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OSU a glimpse of PSU’s present, future

Penn State’s 2020 season starts today. OK, maybe that’s a stretch. Maybe the Nittany Lions shock the world and, as a 19-point underdog, stun Ohio State at the Horseshoe.

And, obviously, if that happens, all of a sudden Penn State lands in the Big Ten championship game – probably against Minnesota or Wisconsin – and has a great chance to get to the College Football Playoff.

So you could say there’s a lot left to play for in 2019. But regardless of today’s outcome, Penn State will finish the regular season after next week’s scrimmage with Rutgers no worse than 10-2.

That would lead to an attractive bowl — still moving parts there – against a quality opponent, and the chance to be 11-2 cannot be dismissed as anything less than a very successful season.

But in today’s college football world, particularly for a program with Penn State’s history and a coach in James Franklin who’s not afraid to share his grand vision, there’s a growing divide between the CFP participants and everybody else.

You got a sense of it during Franklin’s “elite” speech a year ago after the Lions coughed up the Ohio State game in the final eight minutes for the second straight year.

It’s been a theme he’s believed for some time and contributes to what bothers him as an “all or nothing” mentality among fans and media alike.

“We’re 9-1,” he said this week. “We’re ranked in the Top 10. We have had a pretty good year based on most peoples’ standards. Sometimes you go on social media, and you wouldn’t feel that way.”

Franklin was rightly complimented on his radio show this past week for his overall body of work, which under the circumstances he took the job in 2014 has been outstanding.

But in his next breath, the questioner wondered about his 1-7 road record against ranked teams.

True to form, Franklin – and not all coaches would keep their composure on such questions, legitimate or not – thanked the fan for his input. He noted that most coaches have losing records to ranked teams on the road, but he also acknowledged it’s a hurdle the Lions know they must eventually clear to reach their goals.

And that just being competitive with Ohio State and/or on the CFP periphery can’t be good enough.

“If you go back all the way to 2014, they (Ohio State) won the national championship, our first year, took them to double overtime,” Franklin said. “We’ve had a lot of competition with these guys. We’ve played them probably as well as anybody over that period of time. Obviously, not good enough. We’ve got to take the next step.”

Most, me included, don’t see that happening today, not against a team that has bludgeoned its schedule and, without a marquee non-conference win, is presumably anxious to show its wares these next two weeks (PSU and Michigan).

Penn State, meanwhile, limps in with a questionable KJ Hamler – who the Lions got injured because they asked too much from him (kickoff returns) – an apparently bumped up Michal Menet and their best running back, Noah Cain, recovering from an Oct. 26 injury at Michigan State.

Not to mention the Lions have been disorganized defensively for two straight weeks.

It adds up to an ominous backdrop, and Columbus is not typically a place to all of a sudden get well.

Consequently, despite close games against Urban Meyer-coached teams these last few years, for the Penn State camp, today’s game will be watched nervously, with a hope-to-stay-in-it wish.

Which brings me back to 2020. Franklin has made no bones about wanting to make the College Football Playoff, to be the first African-American coach to win a national title and to build an elite program.

With all their returnees, the Lions could have a chance to be that program next season. They’ll be a year more experienced, and their schedule is friendlier, with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State at home and a trip to Michigan the toughest road test, although Virginia Tech and Indiana won’t be automatics.

A competitive loss followed by a bowl victory could jump-start the Lions for 2020. However, if Ohio State wins 48-3, such talk would be premature.

Still lurking as well are the job openings, such as USC and Florida State, that inevitably mention Franklin. Though agents are often responsible for the speculation, you’d also have to think if a head coach didn’t want his name out there, he could put a stop to it.

Keep in mind, these aren’t just rumors. One respected national writer, Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports, practically made a case for him relative to the USC job, and also this past week, Franklin’s name was included in a Tallahassee-Democrat report in connection to Florida State. Those two reports weren’t just concocted by somebody firing shots in the air.

So there’s an off-the-field component to keep an eye on, too.

Hence, beginning today, these next few weeks – the performance against the Buckeyes, the bowl destination and result and what may happen in CJF’s office – will have a lot to do with how 2020 begins to take shape.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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