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Smeltzer: This is James Franklin’s Biggest Game at Penn State

James Franklin and the Nittany Lions get set to take on Massachusetts.

Before this season, what was the biggest Penn State game of the James Franklin era?

Was it last year’s game against Michigan, when Penn State came into Ann Arbor ranked No. 10 and Michigan No. 5, with both teams being undefeated?


Nobody came into last season expecting PSU to make the College Football Playoff, and few expected it to finish 11-2 and win the Rose Bowl. 

Was the 2018 game against Ohio State at Beaver Stadium Franklin’s biggest game? OSU came in ranked fourth and PSU ninth. But, eh. 

It was earlyish in the season (Sept. 29), and Penn State ended up finishing 9-4, so it’s hard to say losing to Ohio State– even in the brutal fashion that it did– stopped that team from reaching new heights. 

Was the 2017 PSU-OSU game at Ohio Stadium the biggest of the Franklin era?

Now there’s a compelling argument. 

Penn State came into Columbus 7-0 and ranked No. 2. 

A win on the road would have put Penn State in the driver’s seat to finish the regular season undefeated, win the Big Ten and go to the College Football Playoff.

As every Penn State fan old enough to remember should know, things didn’t quite work out. As badly as losing that game at Ohio State hurt, losing this year’s game– depending on how it happens– might hurt more. 

Because Saturday’s game is the biggest of the Franklin era thus far. 

In terms of what the game means in the Big Ten standings and Penn State’s Path to the Playoff, 2023 and 2017 are about the same. 

Just like it was back then, Penn State would significantly boost its playoff chances with a win in Columbus.

It’s even arguable that the 2017 game meant more to that specific team. 

Back then, the Big Ten only had one giant, and that was Ohio State, so toppling that Giant would have had PSU sitting pretty. Now, Michigan is a giant, so as big as a win Saturday would be, it wouldn’t guarantee anything. PSU still has to face the two-time defending Big Ten champs Nov. 11, and Michigan would almost certainly still be favored to three-peat by then. But in terms of a big-picture standpoint, Saturday’s game means more than any of Franklin’s previous 120 at Penn State. Back in 2017, the biggest knock on Franklin as a head coach wasn’t nearly as obvious. 

That knock is that Franklin can’t win the big game. 

There’s a debate that rangers amongst PSU fans and non-Penn State fans– and even between Penn State fans themselves– about how much Franklin’s record against Michigan and Ohio State says about him as a coach.

What’s not up for debate is that he hasn’t done well against either school.

Franklin’s 1-8 against Ohio State and 3-6 against Michigan. That’s a combined 4-14. That’s not good, and it’s a lot worse than it was in 2017, which to me was the last time Franklin coached in a game this big. The narrative that Franklin can’t beat Michigan or Ohio State existed to an extent in 2017. He came into that afternoon at Ohio Stadium a combined 2-5 against them. But the narrative wasn’t nearly as valid. 

PSU beat Michigan by 29 the week before playing Ohio State and beat Ohio State the year before, a year which ended with Penn State’s only Franklin-era Big Ten championship.

So there weren’t too many people claiming that Franklin couldn’t win Big games.

Well, it’s 2023 now, and it’s been almost three years since PSU last beat Michigan and almost seven since it last beat Ohio State and last won the Big Ten.

Although Penn State’s the underdog, people are confident that it’s better than Ohio State.

“If not now,” many are asking, “then when will Franklin get over the hump?”

The thought that PSU will never have a chance to beat Ohio State again if it can’t Saturday is a little drastic. 

But fans have reason to think that. 

Although it’s not “now or never” for Franklin or Penn State, now would be a great time for PSU to beat OSU, and this Penn State team is capable. 

So one of two things will happen Saturday. Franklin and Penn State will win a big game and prove their skeptics wrong, or lose a big game and prove them right. The overall significance of a game sometimes isn’t determined until years after the fact. But as far as pregame buildup goes, there have been none bigger since Franklin took over at Penn State more than nine years ago. 


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