James Franklin's two-year start at Penn State being defined by perspective
When Penn State lured James Franklin away from Vanderbilt following the 2013 season, the assumption was that the young, up-and-coming coach was a perfect fit in Happy Valley.
After all, he had just led Vanderbilt its best three-year stretch in program history. At a traditional powerhouse program like Penn State, surely Franklin would take it back to its national-title contending ways following its NCAA-sanctioned stretch under Bill O’Brien.
That, obviously, hasn’t happened. Yet. And with Penn State losing three of the nation’s best defensive linemen, and possibly its starting quarterback, there are questions as to whether or not next year will be any different.
It’s easy to look at that fact and wonder why Penn State was only 7-5 and 0-4 against ranked B1G teams. The Lions have yet to beat a ranked team, nor have they been ranked since Franklin took over. The combined records of B1G teams Penn State beat in Franklin’s first two seasons was 30-44, none of whom finished above .500 in conference play.
So what’s holding Franklin back? Why isn’t he a king in Happy Valley like he was in Nashville?
For starters, perspective hasn’t been kind to Franklin at Penn State.
At Vanderbilt, Franklin came into a program that had been to the postseason once in the previous 28 years. Just hitting the six-win mark was cause for celebration. Franklin reached a new high in his second year when he became the first coach to lead Vanderbilt to a nine-win season since it joined the SEC in 1933. The fact that the Commodores won seven in a row and finished in the Associated Press top 25 for the first time since 1948 certainly helped.
But in actuality, Franklin’s first two years at Vanderbilt weren’t a whole lot different than his first two years at Penn State.
Take a closer look:
–15-11 (7-9 in SEC)
-two bowl games (1-1)
-0-6 vs. ranked teams
-14-11* (6-10 in B1G)
-two bowl games (1-0)*
-0-6 vs. ranked teams
*Haven’t played TaxSlayer Bowl yet
There’s not much variation, if any, in arguably the three measures that determine a coach’s staying power at a program.
But when you dig deeper, there are a few noticeable differences between those Franklin-coached teams.
Franklin, considered to be one of the top offensive minds in college football, led Vanderbilt to a touchdown per game more than he did in his first two years at Penn State.
The Commodore quarterbacks were sacked 1.96 times per game compared to 3.3 for Lion signal-callers.
Franklin ended his second season at Vanderbilt by averaging 42 points per game. In 2015 with Penn State, Franklin’s teams averaged 18 points in three losses to ranked teams to end the regular season.
The assumption is that Penn State has underachieved since Franklin took over. Given the headliner players the Lions boast, one could make that argument. But it’s easy to forget that the Lions had only six players remaining from the 2011 recruiting class after the Jerry Sandusky/Joe Paterno fallout. And Penn State’s 2012 class, which was ranked 46th nationally, still had the sanctions hovering over the program.
Neither of those were Franklin’s responsibility.
But for those that believe Franklin isn’t doing enough with Penn State’s brand compared to Vanderbilt’s, the recruiting numbers suggest otherwise.
Despite being late to the party, Franklin signed the 24th-ranked recruiting class in 2014. In 2015, he climbed to 14th. This year, he boasts a top-10 class.
Franklin’s best class at Vanderbilt never was ranked in the top 25. But let’s not forget that Franklin had star skill players like Jordan Matthews and Zac Stacy to carry the offense. And he also wasn’t starting from scratch at offensive line like he had to at Penn State.
The reality is — as much as Penn State fans don’t want to believe it — the talent on Franklin’s Vanderbilt teams weren’t a whole lot different than what he had to work with in his first two years at Penn State.
Franklin, for now, is being viewed as the guy who messed up Christian Hackenberg. The five-star stud quarterback was supposed to take off with Franklin. He was supposed to have a Connor Cook-like development. This was supposed to be the year we saw him settle into Franklin’s system and lead Penn State back to national prominence.
But that didn’t happen, and that’s ultimately why some believe Franklin deserves to be on the hot seat entering 2016.
Maybe a new offensive coordinator will help. Maybe working with a new quarterback will help. Maybe a more experienced Saquon Barkley will help.
It’s important to remember that this is still new, unchartered territory for Penn State.
The perception was that O’Brien got the program back on its feet and walking, and Franklin was supposed to get it back to full speed. That wasn’t entirely fair to Franklin. Now the perception is that Franklin is a guy who can only rebuild programs, but he can’t run an elite one.
It’s still too early for that.
If Penn State is still getting crushed by the B1G elite with Franklin-recruited upperclassmen, then that distinction can be made.
But until then, let’s see if he can turn top-flight recruiting classes into a top-flight program in Happy Valley again.