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Will The Breakthrough Come?

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Has the peak of the James Franklin era already happened?

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

For readers of BSD over the years, you have probably picked up on the fact I’m a rather optimistic guy. I wouldn’t say I’m a blue-and-white glasses wearing sunshine pumper, but I generally lean toward the optimistic side of things. And over the years, I have continued to trust what James Franklin was building here at Penn State. In June of 2018, I wrote about how Franklin had Penn State on a similar trajectory as Dabo Swinney did during his early years at Clemson. Later in 2018, I backed Franklin after an emotional speech following a gut-wrenching 27-26 loss to Ohio State.

I mention all of this say: since January 2014 when Franklin got introduced as Penn State’s next head football coach, I have been steadfast in the belief that he can lead the Nittany Lions to the College Football Playoff. And I am here today to say: I still believe. I still believe that under Franklin’s guidance, that the Nittany Lions can reach the College Football Playoff.

But following a shoddy 2020 season and now a promising-turned-disappointing 2021 season, an inkling of doubt has crept in. Questions need to start being asked just how likely it is that Franklin can get it done here. Not that he can’t, but more so, will he?

By and large, coaches make a breakthrough within 3-5 years. Look at Kirby Smart. Look at Lincoln Riley. Look at Brian Kelly. Look at Urban Meyer. It doesn’t take nearly a decade for most college coaches to reach the pinnacle (in this case, the College Football Playoff) of the sport.

Of course, there are outliers. The aforementioned Dabo Swinney didn’t have his breakthrough until his 8th season at Clemson, when the Tigers made the College Football Playoff. There’s also Mark Dantonio, who won the Big Ten in his 7th season at Michigan State, and then took the Spartans to the College Football Playoff in his 9th.

It’s also important to recognize that not every situation is equal. What Riley walked into at Oklahoma was a whole lot different than what Franklin did at Penn State. And I’m not really even talking about the sanctions — I’m talking about the day-to-day operations of being a great college football program. Growing the off-the-field staff. Getting Lasch updated piece-by-piece. Working with a president and athletic director who did not hire him. There were — and still are — challenges beyond the football field, and Franklin has done an admirable job dealing with them.

But even considering all that: the struggles of the past two years in Happy Valley don’t point toward a program on the rise like we saw at Clemson and Michigan State in the 2010s. If Penn State went out this season and the only losses came to Iowa and Ohio State, I think (outside of the normal dumb-dumbs) Franklin would have been lauded for the turnaround after the putrid 2020 season. Most would be pumped about the 2022 recruiting class (SAVE US DREW!!!), and would be yelling at the administration on Twitter to do whatever is necessary to keep Franklin in State College.

Instead, Penn State sits here 6-4, staring at a likely 7-5 finish and a Pinstripe Bowl matchup with Virginia. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you look back at where this program was in 2017 when Shareef Miller recovered a fumble with nine minutes to go in the Horseshoe with Penn State up 35-20. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you look back at where this program was in 2018 when it was up 26-14 in the 4th quarter against Ohio State. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you consider where this program was in November of 2019 — a questionable offensive pass interference call away from finishing the year 11-1 with its lone loss being to an undefeated College Football Playoff team.

At the time, a lot of us thought that those were the signs of the forthcoming breakthrough. But after the 10-9 record over the 22 months, might those seasons have been the best chances for the breakthrough? Did we already see the best of the Franklin era, and now we are on the downswing? Only time will tell.