I would’ve loved to have seen James Franklin the second that he found out that Joe Moorhead was taking the job at Mississippi State.

I’m sure it wasn’t exactly the same as the one he gave publicly. Franklin, as anyone in his position would, wished Moorhead nothing but the best. He had no reason to be anything but grateful for the two years of work Moorhead did in State College. He took a subpar offense and turned it into one of the best in the country.

So what was Franklin’s reaction really like behind close doors? Was there a little bit of nervous sweat dripping down his forehead? Maybe, maybe not. Was there a moment when he realized, “crap, my ace in the hole is gone.” I’m sure there was.

Franklin knew that day would come. It almost came last year when Moorhead was a candidate to get the Purdue job. Ultimately, though, Franklin got his guy back for another year and delayed the inevitable.

The Fiesta Bowl will mark Franklin’s first Moorhead-less game since the TaxSlayer Bowl back in 2015. That, of course, was coming off a season in which the Lions finished No. 101 in FBS in scoring offense. That was with Saquon Barkley, Christian Hackenberg and Chris Godwin, too.

Hackenberg and Godwin have since gone on to the NFL and the assumption is that Barkley, as a likely top-five pick, will also leave Penn State early. The Fiesta Bowl is expected to be the last game of Barkley’s career. More importantly, though, it’ll be the first game of the post-Moorhead era.

Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Far too often, seasons are judged based on bowl game performances. They also end up dictating the outlook of next season. Remember when Hackenberg lit up Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl and everyone was all in on the Lions to make a huge step in 2015?

It’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s one that Penn State fans could succumb to after watching the Fiesta Bowl. It goes both ways.

If Trace McSorley lights up the Washington defense and plays like he did in the Rose Bowl last year, the narrative will be “Penn State will be just fine without Moorhead.” If the Lions get held to single digits and they play like they did in 2015, the narrative will be “Penn State will be a different team without Moorhead.”

I’m actually more of a believer in the first narrative. Why? Washington might be led by a bright offensive mind in Chris Petersen, but that defense has been stout in 2017. The Huskies are the nation’s top-ranked run defense, they allow the fewest yards per completion and they’re sixth in scoring. Stringing touchdown drives together against that group — with or without Moorhead — will be no small feat.

This is a major first test for new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne. He built up a solid enough reputation to earn the trust within that locker room, but now he has a chance to earn the trust of Lions fans. There’s now an expectation that Penn State can score against anybody in the country. That doesn’t mean they will.

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Franklin is doing whatever he can to ease this transition ahead of the Fiesta Bowl. In his world, the Penn State offense would look exactly the same as it did under Moorhead. In the long run, what’s to say it won’t?

But in a one-game scenario, anything can happen. There’s no guarantee that the offense has the same creativity without Moorhead’s play-calling. Maybe McSorley takes too long in the pocket and pressure gets to him as he’s watching plays develop. Dare I say that McSorley looks…Hackenberg-like?

OK, that’s enough Hackenberg talk for one column. But the last thing Penn State wants to do in the Fiesta Bowl is to give its fans any pre-Moorhead flashbacks of the offense. Instead of talking about the Lions winning double-digit games in consecutive seasons, the conversation shifts to whether the program really is built for the long haul.

Is that fair? In my opinion, no. Is that easy to see happening? In my opinion, yes.

While some college football pundits might question how the Lions will succeed in the post-Barkley era, many Penn State fans will have greater concern about the post-Moorhead era. That concern increases with every three-and-out the Lions have in the Fiesta Bowl.

And with each McSorley touchdown pass, that sweat running down Franklin’s forehead turns into a calm, cool confidence that everything is going to be just fine without Moorhead.