Franklin reaches for college football’s elite, an exclusive club

Commentary

Give James Franklin credit for one thing: After the Ohio State game, he thanked everybody for coming.

That’s typically how he opens his press conferences, which generally take on a predictable format.

After Ohio State’s 27-26 gut punch, though, once Franklin’s initial welcome was out of the way, he cut to the chase in a blunt manner he has not shown since arriving at Penn State in 2014.

Franklin made it clear there’s only one goal — and that’s playing championship football and becoming “an elite program.”

He not only clarified the goal, he promised it would be achieved.

“I’m going to make sure it gets done,” he said. “No matter what.”

In his pursuit, Franklin warned that he’ll be challenging everyone around him — coaches, players, trainers, support staff, saying, “You guys thought I was a psychopath in the past? You have no idea.”

There’s nothing wrong with an established and stated goal of being the best of the best.

That’s how it always used to be. Almost every year, realistic or not, Joe Paterno’s annual goal was a national championship. Then the Sandusky scandal happened and almost blew up the program in 2011.

From there, it’s been a steady and impressive climb back, first led by Bill O’Brien and now Franklin.

As the scholarships were at first limited and the roster rebuilt, expectations had been tempered and very much exceeded during that remarkable stretch that has included no losing seasons, O’Brien and Franklin both being the national coach of the year, the Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl appearance and the Fiesta Bowl championship.

It’s included many high moments — a win at Wisconsin as a 24-point underdog (2013) along with victories over Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin again and Washington.

Dating back to O’Brien’s first game, Penn State is 55-27.

Franklin traced the progress as going from “an average program to a good program to a great program,” but feels the Penn State camp — including him — has gotten “(too) comfortable being great.”

Obviously, consecutive one-point come-from-ahead losses to Ohio State are lodged in his craw, and that’s good because he wasn’t alone: A record crowd of 110,889 left with the same sick feeling, too, after witnessing maybe the most difficult loss in Beaver Stadium history.

Penn State had built for this game, with the whiteout and with Franklin’s declaration to make it the loudest environment in the history of college football, but when it came time to win, the moment was apparently too big.

“We lost to an elite program, and we are that close,” Franklin said. “We have gotten comfortable being great. We will no longer be comfortable being great.”

So the gauntlet has been laid down, perhaps publicly for the first time.

And we’ll see if the Nittany Lions can use the Ohio State disappointment as a learning tool in discovering the formula for how to win the biggest games, how to clamp down defensively with a lead and how to kick the offense into overdrive when it’s needed most.

Elite programs do that, but how many elite programs are there?

Since 2016, Penn State is 26-6, a winning percentage of 81.2. That’s tied for the seventh best mark in that stretch. Alabama (32-2, 94.1) and Clemson (31-3, 91.2) are the only teams above a 90 percent winning percentage.

Clemson has lost to Syracuse and Pitt in the last two years. Is that elite? Well, when you measure college football elitism by College Football Playoff appearances, the answer is yes.

There’s no mistaking Alabama, obviously. Led by the seemingly terminally miserable Nick Saban — at least Franklin appears to be having fun, most of the time –the Tide have made four appearances in the four years of the CFP with two championships.

Clemson has made three appearances, advancing to the title game twice with one championship (over Alabama). That cancels out the loss to Pitt and Syracuse (and the scare by the Orange last week.)

Ohio State won the first CFP in 2014 and has made two appearances in the Final Four. Others who have made it include Oklahoma (twice) and one each by Georgia, Washington, Michigan State, Oregon and Florida State.

It’s a list Penn State should be aspiring to, but in passionately vowing to get it done, Franklin may have painted himself into a corner expectation-wise. What if he doesn’t and, since he raised the issue, how long should it take him?

The rest of this season will not be easily negotiated with at least three tough home games left (Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin) and what figures to be rough visit to Michigan.

Beyond that, though he’s been recruiting extremely well, after this year, Franklin loses Trace McSorley, maybe the greatest playmaker (at least until fourth-and-5 last week) in school history, making the chase to be elite that much more uphill.

But Penn State will get there. James Franklin promised.

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Neil Rudel covers Penn State football from the Altoona Mirror.

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