James Franklin knows he’s close. Not just him, Penn State in general. 

After the one-point loss to Ohio State at home last season, Franklin elaborated on the difference between a good team, a great team, and an elite team. At the time Franklin called the result of Penn State’s loss a matter of a great team losing to an elite team. The difference from one step to the next, according to Franklin, are the little things. 

He’s right. He’ll continue to be right until the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State. Penn State is a great program, the only great program in conference as of now, (I’ll ready myself for the flurry of boat shoes and sharp-zippered cardigans flung my way from the Ann Arbor faithful) with an elite program in Columbus casting a shadow on any success Penn State achieves. 

Don’t think of it as an always-a-bridesmaid sort of situation. Dean Martin to Frank Sinatra, Keith Richards to Mick Jagger, minus the excessive dark liquor and the body-as-a-pill-box experiment in the latter, are more apropos. Penn State continues to play second best to one of the perennial top four programs in the country. Though the pressure of being number one is sizable, holding down the second spot while chasing the top spot comes with taxing responsibilities. 

In the assistant to the regional manager position the great team in conference must do what it can to maintain a semblance of normalcy. There’s bound to be a new invitee at the top of the Big Ten each season. Usually it’s Wisconsin or Iowa the two rotate in and out on a season-by-season basis. The role reversal depends on the total number of starts from the offensive line and the quarterback’s touchdown to interception ratio. This year it’s undefeated Minnesota. 

Based on the records of Penn State and Minnesota and the date, it’s more than fair to call the 11 a.m. game in Minneapolis on Saturday the biggest conference game of the season. Thank the Fighting White Beards for extracting two doses of sizzle from Wisconsin and Ohio State a few weeks back. If Penn State hopes to maintain solid footing as a great team with elite status within arm’s reach, the Nittany Lions need to win. 

That’s what great programs do.

They dash the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of upstarts with a swift and immediate thrashing. Great programs with honest to goodness aspirations to be elite must get in on the act.

And as the great program in conference, the sort of lieutenant who only defers the elite, the Nittany Lions need to reestablish dominance over every other team. Greatness comes with a fleeting and flighty expiration date. Greatness, is, well great, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow when it’s the ceiling.

Franklin said as much last season. He and his staff recruit to an elite level, top ten nationally depending on whose list you believe is colored less by new golf caps and free meals. There also isn’t the sort of circus that seems to show up en masse the moment Jim Harbaugh speaks and gives his opinion. Penn State can operate out of the spotlight that Harbaugh can’t seem to shake off of his program. Being left to their own devices, Penn State chugs along, but will the Nittany Lions get to a level that makes college football believe the Big Ten has two elite teams? 

Recognition comes with wins on the road against hip arrivals like Minnesota and wins against the likes of Michigan State or Pitt. Elite programs are allowed multiple hiccups. I’d like to introduce 2018 Purdue and 2017 Iowa into evidence for that, but Penn State, even in the height of its efficiency and excellence with Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley dropped that second game in conference.

Elite teams do not drop second games, they survive weather delays and crack the code against rivals that want to lull them into frustration through an offense that chips away at a scheme in hopes of breaking one or two big plays. Elite teams recruit no worse than second best in conference and through a fully articulated, delineated, and delegated plan, set out as to how they become an elite team. Elite teams are also a destination, not a launching pad.

Franklin’s name popped up in connection with the USC and Florida State openings. Neither program is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone if they hired him. As someone who won at Vanderbilt and shepherds a great program through a challenging Big Ten schedule, Franklin needs to be the first call for anyone in charge of hiring. Franklin’s absence can do more to damage Penn State’s ascension to elite than anything else. 

Elite teams hold onto their coaches. That’s probably another little thing Franklin identifies as the sign of an elite program. Well, after they take care of business against Minnesota.