Entering the 2018 season, James Franklin and the Penn State football program was rolling. The Nittany Lions were coming off a two year stretch in which they won 22 games, a Big Ten Championship, won the Fiesta Bowl, and made a trip to the Rose Bowl. Factor in a top 5 recruiting class in 2018 and a 2019 class that was on its way to being another elite class, and the freight train appeared to be in runaway mode.
Unfortunately, that train has started to slow down.
This may be painful, so I apologize in advance, but, if you will, take trip back in time with me. We’re going back to Saturday, September 30, 2018. Penn State was hosting Ohio State in front of the largest crowd in Beaver Stadium history. And with 8:00 minutes remaining in the game, the Nittany Lions appeared to be on their way to a victory that would have put them in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten East, while also giving them an inside track to earning a berth in the College Football Playoff.
With 8:00 minutes remaining in the game Miles Sanders had a 1-yard touchdown run to make the score 26-14 Penn State. Unfortunately, we all know what came next. After the second 4th quarter letdown in as many seasons against the Buckeyes, Penn State was defeated 27-26. Nearly nine months later, the program is still trying to bounce back from this loss.
Since the final 8:00 minutes against the Buckeyes, Penn State has also suffered a still-baffling loss to a bad Michigan State team, they were blown out by Michigan, and then they capped the 2018 season off with a lackluster performance in a Citrus Bowl loss against Kentucky. Furthermore, the David Corley and Phil Galiano hires proved to be disasters, and both have since moved on. The Nittany Lions saw an alarming amount of players enter the NCAA transfer portal, and recruiting has become much more of a grind than CJF and company are used to.
Just about everything that could go wrong for this program since taking a 26-14 lead against Ohio State with 8:00 minutes remaining in the game has. This has been especially true on the recruiting trail.
At one point it seemed likely that the Nittany Lions would land a top 5 recruiting class in the 2020 cycle. At worst, it was a slam dunk to be another top 10 class. Well, as the on field product suffered and the team experienced some turmoil off the field, the recruiting has followed suit.
With once top targets such as Bryan Bresee, Chris Tyree, Fadil Diggs, and in-state five-star wide receiver Julian Fleming all committing elsewhere, the ceiling for this class is nowhere near what it once was. Maybe the biggest gut punch of all came on Sunday was four-star offensive tackle Grant Toutant, the first member of Penn State’s 2020 class, flipped his commitment to Ohio State.
The offseason is never fun. This offseason has been even less fun than usual for Nittany Lion fans. The start of the 2019 season can not get here soon enough, and when it does it will be James Franklin’s most important season yet in Happy Valley.
To regain the momentum this program had entering the 2018 season, there must be results on the field. Both the on field product and results must be better for the Nittany Lions, specifically the offense, this fall. Part of the problem was not just going 9-4, it’s that Penn State was not always a fun team to watch. After the Ohio State game, the offense was borderline anemic as the season dragged on.
It is vital that Penn State finds a way to win 10+ games again this fall. In college football, national perception can be as important as anything, and 10+ wins, no matter how you get there, will reflect positively on any program.
Had Penn State just held on against a poor Sparty team at Beaver Stadium last year, then things would likely be much different with the program. Yes, the Ohio State disappointment would still be on the resume, but had the Nittany Lions defeated the Spartans they would have strung together their third consecutive 10 win season. This almost assuredly would have sent them to their third consecutive New Years Six Bowl, too.
Again, perception matters.
Right or wrong, Franklin needs to prove he can win at Penn State without Joe Moorhead and Saquon Barkley. Do I believe Franklin can do that? Absolutely. But, for recruiting purposes, he needs to prove it this fall.
If the Nittany Lions scuffle along to another ‘bleh’ season, recruiting will only become more of a challenge. Even for a recruiter as great as Franklin. Coaching obviously matters in college football, but recruiting is the lifeblood of any program. For the Nittany Lions to take the next step as a program they need to recruit more like they did in 2018 and 2019. Winning will make this happen.
Without a strong showing this fall, there will be plenty of questions to answer for this coaching staff. Franklin would be faced with some difficult decisions, and more staff changes could follow. Let’s hope it does not get to that point.
Luckily, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Nittany Lions will rise to the occasion. This will be the most talented roster that Franklin has had to work with yet. The Nittany Lion defense should be one of the best in the FBS. Oh, and the last time Franklin and his team had their back against the wall they went on to win the Big Ten Championship in 2016.
Be ready to see a hungry, motivated pride of lions this fall. 2019 will be the most important season to date in the Franklin Era, and I expect the team to react accordingly.