James Franklin’s latest buzzword is “alignment.”

It’s the idea that the university at every level must be in sync in its support of Penn State football for the coach and his program to reach the elite status he’s been talking about for 5 years now.

Well, as much as some skeptics will scoff, things seem to be aligning in State College these days. The chance for a Happy New Year in Happy Valley beckons; don’t listen to the bitter grinches who can’t get over the consecutive 5-loss seasons. C’mon, ’tis the season. Penn State’s story of love and redemption works way better than the plots of those Lifetime holiday movies you’ve been binging on.

I know, I know. You’re moody, misunderstood and hurt because your Lions have let you down over the past couple years, which was already a crappy, pandemic-plagued stretch of time. But what are you going to do? Stay closed off for the next 10 years or until Franklin finally takes that USC job? Put some spirits in your hot chocolate and regain your spirit already.

Franklin and his staff are delivering glad tidings, from a no-drama Early Signing Period to a much more settled QB room to a solid selection to replace Brent Pry as defensive coordinator. No, Lions fans, not all your wishes will come true. Some key players will move on early to the NFL, such as LB Brandon Smith, who has already announced he’ll skip the Outback Bowl as well as the rest of his college eligibility.

Smith won’t be the last Lion to leave early to chase pro dreams. More than ever, that’s the nature of college football these days. But Penn State has more positives on the horizon than most of its Big Ten brethren. So let’s count those blessings:

5-star QB set up for success

Sean Clifford plans to return for a final season leading the offense, and that’s the perfect scenario for incoming 5-star recruit Drew Allar and the rest of the much-improved Penn State quarterback room. Here’s why:

  • Mentor: The 24-year-old Clifford will show fellow Ohioan Allar the ropes on and off the field when it comes to handling the spotlight that Lions fans are all too eager to shine on the baby-faced teenager.
  • Buffer: Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich and line coach Phil Trautwein need to fix Penn State’s offensive problems, most of which start up front. Penn State couldn’t run the ball this year and was dead last in the B1G in protecting the passer. Clifford has persevered through those adverse conditions the last couple years, and any knocks he takes early in 2022 spare Allar and others from suffering shell shock before they’re ready.
  • Hard deadline: Clifford’s eligibility runs out after 2022, no matter what. Allar is in line to be QB1 no later than opening day 2023, assuming he is as good as advertised. Given that he’ll be on campus in January, the 6-5, 228-pounder will have the chance to get into the mix in 2022, much as Michigan allowed 5-star JJ McCarthy to get his feet week this year behind Cade McNamara.
  • Other options: If for any reason Allar misses despite his can’t-miss status, Penn State has Christian Veilleux coming off a strong game against Rutgers and high 3-star in-state recruit Beau Pribula on the depth chart. This is a way better situation than a few months ago when Ta’Quan Roberson was QB2 by default. Roberson is now in the transfer portal, which is the best thing for all involved following his disastrous relief outing this year against Iowa.

Defense shouldn’t miss a beat

Manny Diaz is already settling in as defensive coordinator after being tabbed to replace Brent Pry a few weeks ago. With Pry set to take over as head coach at Virginia Tech, Diaz is getting up to speed in State College. Coming off a 3-year stint as Miami’s head coach, Diaz brings name recognition to go along with a strong P-5 resume as a defensive coordinator.

Given Diaz’s background, I expect he’ll maintain Pry’s basic scheme but perhaps mix in more stunts and blitzes. At least some of his defenses were known for forcing takeaways and piling up tackles for loss. Those aspects on top of Pry’s solid, bend-don’t-break style could make Penn State’s defense opportunistic as well as stingy.

Running game should improve

Running back Nicholas Singleton, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, might be more likely than Allar to make an impact as a true freshman. The 6-0, 210-pounder out of Governor Mifflin could give the run game a needed boost. The line could get help from 4-star JUCO recruit JB Nelson (6-6, 310) from Lackawanna CC in Juniata, the same feeder school that safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown passed through on their way to Penn State.

Trautwein, who will be entering his 3rd season next fall, and Yurcich will be under the gun to fix the O-line issues. From weight room work to technique to scheme to making sure they’re not tipping plays, I expect they’ll figure some things out, considering their 6- to 7-figure incomes depend on it.

PSU changing with the times

If you don’t like where college football is heading, I’m with you. But it is what it is. Just this season, Franklin finally accepted that he needs to use the transfer portal both ways. It’s a great way to clear marginal players off the roster, not that Franklin or any other coach will outwardly admit that. More importantly, it’s a great way to fix imminent problems. For example, Penn State needs some short-term linebacker help now that Brandon Smith has announced for the NFL Draft and Ellis Brooks almost certainly is also leaving. Those would be Penn State’s top 2 tacklers from this season.

Mercenaries are part of the deal these days, whether they arrive from high school or through the portal. Of the 3 QBs with freshman eligibility who will back up Clifford next year, 1 for sure and probably 2 will not finish college at Penn State. That does not indicate a failure by Franklin, but is rather a reflection of where things stand in the age of NIL, facilities wars and player free agency via the portal.

You can hate on Franklin all you want for dragging Penn State into this new reality while also lining his own pockets by forcing the school into a one-sided contract extension. But he and the university are playing the game by the existing rules, awful as they may be.

It’s more likely than not that all this effort will not pan out in a Playoff berth, barring an expansion of the CFP to 8 or 12 teams. It would take a mix of luck and maximizing of potential akin to what Michigan accomplished this year. Penn State, like Michigan, would have to catch Ohio State in a slightly down year and be good enough to take advantage.

What’s happened with this recruiting class, No. 6 in the nation, and the program’s other moves put Penn State in position to take advantage should such circumstances arise. That possibility is one of the reasons Allar will be heading east next month to get started on his Penn State education. And it’s also the reason Nittany Li0ns fans should be looking forward to the years to come.

No other program in the Big Ten is in this good of a position to challenge the Buckeyes. As a PSU supporter, your glass of eggnog is at least half full. Cheers.