Penn State Football: What Is a Fair Grade For James Franklin's Tenure?

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

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

Penn State Football: What Is a Fair Grade For James Franklin’s Tenure So Far?

Penn State Football dropping a 38-25 loss to Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl capped off the 2023 season and completed James Franklin’s tenth season as the head coach of the Nittany Lions.

Ten years is a long time to be the head coach of the same program in today’s day and age of college football, so it seems like the appropriate time to evaluate the job Franklin has done.

Penn State Football, James Franklin, Penn State Football Recruiting
Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin (Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports)

Franklin arrived in Happy Valley in 2014, right in the middle of the sanctions handed down by the NCAA stemming from the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. That season would not be an easy one, as Penn State would go 6-6.

But, in the middle of the season, the NCAA lifted the majority of the sanctions, including the bowl ban.

The Nittany Lions would go on to beat Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl, and optimism started to grow around the program.

Let’s fast forward to today and see where that momentum got Franklin and the Nittany Lions:

  • 88-39 record
  • The 2016 Big Ten Championship
  • 4-5 bowl game record
  • 2017 Fiesta Bowl win
  • 2019 Cotton Bowl win
  • 2023 Rose Bowl win
  • 0 College Football Playoff appearances
  • 4-16 record vs Ohio State and Michigan
  • 12-26 vs ranked teams
  • Four top 10 AP finishes
  • Five 10+ win seasons

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Grading James Franklin’s Tenure at Penn State Football

Considering where the program was in 2014, the fact that Penn State won the Big Ten in 2016 and then went on to win 11 games in 2017 is impressive.

The problem is, that 11-2 team in 2017 underachieved.

The Nittany Lions blew an 18-point lead against Ohio State in Columbus and then followed that up by losing on the road to a poor Michigan State team.

The truth is, that 2017 team should’ve went 12-0 and likely be the No. 1 seed in the Playoff.

The 2018 season proved to be a bit of a setback as well as Penn State went 9-3 and lost the Citrus Bowl.

Then, the following season was a solid bounce back as the Nittany Lions went 10-2 and then won the Cotton Bowl. But again, in both these season, there were head scratching losses.

Penn State Football held a 12-point lead over Ohio State in the fourth quarter in 2018 at home and lost. The team then did exactly what it did in 2017, and lost the following week to Michigan State, this time at home.

In 2019, Penn State got ambushed by Minnesota early in a battle of 8-0 teams before mounting a comeback that would fall short.

Get the latest Penn State Headlines Delivered to your inbox each morning, by signing up for our FREE Daily E-Mail Newsletter!

The “that shouldn’t have happened” losses started to pile up.

But, at the same time were talking about a program that just won 42 games in four years with two New Year’s Six bowl victories and a conference championship.

Keep in mind, they went 29-21 with one bowl victory the four years prior. This was a drastic improvement.

The next two seasons would not be pretty though.

The COVID Pandemic derailed what looked like a promising 2020 season as the season started late with no fans in attendance and star linebacker Micah Parsons decided to opt out of the season.

In addition to that, the team dealt with numerous key injuries, especially on the offensive side, which was struggling to implement a new offense while also respecting health guidelines.

The result was not a good one, as Penn State Football went 4-5, suffering its first losing season since 2004.

The 2021 season got off to a way better start as the Nittany Lions began the season 5-0 and ranked as high as No. 4 in the country.

Then, Franklin‘s team headed to Iowa for a monster showdown with the Hawkeyes who were ranked No. 3.

The Nittany Lions took control of the game early, leading 17-3 but an injury to quarterback Sean Clifford right before half changed everything.

Backup Taquan Roberson struggled mightily and the team could only manage three points the rest of the way and lost 23-20.

Again, it was another “that shouldn’t of happened” loss, but it wouldn’t be the last of that season. The Nittany Lions went 2-4 the rest of the way as Clifford struggled to stay healthy behind a poor offensive line and no running game.

The 2022 campaign would see Franklin and Penn State get back on schedule a bit, as the team went 10-2 and then won the Rose Bowl against Utah.

But, the problem is, both those losses were to Michigan and Ohio State and the Nittany Lions held a second-half lead in both contests.

This past season was more of the same, as Penn State went 10-2 with losses to Michigan and Ohio State. The bowl game outcome was different as Penn State lost the Peach Bowl to Ole Miss.

This season seemed especially frustrating considering Penn State returned arguably the best defense in the country and was breaking in 5-star recruit Drew Allar at quarterback.

Instead, the offense took multiple steps back and the defensive effort felt wasted.

Assessing James Franklin’s Tenure

Penn State Football, Drew Allar
Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions speaks with quarterback Drew Allar. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

It’s hard to truly grade the job Franklin has done without accounting for everything that goes on the other 353 (352 with a bowl) days of the year.

Franklin has modernized a program that was in the Stone Age.

For how good of a coach he was, Joe Paterno was not interested in facility upgrades and such in his later years.

After that, the athletic department was not concerned about player’s lounges, single-player dorms, assistant coach’s salary pools and the like as it tried to survive the sanctions.

Franklin pushed for improvements in all those areas, and for the most part, the school has complied and recruiting is benefiting from that.

The next monster Franklin and the school need to conquer is NIL, but that’s a story for another time.

James Franklin took a program that was left for dead and brought it back to the national stage faster than most could have imagined. He runs a tight ship with minimal problems and 75 wins with five New Year’s Six appearances over the last eight seasons is quite impressive.

He has done a good job.

The downside is though, he was in position to do a GREAT job at times and did not.

Penn State Football should have competed for the national championship in 2017, probably should’ve gone 11-1 in both 2018 and 2019, and could have gone at least 10-2 in 2021 if the coaches properly prepared a backup quarterback.

These sound like crazy hypotheticals, but they’re really not.

All of these things could have easily happened and it’s fair to wonder where the program would be right now if they did.

Would Penn State be the one with three straight Big Ten titles and preparing for the national championship game, and not rival Michigan? Who, by the way, was equally as bad as Penn State in 2020 and seemed prepared to fire Jim Harbaugh.

A fair grade for Franklin’s first ten years in Happy Valley is probably a B.

There’s a lot to like, but the things fans don’t like seem to outweigh the good, even though there is far more to like than dislike.

As a fanbase, Penn State fans should appreciate the work Franklin did to get the program to this point, but also not be content with where it is at. Because, as we’ve seen by these multiple blunders over the years, there is more left in the tank with this program, it’s all about untapping it.

MORE: Ranking Franklin’s Top-5 Moments at Penn State

Penn State Football

A note to our readers; If you make a purchase through one of our affiliate links, we may receive a commission
Alec Whitaker
Follow Alec