James Franklin era defined: Penn State's draft success an endorsement and indictment
The 2022 NFL Draft was one of the most surprising in recent memory.
An unexpected prospect rose to the No. 1 pick. A high volume of trades rendered mock drafts even more useless than usual. Only 1 quarterback was taken in the 1st round. Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean, the most electric player on that loaded defense, tumbled seemingly forever.
So one of the bigger draft surprises slipped through the cracks a bit.
For the first time since 2017, Ohio State did not lead the Big Ten in players selected. This year that distinction went to Penn State.
A total of 8 Nittany Lions were drafted, putting PSU at 4th overall behind Georgia (15), LSU (10) and Cincinnati (9).
Yes, that means that Penn State had even more players drafted than Alabama (7). Now, there is some need for context there. The Crimson Tide aren’t slipping — they’ll be loaded with guys who are draft-eligible next year. But it’s still wild to think of the Nittany Lions being in the same neighborhood.
In fact, it’s hard to figure out where Penn State compares to any of these programs at the moment. When you look at on-field success in the past 3 seasons, Penn State is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb.
Records since 2019
- Alabama: 37-4 (25-3 SEC), 2 CFP appearances, 1 national championship
- Georgia: 34-5 (22-4 SEC), 1 national championship
- LSU: 26-12 (16-10 SEC), 1 national championship
- Cincinnati: 33-5 (23-1 American), 1 CFP apperance
- Penn State: 22-13 (15-12 Big Ten)
And that sums up Penn State’s current conundrum. James Franklin is recruiting and developing players at a level comparable with programs who have been among the nation’s most elite the past 3 years.
But when it comes to coaching them what to do on Saturdays? That’s where there is a disconnect.
An LSU-like decline
Among those 5 programs, only 1 is on a parallel path with Penn State: LSU. Both peaked in 2019 before slipping the past 2 seasons.
But even that comparison is only true in the vaguest possible sense.
LSU’s peak was somewhere in the Himalayas. The 2019 Tigers were the best college football team assembled since Miami circa 2001-02, steamrolling to a 15-0 record.
Penn State’s peak was somewhere in the Poconos. The Nittany Lions finished 2nd in the Big Ten East and beat Memphis in the Cotton Bowl.
Penn State has fared slightly better in the 2 years since, going 11-11 compared to LSU’s 11-12. But the athletic directors at each program have had polar opposite responses to those similar outcomes.
Ed Orgeron, despite winning a national championship 3 years ago, was fired after last season. Franklin, who last won the Big Ten in 2016, was rewarded with a 10-year contract extension.
A make-or-break class
For Penn State fans, the past 2 seasons don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence moving into the next decade. Yet those are the cards in their hand.
If those are the 2 seasons that keep cropping up in the 2020s, eventually Franklin will be handed several tons of cash to go away. But that outcome can also be avoided. Penn State’s incoming class offers the promise of on-field results that actually match the Nittany Lions’ talent level.
Penn State’s Class of 2022 ranked 6th nationally in 247 Sports composite index, and securing that class undoubtedly played a major role in the school overcompensating for Franklin’s job security.
The class is built around 5-star quarterback Drew Allar and 5-star running back Nick Singleton. A 3rd 5-star, defensive lineman Dani Dennis-Sutton, offers hope that this will not be a 1-dimensional operation.
But big talent comes with big expectations. And if Penn State continues to churn out NFL draft picks at the same level as programs who reach the College Football Playoff, falling short of it will be unacceptable.
The task won’t get any easier
Penn State’s recent mediocrity is attributable in part to the fact the Big Ten East has never been tougher.
Ohio State, as always, remains a formidable challenge. Jim Harbaugh finally got Michigan back to its expected level in 2021. Mel Tucker has Michigan State rocketing in the right direction after just 2 seasons. Even Indiana was to be reckoned with in 2020.
It seems the Hoosiers aren’t going to sustain that success, but the other 3 programs aren’t going anywhere. Getting to the Big Ten championship game, much less the CFP, is no easy task.
But if you have the most NFL talent on your roster in a given year, those goals should be attainable. The key is being the better coach every Saturday.
At some point in the next 3-4 years, Franklin will need to show he’s capable of that task.