Ranking Penn State Football’s Biggest “What Ifs” in the James Franklin Era - NittanyCentral

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NittanyCentral is home for the latest Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball news, updates, and analysis of the Penn State Nittany Lions

NittanyCentral is home for the latest Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball news, updates, and analysis of the Penn State Nittany Lions

The latest news, insight, and analysis of Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, and Penn State Basketball, including schedules, game results, analysis of breaking news, rumors, speculation, and recruiting coverage of future Penn State Nittany Lions

NittanyCentral is home to the latest Penn State Nittany Lions news, updates, insight, and analysis, including in-depth coverage of Penn State Football, Penn State Wrestling, Penn State Basketball, and much more

Ranking Penn State Football’s Biggest “What Ifs” in the James Franklin Era

Under Penn State Football head coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions have weathered the storm of some of the harshest sanctions ever handed down in NCAA football history, brought a Big Ten Championship back to Happy Valley, and returned to the top 10 in college football over the past decade.

Penn State Football, Penn State Football Recruiting, James Franklin
Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

But, despite the success of Franklin’s tenure, Penn State has not able to break through to a College Football Playoff bid during the four-team playoff era.

Here, we can explore the five biggest “what ifs” for Penn State football under Franklin and what could have happened if a different version of the events played out.

Penn State’s Biggest ‘What Ifs’ Under James Franklin

Journey Brown Doesn’t Medically Retire

Running back Journey Brown had a historic end to the 2019 season, rushing for over 100 yards in four of Penn State’s last five games of the season.

While sharing the workload with Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, and Ricky Slade, Brown led the Nittany Lions in rushing in 2019 with 890 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, averaging 6.9 yards per carry on the season. Brown capped his season with a historic Cotton Bowl performance against Memphis, rushing for 202 yards and breaking Saquon Barkley’s Penn State bowl record for rushing yards (194).

Brown’s 12.6 yards per carry in the Cotton Bowl also shattered Penn State’s record set by Curt Warner in the 1980 Fiesta Bowl (8.6 yards per carry). Unfortunately for Brown, the Cotton Bowl was the final football game in his career, as he was forced to medically retire ahead of the 2020 season due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Brown had a unique ability of both top-end speed (two-time Pennsylvania state 100-meter dash winner, record holder) and toughness (watch his 2019 Cotton Bowl tape as he breaks tackle after tackle against Memphis).

His career remains a major “what if” for the Franklin era as Brown was set up to return as one of the top running backs in the Big Ten in 2020 and had the talent to not only break Penn State records, but also set himself up for a high draft selection in the 2021 NFL draft. Happily for Brown, after his medical retirement from football in 2020, the former running back found his new purpose on a NASCAR pit crew.


COVID Doesn’t Hit the Country in 2020

COVID took the entire country down in 2020, as people were forced indoors, with masks, and away from the large crowds that you would see in Beaver Stadium.

After a cancellation of the season and a reinstatement of conference play, Penn State began the season ranked number eight in the country but lost two key players on the roster before the season even began.

Star running back Journey Brown was forced to medically retire before the 2020 season began and All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the season before week one.

By week three, Penn State lost star tight end Pat Freiermuth for the season and the team was a shell of itself. Penn State went on to lose the first five games of the season, a program-worst start, and finish on a four-game win streak to end the season 4-5, Penn State’s first losing season in decades. Who knows how the season would have played out without COVID, but Penn State’s 2020 team suffered

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Sean Clifford Doesn’t Get Hurt Against Iowa in 2021

Penn State Football, Sean Clifford
Penn State Football Quarterback Sean Clifford (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire)

Penn State’s 2021 team was rolling hot, ranked number four overall, heading to Kinnick Stadium to face the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2021.

Penn State Football was making easy work of the Hawkeyes and well on the way to a top-three win and a top-three ranking midway through the third quarter before Penn State’s starting quarterback Sean Clifford went down with an injury.

After the injury, Penn State Football could barely snap the ball cleanly with backup quarterback Taquan Roberson and watched the Hawkeyes battle back to edge out a 23-20 win.

With a banged-up Sean Clifford not performing at 100 percent the rest of the season, Penn State would go on to lose four more games, including a horrific 20-18 9 OT game against Illinois after the bye week.

Penn State Football finished the season a miserable 7-6 in a wasted season for the talent that the Nittany Lions had on the roster.

Without Clifford’s injury, Penn State could have sparked real momentum, winning a minimum of 10 games in 2021 and setting up for an even better run through the 2022 and 2023 seasons that saw Penn State reach the 10-win regular season mark despite the step back in 2021.


Penn State Holds Off OSU Comeback in 2017

After finally getting over the Ohio State hurdle in 2016, upsetting number two Ohio State en route to James Franklin’s sole Big Ten Championship, Penn State set itself up with a massive opportunity to reclaim top status in the Big Ten in 2017 and 2018.

Franklin and company avenged a bad loss to the Michigan Wolverines, embarrassing Jim Harbaugh’s team 42-13 the week before meeting Ohio State in the Horseshoe.

Coming off a massive win, Penn State Football was ranked number two in the country and looking for yet another statement against the Buckeyes. Saquon Barkley took the opening kickoff to the house to bring Urban Meyer to his famous hands-on-knees pose and quiet the Horseshoe crowd.

However, despite holding a 35-20 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, Penn State was not able to finish off the Buckeyes and watched JT Barrett score 19 fourth-quarter points for a 1-point victory.

This game remains the biggest “what if” game in the Franklin era as Penn State would have been in the driver’s seat for both the Big Ten championship and the college football playoff.

With a win, Penn State would have had momentum both on the field and the recruiting trail with two straight wins over the Ohio State Buckeyes and two straight Big Ten championships. Instead, Penn State has failed to get back to the Big Ten championship game or make the college football playoff during the four-team era.


Justin Fields Stays Committed to Penn State Football

Penn State Football, Big Noon Saturday
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (right) shakes hands with Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day (Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports)

Like current Penn State starting quarterback Drew Allar, Penn State identified Justin Fields very early on in his recruitment before his ranking blew up.

When Fields committed to the Nittany Lions, he was ranked as a three-star prospect. However, after his historic rise to the number two overall player in the nation, Fields de-committed from the Nittany Lions and chose to sign with the Georgia Bulldogs, eventually transferring to Ohio State after one season in Athens.

His recruitment tops this list because it impacts not only the Nittany Lions, but also the rival Ohio State Buckeyes, where Fields was 2-0 vs. Penn State as a starter and led the Buckeyes to two straight college football playoffs, including a national championship game appearance.

If Fields had stayed committed to the Nittany Lions, could Penn State have already made the four-team College Football Playoff? Might Penn State have capitalized on the momentum of wins over the Buckeyes in 2016 and the Michigan Wolverines in 2017 to become the top dog in the Big Ten?

Where would the program be recruiting-wise with the added momentum of having one of the top quarterbacks in the country for three years on campus? These are all unfortunately just “what ifs” as Penn State watched Fields from afar.

Although these “what if” scenarios are fun to think about, Penn State now must turn the tide on the field in 2024 to break through for its first college football playoff appearance. With a manageable schedule and the elimination of divisions in the Big Ten, Penn State has the opportunity to compete to return to Indianapolis for the first time since 2016 and head to the college football playoff for the first time in program history in 2024.

MORE: Penn State’s Most Important Players to Making the College Football Playoff

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