The first two years of the James Franklin era have produced modest results for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions have gone 14-12 overall, posted a 6-10 record in Big Ten play and won the 2014 Pinstripe Bowl since Franklin took over. But the former Vanderbilt coach is a combined 0-6 against Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State and Penn State’s best result in the Big Ten East was last year’s fourth-place finish.
Evaluating Franklin’s job thus far is tricky. Penn State plays in the tougher Big Ten division and was still feeling the aftershocks from the Jerry Sandusky scandal when Franklin came to Happy Valley. On the other hand, Franklin had a talented quarterback in Christian Hackenberg. But the former 5-star recruit only regressed under Franklin. The Nittany Lions looked to have turned a corner last October, but ended the season on a four-game losing streak, including a 24-17 loss to Georgia in the Gator Bowl.
Franklin’s first two seasons have likely left Penn State fans yearning for more and his third year could be a pivotal one for the program. With the NCAA punishments from the Sandusky scandal fading away, is it time for Penn State to finally get back on its feet?
How much pressure should be placed on the third-year coach? Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from the Nittany Lions this season:
Plenty of talent returning
Penn State returns nine offensive starters, the most in the Big Ten, and five defensive starters. The headliners on Penn State’s offense will be sophomore running back Saquon Barkley and leading receivers Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall. Barkley finished third in the Big Ten last season with 1,076 yards on the ground, while Godwin finished second in the conference with 1,101 receiving yards.
Penn State’s most glaring weakness also should improve in 2016. The program returns six offensive linemen who earned significant playing time last season, but also played for a unit that resembled a turnstile far too often. As the 2015 season proved, it might not matter who is behind center if Penn State’s protection doesn’t improve next season. The experience counts for something and Penn State’s offensive line shouldn’t be an embarrassment like it was a year ago.
Defensively, Penn State will have a bit more work to do. The particular weak spot could be along the defensive line. Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel have all departed, leaving redshirt junior Garrett Sickels as the lone returning starter in the trenches. Defensive tackles Antonie White and Parker Cothren and defensive end Torrence Brown appear to be the favorites to fill in the holes.
The linebacking corps will be anchored by Brandon Bell and the Nittany Lions return three starting defensive backs to a group that finished third in the Big Ten in pass defense.
The talent is certainly evident and Franklin will have plenty of familiar faces to build around.
Whether Hackenberg’s tenure at Penn State is viewed as good, bad or misunderstood, the only certainty is that it’s over. Penn State must find a quarterback who can facilitate an offense loaded with quality skill position players. The starting quarterback will also be tasked with running new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s no-huddle, spread offense that achieved plenty of success at Fordham.
The candidates vying for the starting job include redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley and redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens.
McSorley is the only quarterback with playing experience. He completed 20 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns as a backup last season. McSorley replaced an injured Hackenberg during Penn State’s bowl game, throwing for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the losing effort. He tore it up during Penn State’s spring game, racking up 281 yards and four touchdowns. He finished the spring as the favorite to earn the starting job.
Stevens was rated as the No. 21 dual-threat quarterback nationally in the Class of 2015, but sat out the entire 2015 season. He played sparingly with the first team during the Blue-White scrimmage, completing 10 passes for 100 yards during the game.
McSorley might have the edge thanks to a strong spring, but the competition remains open entering fall practice.
The Big Ten East is still a beast
Penn State’s biggest problem might be that the three big brothers in the Big Ten East aren’t going away. Michigan and Ohio State could be poised for a College Football Playoff run, while Michigan State should be respectable once again as Mark Dantonio attempts to reload the roster on the fly.
The Nittany Lions didn’t even come close to beating those three teams last season and their closest margin of defeat was a 12-point home loss to the Wolverines. Franklin will have to win at least one game against the three divisional titans this time around. The good news is both Ohio State and Michigan State come to Pennsylvania this year.
The rest of Penn State’s schedule is manageable. Penn State should be favored against Kent State, Pittsburgh and Temple during non-conference play while the new quarterback gets his feet wet. Of course, the expectation will be for Franklin’s Lions to be 3-0 entering its Sept. 24 trip to Ann Arbor. Penn State also plays four of five at home during the middle of the season, but will also host the defending Big Ten West champs, Iowa, during that span.
Franklin’s pressure meter: 6/10
Yes, playing in the Big Ten East does Penn State no favors. But the NCAA sanctions are pretty much gone and Franklin will have a ton of starters returning offensively. Developing a quarterback will be crucial, but an eight or nine win season could be feasible. Anything less could put Franklin on the hot seat for 2017.