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James Franklin Made The Right Decision

Penn State could have taken a gamble and gone with the high ceiling guy, but they got it done with the high floor quarterback instead.

Jan 2, 2023; Pasadena, California, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) celebrates on the podium after defeating the Utah Utes in the 109th Rose Bowl game at the Rose Bowl. Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Every now and then, we come across some news item about some lucky (or savvy, smart, pick your adjective) person who managed to make the right gambles, which paid off significally. A few notables include:

  1. Archie Karas: Archie Karas is often regarded as one of the greatest gamblers in history. In the early 1990s, he turned $50 into more than $40 million by playing a series of high-stakes poker and pool games in Las Vegas.
  2. Cynthia Jay-Brennan: In 2000, Cynthia Jay-Brennan won a massive $34.9 million jackpot on a Megabucks slot machine in Las Vegas.
  3. Elmer Sherwin: Sherwin won two of the largest slot machine jackpots in history. In 1989, at the age of 76, he won $4.6 million on a Megabucks slot machine in Las Vegas. Amazingly, 16 years later, at the age of 92, he hit the same jackpot again, this time winning $21.1 million.
  4. Billy Walters: Billy Walters is a professional sports bettor known for his success in sports gambling. He reportedly made millions of dollars through his sports betting strategies and is considered one of the most successful sports gamblers in history.
  5. Don Johnson: In 2011, Don Johnson, a professional gambler, won around $15 million playing blackjack in Atlantic City casinos over a six-month period. He negotiated special rules and favorable conditions that tilted the odds in his favor.

There are countless stories of “if you’d picked Syracuse to go to the final four, you’d have made bank,” and its derivative alternatives.

The bits that don’t make the news, of course, is all the gambles that don’t pay off. For every major win, there are countless of losses. What’s the point of all that? Well, Penn State found itself in that situation at the beginning of the 2022 season.

In Sean Clifford, James Franklin and the Nittany Lions knew what they were getting. They were getting a quarterback that was not likely to take them to the greatest heights, but also wouldn’t single-handedly tank the season.

Waiting the wings sat Drew Allar, the heir apparent, the prized possession, the one that would finally lift Penn State past the Ohio States (and Michigans, as it turns out) of the world. Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich could have chosen to take that gamble as early as last season. The youth movement was apparent just about everywhere else on the team. Two freshmen running backs combined for almost 2,000 yards. A freshman linebacker proved he could be the next All-American. A freshman defensive end showed the lines would be in capable hands. And so on. Yet, the coaches chose the safe approach for the most important position on the field.

There were plenty of times this season where the fans, myself included, wanted to at least see if the gamble would pay off. Franklin stayed the course. 11 wins and a Rose Bowl win later, we all see why.

The Michigan Debacle

For as much focus as we put on the quarterback position, Penn State still found itself up 17-16 in the third quarter of that game. Clifford did everything he could (in fact, the only touchdown the Lions scored on offense came because of him). The Lions, however, could not stop the Wolverines’ ground game. They also could get nothing done on the ground themselves.

Allar even came in for a portion of the fourth quarter, and the result was the same. Hopes and dreams of “Clifford struggles, Allars goes in and saves the day” basically died in that game.

The Ohio State Issue

Penn State was much better prepared for Ohio State. In fact, they held a 21-16 lead in the fourth quarter (sound familiar?). Then, the Buckeyes poured it on like they always do, and the Lions simply couldn’t keep up (and yes, Clifford helped them in that effort with their late play). It’s possible that things turn out differently with Allar in, but “different,” in this particular instance, could also be much, much worse.

And Then There’s Georgia

Penn State, were they to take the gamble and win, would have still faced a Georgia squad full of talent and experience, one that not even the aforementioned Ohio State team could overcome (yes, by their own doing, but still). Could Penn State, with their freshman quarterback, fared better against Georgia than the Buckeyes did with their more experienced counterpart? Maybe, but not likely.

There’s also the evidence

Only one true freshman has won a national title in recent memory, Trevor Lawrence. And, even Lawrence started after four games, when Kelly Bryant relinquished the job and ended up transferring. Everyone else had at least one year of experience under their belt before they took over.

Then there’s the other side of this, the part where the gamble doesn’t pay off. Penn State themselves had this, where both Rob Bolden and Christian Hackenberg were alleged prodigies that started their freshman season, only struggle down the stretch.

Could Allar have been the next Trevor Lawrence? Possibly. Could Penn State still have gone 11-2 and won the Rose Bowl with Allar? Maybe. But, in choosing the safe approach, Franklin built for the future, without throwing away the present.

Besides, if history is any indication, the year Allar spent learning under someone like Clifford is only going to increase the probability that Penn State’s natural next step after winning the Rose Bowl is something they have yet to do: Make the College Football playoff. And from there, the sky’s the limit.