Connect with us


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.





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