons, and will lead to its fourth top-10 finish over the past six full seasons. It also gets PSU back on track as it heads into a new generation of Penn State football: the Drew Allar era — an era that has high expectations in State College.

The verdict on James Franklin

Throughout James Franklin’s time at Penn State, the Nittany Lions have seen their fair share of ups and downs. PSU has four seasons with five-or-more losses (2014, 2015, 2020, and 2021) and five seasons with nine-or-more wins (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2022). In fairness to James Franklin, he has not always been dealt the best hands at Penn State. The Nittany Lions are not exactly prepared for the newest age of college football (transfer portal and NIL) and the fanbase has not always embraced Franklin.

Additionally, three of Franklin’s four seasons with five-or-more losses came under NCAA sanctions or a global pandemic. I know there is little sympathy among college football fans, but I feel there is some understanding that people should have regarding the deck Franklin has been playing with in State College. Now, as we shift from another 11-win season and New Year’s Six bowl win, Penn State has its best shot at bigger and better.

Much of Franklin’s tenure will be defined by the next few years. With the talent on Penn State’s roster and the layout of college football right now, the Nittany Lions will have their best shot at a National Championship over the next three years or so. Can Franklin win another Big Ten Championship? Make the CFP? We will see, but so far, Franklin’s tenure in the Blue and White has been largely successful.





James Franklin describes how player competition drives success

Two of Penn State’s biggest stars have used competition to drive their success on the field.



James Franklin, Penn State football, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, Kalen King
Sep 23, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith (1) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Iowa 31-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Iron sharpens iron is a common phrase used in football. Top players compete against each other to make each other better. The Penn State football team has had several battles that have led to individual growth. But one has stood out more than any other battle. That was between wide receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Kalen King. Two of Penn State’s biggest stars who used practice reps to get ready for this season. Now, early in 2023, they’re enjoying each other’s success according to James Franklin.

James Franklin describes how player competition drives success

Wide receiver No. 1 and cornerback No. 1 had some heated exchanges this summer in practice. But at the end of the day, both players have become stronger because of that. James Franklin spoke about the relationship between Kalen King and KeAndre Lambert-Smith and how on Saturday night they shared their success.

Franklin said during his media availability on Tuesday, “One of the cool things that I thought happened on Saturday is after KeAndre [Lambert-Smith] scored his touchdown, on the fade ball, which I thought was a really big-time play. The first guy to meet him coming off the sideline was Kalen King. Kalen and KeAndre’s battles at practice are legendary. And I think that was a really good example, tip of the hat of Kalen seeing KeAndre being successful and KeAndre saying you’re a big part of that success because of how we go against each other every single day at practice. So, I thought that was a really cool moment for all of the players on the sideline to see.”

KeAndre Lambert-Smith has had a great 2023 season thus far

One of the biggest question marks heading into this season was who would be wide receiver No. 1 for the Penn State football team. KeAndre Lambert-Smith has answered that question with confidence. So far this season he has racked up 21 catches for 286 yards and 3 touchdowns. He is someone that Drew Allar can certainly rely on.

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 [email protected] 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!

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Big Ten power rankings update: Penn State can’t jump Ohio State after wild weekend

Penn State football looked dominant on Saturday, but still can’t jump Ohio State in the latest Big Ten power rankings after a wild week in the conference.



Penn State Football, Big Ten Power Rankings, Ohio State
Sep 23, 2023; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day celebrates Chip Trayanum (19) game winning rushing touchdown against Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of their game at Notre Dame Stadium.

It was a wild weekend of college football in the Big Ten. We saw walkoff winners from Ohio State and Northwestern, while teams like Penn State football and Maryland cruised to dominant victories. Now that we’re fully into conference play, the pecking order becomes more delineated. How did Week 4 impact our newest Big Ten power rankings?

Updated Big Ten power rankings

After another exciting week of college football, some clear separation is happening in the Big Ten. The top tier of three teams is a clear upper echelon of the conference, with a bright red line separating them and the next level.

A second tier is forming and, for now, has two teams. But this could expand as we get deeper into the season. These two teams are not at the big boy level yet and have a few flaws, but have played fairly well to this point.

And below them is a lower third tier with everyone else. These teams could be ranked in any order, and it would be justified. All the teams in this third tier have major flaws. Unless they have a drastic turnaround, they certainly will not be reaching the elite part of the conference this year.

With all of that said, let’s get to this week’s edition of the Big Ten power rankings.

No. 14 Indiana 2-2 (Last week 13)

The good news is the Hoosiers beat Akron. The bad news is they needed four overtimes to do it despite being 16-point favorites. The Zips had a chance to end it in regulation but missed a 32-yard field goal. The Hoosiers are still dropping to the bottom of the Big Ten power rankings this week.

It’s hard to see too many more victories on the schedule. The Terps are up next.

No. 13 Northwestern 2-2 (Last week 14)

The Wildcats pulled off a surprising victory over Minnesota Saturday night. They were down 31-10 at the start of the 4th quarter but scored three unanswered touchdowns to force overtime, where they won it in the extra frame.

Quarterback Ben Bryant had a career night with 396 yards and four touchdowns. It will be tougher to put up that kind of performance against Penn State football next week.

No. 12 Purdue 1-3 (Last week 11)

The Boilers could not stop Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen or the Badgers fast start on their way to a 38-17 home loss. Hudson Card rushed for a touchdown but threw two interceptions on a three-turnover night for Purdue.

This looks like it could be a rough first year for head coach Ryan Walters. He will face off against his old team, Illinois, next Saturday.

No. 11 Nebraska 2-2 (Last week 12)

Quarterback Heinrich Haarberg got the start again for the Huskers and was the team’s leading rusher with 157 yards. He had a touchdown on the ground and through the air as Nebraska defeated Louisiana Tech 28-14.

After an 0-2 start, the Huskers have recorded back-to-back victories. It may be short-lived as the Wolverines come to Lincoln this Saturday.

No. 10 Michigan State 2-2 (Last week 9)

The Spartans are in complete disarray on and off the field. Against Maryland, they turned over the ball five times on their way to a 31-9 defeat. They outgained the Terps in total yards, but the turnovers were absolute killers.

If Michigan State keeps it up, it may find itself even lower in the power rankings next week. But the Spartans travel to offensively challenged Iowa next Saturday night, so perhaps their fortunes will turn.

No. 9 Illinois 2-2 (Last week 10)

Illinois was down 10-0 to FAU after the first quarter and needed a comeback to defeat the Owls 23-17. After a rough outing against Penn State football the previous week, Luke Altmyer had a better day with over 300 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions.

Squeaking by FAU does not breed much confidence, though. But with what is below the Illini in the power rankings, they actually get to move up a spot. The Illini are at Purdue next week.

No. 8 Rutgers 3-1 (Last week 8)

The Scarlet Knights scored on their opening drive against Michigan on a 69-yard pass from Gavin Wimsatt. That would be all their scoring as Michigan scored the final 31 points. There were plenty of missed opportunities for Rutgers, none more costly than a pick-six, with the Scarlet Knights driving in the third quarter only down 10 points. That pretty much sealed Rutgers’s fate.

This still may be a decent Rutgers team, but against its best competition so far, it failed. However, there is no shame in losing to the No. 2 team in the country, so they stay put in the rankings for the week. Up next is a sure-to-be win against FCS Wagner.

No. 7 Minnesota 2-2 (Last week 7)

Minnesota blew a three-score lead in the fourth quarter and then lost to Northwestern in overtime. Darius Taylor was a workhorse with nearly 200 yards on the ground and a touchdown. But the Gophers do not have a very good quarterback in Athan Kaliakmanis, and the defense gave up nearly 500 yards to a bad Wildcat offense.

This was a bad loss for Minnesota, but it is difficult to drop them even a spot because of what is behind them in the rankings. The Gophers will look to bounce back next week against Louisiana.

No. 6 Iowa 3-1 (Last week 5)

Brutal. Ugly. Pathetic. Those are just a few adjectives used to describe the Hawkeyes’ performance in a 31-0 shutout loss to Penn State football. They had 76 total yards and had an equal amount of first downs as they did turnovers with four each. 

There is a ton of finger-pointing from fans after a game like this, and they are primarily pointing at Kirk and Brian Ferentz. The good news for Iowa is that it likely will not face as good of a defense as it did with Penn State again. Iowa certainly can right the ship this week with a home game against Michigan State.

No. 5 Wisconsin 3-1 (Last week 6)

Wisconsin finally got off to a fast start, scoring touchdowns on its first three offensive possessions. The Badgers held off Purdue for the victory, but it came at a cost, as running back Chez Mellusi was lost for the season with a broken leg.

The Badgers get a bye week at a good time, as they will adjust without Mellusi. After the off week, they will host Rutgers.

No. 4 Maryland 4-0 (Last week 4)

The Terps cruised to another comfortable victory, defeating Michigan State 31-9. It was Maryland’s first victory in East Lansing since 1950.

Maryland’s offense, led by Taulia Tagovailoa, gets much attention, but the Terp defense has been pulling its weight. The Terps have only allowed four touchdowns in their first four games and have come up with 11 turnovers. Up next is a home date with Indiana.

No. 3 Penn State 4-0 (Last week 3)

The Nittany Lions took it to Iowa in front of a White Out crowd, shutting out the Hawkeyes. This was a redemption win for the 2021 loss at Kinnick. Most impressively, Penn State controlled the ball for over 45 minutes and ran 97 plays to Iowa’s 33 snaps.

The margin between Penn State and Ohio State looks awfully thin. Still, for now, the Buckeyes remain ahead in the Big Ten power rankings. Luckily, there is a game between the two in about a month that will settle it. For now, Penn State football travels to Northwestern next.

No. 2 Ohio State 4-0 (Last week 2)

On Saturday night, Ohio State pulled off a thrilling 17-14 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend. They had a 3-0 lead at halftime, then a 10-0 lead early in the third quarter. The Irish scored the next two touchdowns, and it was not until nearly the very end the Buckeyes scored the game-winner with a Chip Trayanum 1-yard rush at the goal line. The Irish also had only 10 guys on the field for the Buckeyes’ last two snaps.

For Penn State, it was better for Ohio State to remain undefeated. The two teams appear to be on a collision course for a top-10 matchup in a few weeks in Columbus. For now, Ohio State gets a bye week.

No. 1 Michigan 4-0 (Last week 1)

The Wolverines started slow against Rutgers, but finished strong in Jim Harbaugh’s first game on the sidelines this season. JJ McCarthy was efficient, going 15 of 21 for 214 and a score. Blake Corum also had two scores along with 97 yards. After giving up an explosive play for a touchdown on Rutgers’s third play of the game, the Wolverine defense settled in giving up less than 190 yards the rest of the way and returning an interception for a touchdown.

The Wolverines will finally leave the comforts of home as they hit the road to Lincoln next Saturday.

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 [email protected] 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!

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Drew Allar has helped build a championship culture at Penn State

The Penn State football team has an outstanding culture and Drew Allar has been a key contributor to that this season.



Drew Allar, Penn State, KJ Winston Jr.
Sep 23, 2023; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Drew Allar (15) looks to throw a pass during the second quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Iowa 31-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Drew Allar has been phenomenal early in his Penn State football career. The physical attributes are one thing but his decision-making is on another level. Through the games he appeared in during his freshman season and the first four games this season he has played mistake-free. He has yet to throw an interception in college and because of that, the ball security for Penn State has been phenomenal. KJ Winston Jr. referred to the battles the defense had with Drew Allar and prepared them for this season.

Drew Allar has helped build a championship culture at Penn State

James Franklin spoke earlier this summer about how many practices it took during fall camp before Allar threw an interception. Now, we have seen that translate to the field as well. Drew Allar has gone through the first four games of the season throwing 8 touchdown passes against 0 interceptions. He has protected the ball very well. Penn State football safety KJ Winston Jr. met with the media yesterday and described what it’s like practicing against Allar.

Winston Jr. said, “I really think it’s because of all fall camp and practice going against Drew [Allar] and kind of giving our best shot at him and him giving his best shot at us. I think just you know, in practice going back and forth it allowed him to come into the game feeling comfortable. We were playing against Drew like it was a championship game every day…”

Penn State is leading the country in these areas

The Nittany Lions posted on social media all of the categories they lead the nation in through four weeks. They’re 1st in pass defense, total defense, first downs allowed, turnover margin. Then offensively they lead in fewest turnovers, and time of possession. Because of what Drew Allar and the Penn State defense did during fall camp, it has translated to the field this fall very well.

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 [email protected] 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!

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