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Franklin’s decision about USC lingers over Nittany Lions and their season

There’s a definite subplot that has developed to the Penn State football season.

And that’s whether James Franklin is coaching his final team in Happy Valley.

Since USC fired Clay Helton on Monday, Franklin’s name has been widely speculated to be among the most likely successor. Some have him at the top of the list.

He was asked about it several times this week before steering the narrative back to the game at hand, No. 22 Auburn (7:30 p.m., ABC).

Franklin said he plans to handle the buzz “internally” with his team, but we all know it’s not going to away until he says he’s not a candidate or until the USC job is filled with someone other than him.

After Franklin talked to the team about it, quarterback Sean Clifford told the media Wednesday, “I don’t think it’s anything that we need to worry about.”

Franklin said he’s not concerned with media or fan speculation but rather “my team and my future team, future meaning the recruits.”

He has recruited extremely well at Penn State and is in the process of assembling the nation’s No. 1 class for 2022.

He said “I hate distractions,” but, again, he could manage his own message in a way that assures he’ll be the Nittany Lions’ coach in 2022 and beyond. His $38 million contract, extended last year, runs through 2025.

At the same time, in his heart of hearts, he may not be sure. For one thing, though it’s been reported nationally that USC and Franklin have “mutual interest,” there are a multitude of factors in play.

The Auburn game, for example, is one — not to mention the rest of this season. If Franklin is an A list candidate, he probably needs a good season, at least 9-3, which this team has shown it is capable.

What if the Nittany Lions beat Auburn, split with Iowa and Ohio State, beat Michigan, win the Big Ten title and land in the College Football Playoff?

If Franklin is open to the Trojans, does all the PSU goodwill that comes with 12-1 change his thinking and how long might USC be willing to wait for a coach who’s still on the Penn State job in the second week of January?

Then again, if Penn State is in the CFP, Franklin can write his own ticket.

More importantly: Does Franklin and his family see themselves as Penn State lifers? Due to his precautions with COVID-19, his family lived away from him at a southern home for nearly a year, returning this spring.

Does he prefer the glitz of Los Angeles to the cows of Waddle? I personally would rather travel through Stormstown than make a wrong turn on a freeway in LA and be sidetracked 45 minutes, but that’s me.

He might be fine with it.

Plus the eight years Franklin has been at Penn State is double the longest he’s been anywhere consecutively, although he had a separate five-year and later a three-year stint at Maryland while climbing the coaching ladder.

Here’s another potential factor: On his next birthday, he’ll be 50.

Some coaches are great program builders – Franklin among them – and then they seek another challenge. In that regard, some are a bit nomadic until they find the perfect fit – and that’s if they can avoid getting fired.

We’ll see if Franklin can get over the Ohio State hump this year. He’s 1-6 against the Buckeyes. Another loss may tell him that it’s time to stop beating his head against that wall.

Franklin has also pushed Penn State into millions of football improvements in order to keep up with the Joneses. At one time, Penn State was the Joneses.

He ran into some resistance in February when six members of the Board of Trustees, including Jay Paterno, voted against the last $50 million renovation to the Lasch Building.

You know that rubbed Franklin raw.

That said, at least in the college game, there aren’t many jobs in Penn State’s class. If you’re a former Nittany Lion, maybe there’s none better. But Franklin isn’t, though upon arrival he did say “I’m a Pennsylvania boy (Langhorne native) with a Penn State heart.”

There are some, and USC, with its rich tradition and fertile recruiting ground, could be one, depending on the beholder.

In firing Helton after two games, Southern Cal has left itself plenty of time to figure it out and talk to anybody and everybody it desires. Franklin has an open date for an interview Oct. 16.

Meanwhile, while she has said he likes when her coaches are in demand because that means they’re successful, Sandy Barbour presumably has already made a short list just in case.

How this season plays out, both in terms of Franklin’s long-term commitment to Penn State and his attractiveness to USC, will decide if she needs it.

NOTES

¯Condolences to former Lion great and current Board of Trustees member Brandon Short on the tragic death of his daughter Karli, who was murdered in McKeesport on Monday.

¯ESPN GameDay is doing a feature on the history of the whiteout, a concept hatched by Altoona native Guido D’Elia, who was interviewed.

¯A documentary about the 2012 team debuts this weekend. Go to SavingTheRoar.com for viewing options. There were better teams in Penn State history but none more important.

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