'We're hungry.' It's now or never for Penn State football in 2021
Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
And if James Franklins was a horseshoe player, he’d be a pretty damn good one.
In 7 seasons, Franklin’s Penn State teams have finished first or second in the Big Ten East 3 times, reaching a New Year’s 6 bowl game in each of those seasons, winning the Rose and Fiesta Bowls, respectively.
For most programs, this is the definition of success. Even for Penn State in the first 5 years after Joe Paterno, fans couldn’t have anticipated much more. But one of the worst side effects of sustained success is growing expectations. Year after year of coming just inches short of reaching the College Football Playoff, perpetually in the shadow of Ohio State, constantly finishing agonizingly close to the summit has grown stale.
Penn State has a famous clock in its football building counting down to the next opponent. While it normally ticks down during the summer months to a random opponent just looking to financially profit from a blowout loss at Beaver Stadium, this year’s a little different as a Wisconsin logo looms on the clock as Penn State prepares to play the favorite to win the Big Ten West in Week 1 at Camp Randall Stadium.
There’s no grace period this season to work up to speed for the grind of the Big Ten schedule, and for that matter, there are not many excuses for the program as a whole to play second fiddle to Ohio State. Penn State is built to compete now, and Franklin knows it, saying he believes his team has one of the best running back rooms and linebacker position in the country this season, as well as the best secondary in his time at Happy Valley.
Penn State is widely believed to be the second-best team in the East, but with the Buckeyes starting a quarterback this season who has never thrown a collegiate pass, Ohio State has perhaps never been more vulnerable to being leapfrogged by the Lions.
Sure, Sean Clifford isn’t the best quarterback in the conference, but he’s a veteran guy who has been through it all, from the highs of leading an 11-win team to the Cotton Bowl, to the lows of being benched in a sub-.500 season.
And while it may be convenient for both Clifford and Franklin to just wash away the “painful” memories of 2020, if anything was clear from Franklin’s appearance at Big Ten Media Days on Thursday, it’s that he and his players have something to prove.
“We’re hungry,” Franklin said. “I would say, obviously, we’ve got a chip on our shoulder. We’ve had a lot of success at Penn State and excited to get back to that.”
“You better grow and you better evolve,” Franklin continued. “You better not say that you’re going to go back to normal because there’s so many unbelievable lessons that we learned through this.”
There are no excuses in 2021. Meetings and practices are back to normal. There shouldn’t be any surprise opt-outs. Franklin feeds off of face-to-face interactions, and there won’t be much, if any, limitations to that this season.
Former Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said the key to success for a coach or executive is a change of scenery every 10 years. Any longer than that and the act grows thin. As Franklin enters Year 8, if he fails to climb the CFP mountain now, will he ever get it done?
Make no mistake, what Franklin has done in his tenure has been nothing short of phenomenal, but the fan base is growing uneasy about never quite crossing the finish line in first place. Recruiting rankings are great, but they must produce on-field results.
For Penn State’s sake, maybe the location of Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis this year instead of Chicago is a good omen. Franklin’s 2016 team won the conference title there over Wisconsin to set the bar for this program under his guidance. If things shake out right, he could be returning in about 4 months.
“The goal for all of us, is to get back here (to Indianapolis) and play in a way and style that’s going to give us the best opportunity to win a Big Ten championship and then have an opportunity to represent the Big Ten and Penn State in the playoffs,” Franklin said. “That’s everybody’s goal and objective.
Until then, the clock continues to move closer to zero as the Sept. 4 date with the Badgers grows closer. And if Penn State learned anything from last year, it’s that Week 1 can set the tone for the rest of the season.