Scheduling more of an art form

By Thomas Schlarp

For the Mirror

UNIVERSITY PARK — In an era when only four teams make the playoffs, who and when a team plays a school is vital to building a strong reputation with the selection committee tasked with determining which teams will take those coveted spots.

Scheduling has become more of a subjective art form rather than an objective science, lacking a specific formula that will guarantee a team a path to the postseason.

Just last year a Washington Huskies team breezed through its schedule playing the likes of Idaho, FCS Portland State, and Rutgers in its non-conference slate only to be dominated by Alabama in the semifinal of the playoffs.

Meanwhile Penn State, fresh off winning the Big Ten, was left on the outside looking in, forced to play USC in the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize.

As the Nittany Lions prepare to play Georgia State on Saturday, a Sun Belt team that has already lost to Tennessee State this year, much discussion has been given to just how Penn State goes about constructing its schedule.

“I have strong feelings about scheduling,” Franklin said. “It’s something me and (athletic director) Sandy (Barbour) spend a lot of time discussing. We’re kind of looking at how the playoff system played out last year. You’ve got a bunch of different scenarios to factor in. I think the playoffs are one factor that you have to look at when it comes to scheduling, but I think the most important thing you can do year in and year out is schedule in a way that is going to give your team the best chance to win your conference. Everything else will take care of it from there.”

Georgia State will receive $1.2 million to play Penn State this year, topping the $1 million Akron received to lose 52-0 inside Beaver Stadium.

“A lot of it deals with matchups,” Franklin said. “A lot of it deals with travel. All of these different things factor into it. It also depends on who you’re playing before them, who you’re playing after them, when your bye week is. There’s so many things that factor into it.”

Despite navigating the schedule well enough to be conference champions last year and still fail to receive a playoff bid, Franklin remained adamant that winning the conference title is the most important feature a team can add to its resume.

“For me, the most important thing is what’s going to give us the best chance to prepare us to consistently be part of our conference championship discussion.”

Regardless of how a team fares through its schedule, there is no clear answer as to whether the team deserves to make the playoff.

Since abandoning the computer-based BCS selection process in 2014, a human committee of 13 members, generally serving three-year terms, is tasked with hashing out the minute differences that make one team worthier than another. Inconsistencies in a member’s definition of what merits a playoff bid coupled with the revolving door of changing members has left teams puzzled in regards to what caliber of team a school should schedule.

“About the playoffs, it’s hard to say based off of having only one year of data to study,” Franklin said. “I think what last year showed us is all of the things that we were told that were major factors in determining who’s going to get chosen, it doesn’t really add up. I don’t know if there is a model that you can say, ‘This is the model,’ because things that they said they were factoring in in the past are not factoring in. The narrative is changing.”

“If you win your conference, that’s the best case you can make. After that, humans are going to make decisions.”

Barkley the returner

If Franklin was having any second thoughts about naming Saquon Barkley his starting kick returner after receiving public backlash for using the star on special teams in the second half of a blowout against Akron and continued usage against Pittsburgh, Franklin officially ended the discussion, listing Barkley as the starting kick returner on Monday’s depth chart.

“Barkley’s been our [starter] since camp,” Franklin said. “I didn’t want that on the depth chart because I didn’t want people scheming to keep it away from him.”

Franklin then went on to compare Barkley’s ability on the field to Stanford’s 2016 Heisman candidate and current Carolina Panther Christian McCaffrey.

“You look at what Stanford did with their starting tailback,” Franklin said. “He had a huge impact as a tailback as well as a punt return guy, as well as a kick return guy. One of the things I don’t understand is everyone talks about how important special teams are and it’s just as important as offense or defense until you try to use your starters on special teams. I don’t get it. It seems like talking out of both sides of your mouth.”

No concerns about Blacknall

In last year’s Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin, one of the stars of the night was Saeed Blacknall. The receiver had six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns including a 70-yard score.

Since that championship performance, Blacknall has failed to garner a single catch in Penn State’s three games.

Despite the slow start, Franklin isn’t concerned about Blacknall’s play.

“We look at Saeed as a starter,” Franklin said. “We look at him as a big-time player. He’s played a lot of football for us. We’ve got great competition, which is excellent.”

This year’s team is about adapting to the defense and not forcing the ball to certain players.

“In the old offense we would personnel our formation to get players into certain spots,” Franklin said. “What we do now is depending on what the defense does truly determines it. It’s not like we go into it saying that we need to get Saeed this many touches or Saquon this many touches. It’s all based on what the defense gives.”

Barber’s debut

After not arriving to campus until August due to academic issues and being held out of drills with an apparent illness, four-star defensive end recruit Damion Barber finally made his practice debut Tuesday.

“He showed up and was sick,” Franklin said. “Today is going to be the first day that he actually practices with us. He looks beautiful standing next to our guys in the huddle, but he showed up sick, so today’s going to be the first day I really kind of look at him.”