We know James Franklin can win a press conference.
We know Franklin can win on the recruiting trail.
We know Franklin can win at Vanderbilt.
But what we don’t yet know, one-and-a-half seasons into his tenure at Penn State, is whether Franklin can win—or more specifically, win big enough—with the Nittany Lions.
Let’s be frank: Going 9-4 at a place like Vandy, as Franklin did in his last two seasons there, must be viewed as nothing less than a spectacular success. I mean, after all, it’s Vandy, a program that was so starved for success for so long that Franklin’s nine-win seasons—and bowl appearances—were almost beyond comprehension for the long-suffering Commodore faithful.
But now Franklin is coaching in Happy Valley, where fans still view their program (either justifiably or not) as one of the best in the nation. Penn State, in short, has won things—lots of things. And big things. The program’s history is one of national championships and big-time bowl successes, league championships and Heisman glory. For the span of about three or four decades, there simply was no program more consistent, and more successful, than Penn State.
It’s Franklin’s charge to bring that success back. And this week against the Ohio State Buckeyes, he has an opportunity to show the Nittany Lion faithful that, yes, he can in fact lead this team to victory in games that really matter. So far, in truth, he hasn’t done that.
The Nittany Lions enter this one with a 5-1 mark, which looks fine enough until you take a look at the their schedule—and their level of performance, even in victory—and realize that they really haven’t beaten anybody of note. After a season-opening loss that saw them get dominated by a Temple squad that, with hindsight, we know to be pretty darn good, Franklin’s Lions have rattled off wins against Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army and Indiana. With the possible exception of the win over the Knights, the Nittany Lions haven’t looked particularly impressive in any of those victories.
They were flat and downright ugly on offense through a half against Buffalo, found themselves in a real dogfight in the third quarter against the Aztecs and needed a last-minute defensive stand to hold off an Army team that opened its season with a loss to FCS Fordham. Against Rutgers, they assuredly benefited from the chaos that had enveloped that program in the wake of the Kyle Flood suspension, and last week against Indiana, they took the field knowing that the Hoosiers would not have the services of either their starting quarterback or starting tailback.
Which is to say, yeah, the Lions have caught a few breaks thus far in 2015.
Whether or not they’ll get any this weekend in Columbus remains to be seen, but what we do know is that Franklin will need to deliver one of his finest—perhaps his very finest—coaching performances if his team is going to walk out of the Horseshoe with an upset win.
Yes, the NCAA sanctions handed down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal have hamstrung Franklin since his arrival in Happy Valley; of that, there is no debate.
But it’s also probably true to say that Franklin’s Lions played their most complete, most entertaining football in his first-ever game with the program—a thrilling 26-24 win, in Ireland, over UCF on Aug. 30 of 2014. Since then, the Nittany Lions have won more than they’ve lost, yes, but they’ve rarely played spectacularly and have never looked a real threat to any of the current powers in the Big Ten. They have looked, to be honest, consistently mediocre.
Penn State football was never mediocre, however. And Penn State fans won’t ever settle for that standard.
Franklin surely understands that.
And he surely understands, too, that eventually, he needs to score a big-time win against a big-time program.
This week’s date with the Buckeyes fits the bill.