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Smeltzer: Michigan Might be Elite. Penn State Certainly Isn’t.

James Franklin
James Franklin | Photo by Penn State Athletics

ANN ARBOR, MICH— It wasn’t long ago that Penn State had a better program than Michigan. 

Between 2017 and 2020, Penn State beat Michigan three times and finished with more wins each year it beat them. 

Sure, Michigan beat Penn State badly in 2016 and 2018. But in 2016, Penn State won the Big Ten, and Michigan didn’t, and the 2018 loss occurred between two Penn State wins in the series, so that game didn’t prove Michigan to be superior long-term. 

Five weeks after that 2018 game – a 42-7 demolition in Ann Arbor –  was the infamous 28-27 loss to Ohio State at Beaver Stadium. That is when James Franklin gave perhaps his most famous postgame press conference. 

Franklin used his opening statement to rant about how Penn State was a “great program,” but great wasn’t good enough. 

It needed to be “elite.”

Well, it’s been more than four years. Penn State isn’t great and is nowhere near elite. 

Michigan is great and might be elite. 

Once upon a time, Franklin and Harbaugh were in a similar boat. 

Both came to their respective Big Ten schools with a lot of fanfare, and both took a lot of criticism over their first six seasons for not being able to get their schools over the hump. 

Franklin is still getting a ton of flack. Harbaugh, not so much.

The gap between Penn State and Michigan is broad, and boy did Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor prove that. 

Michigan outclassed Penn State before 110,812 fans, most of them in Maize. 

Team Harbaugh’s team beat Team Franklin’s by 24, outgained it by 295 and picked up 18 more first downs. 

The Wolverines scored on seven of their eight possessions, not counting the last one of the game, where they didn’t try. 

Michigan didn’t punt once. 

Read that again. Michigan didn’t punt once. 

Most people probably saw Michigan winning this game. Michigan came in favored by a touchdown and ranked in the top five. Harbaugh’s team has won 18 of their last 20 games, dating back to the beginning of the 2021 season. 

To the delight of Michigan fans, this year’s team looks as good as the squad that won the Big Ten and made it to the College Football Playoff last year.

Penn State went 7-6 in 2021. To the dismay of its’ fans, the team played like a 7-6 squad Saturday, and that’s being kind. 

I bet a lot of Penn State fans are thinking about 2021 right now. 

Just like last year, Penn State started 5-0.

Just like last year, Penn State had a big game on the road against a top five team with the chance to move to 6-0. 

Just like last year, Penn State couldn’t cash in on that chance and instead suffered a bitter defeat. 

I don’t think Penn State will finish 7-6 again. 

I still believe that this year’s team is better than last year’s – mainly because it can run the ball – and there’s still no reason Penn State shouldn’t win 10 games in the regular season. 

Ohio State is the only game on the schedule that Penn State shouldn’t win, and if it plays out that way, they will finish 10-2. 

If Penn State goes 10-2, they will have a chance to win 11 games this season after combining to win 11 in 2020 and ’21. 

Considering the past two years, it’d be hard not to look at that as a successful season. 

But Penn State missed a chance to do something big Saturday; instead, it got exposed. Not necessarily exposed as frauds, but certainly as not being on Michigan’s level. 

Ohio State ran the Big Ten before Franklin got to Penn State.

Although Franklin justifiably gets criticized for being 1-7 against the Buckeyes, Penn State winning a Big Ten championship during the Urban Meyer era was a significant accomplishment. 

As good as Michigan has been since the start of last season, the Big Ten is still thought of as “Ohio State and everybody else,” and likely will be unless Michigan beats Ohio State in Columbus next month.

But why can’t Penn State be the best of the “everybody else” group?

Not too long ago, they were there. 

Between 2016 and 2019, Penn State won 11 games three times and was the only school other than Ohio State to win Big Ten, and only Ohio State had more wins in that period. 

Those days felt far away during the last two seasons. 

The 2020 season was a disaster from the start. Penn State lost its first five games for the first time in school history and finished with its first losing record since 2004. 

It looked like Penn State might return to being formidable when it started 5-0 and rose to No. 4 in the nation in 2021. It ended up barely winning more games than it lost. This year’s Penn State team also started 5-0 and now has lost game No. 6, just like last year.

Penn State could have lost to Michigan and still had positives. 

That’s an advantage of being a road underdog. 

If Penn State played well for four quarters and lost by a possession, fans wouldn’t have been happy. 

But the loss wouldn’t have left them thinking that Michigan’s program is in a different stratosphere than Penn State’s. 

It’s not clear yet what this loss will mean long term. But what’s clear is that Penn State is nowhere close to Michigan, and Michigan might not even be the best team in the Big Ten East. 

What does that say about how far Penn State is from being one of college football’s elite, James? 

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