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Smeltzer: Beat Michigan, and Nobody Will Take it for Granted

James Franklin looks on after Indiana strikes on a 90 yard score in the first quarter.

Penn State coach James Franklin got slightly frustrated by a question in his postgame presser Saturday.

I’m not entirely sure who he was frustrated with.

Was it the question in general?

That question was if Penn State beat Maryland (51-15) on its terms as opposed to the previous week’s nine-point win over 32-point underdog Indiana.

It’s possible that the question frustrated Franklin. Coaches do get that way with reporters sometimes. This excerpt (“We would win games, and you come into the press conference, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like it”) will be interpreted by some as a verbal shot at reporters.

Was Franklin frustrated with the comment the question referenced? That was safety KJ Winston telling media after practice Wednesday that Penn State didn’t beat Indiana playing its brand of football. 

Maybe. Another excerpt (“I can control the Lasch Building. I want people to feel good after wins.”) could be taken as Franklin feeling his players don’t always appreciate success as much as they should.

The main part of the quote was this: “I also think we’ve taken winning for granted a little bit.”

While it’s unclear—at least, to me— who the “we” is that Franklin’s referring to, I’m not sure if that matters. 

Penn State wins a lot. The wins aren’t always flashy. But most programs would love to be Penn State. The head honcho wants people to understand that, and he has a point. He’s built a team that’s consistently one of the best in America, a fry cry from what it was when he got the job almost a decade ago. That’s indisputable. There are also people within the fanbase and from the outside who think Franklin is a bum. That’s also indisputable. 

The timing of Franklin’s words was a little odd. His team had just won by 36 on the road and his tangent centered around the times Penn State hadn’t beaten opponents by as much as expected. Nonetheless, what he said made sense regardless of who he was referencing.

If Franklin was referring more to his players and not the outside world taking winning for granted, that would make sense, too. I’ll never be able to relate to what a Division I athlete goes through. But from a million miles away, I could see how players would be so consumed by the grind that, at times, they’d focus more on how a win happened rather than appreciating the fact that it happened.

I won’t even rule out that Franklin was referring partially to himself. He’s consumed, too, so maybe he feels there’s times when he doesn’t practice what he preaches about appreciating wins, although he hasn’t said that publicly yet.

The hard truth is that a big part of the reason Franklin’s stressed multiple times how difficult it is to win and how ugly wins are still wins is because most of the teams Penn State plays aren’t very good. 

This isn’t a knock on Penn State. Nine of its games are in the Big Ten, and the Big Ten, well, it’s seen better days.

A big theme over the past two seasons has been that Penn State is either playing a mediocre-at-best squad or a national championship contender every week.

So most weeks, people are looking for whoopings, not just wins.

Yes, it’s understandable for Franklin to be annoyed with wins that others make feel like a loss. But it’s also understandable for people to expect Penn State to not need a game-winning drive in the last two minutes to beat Indiana. 

Whenever a team falls short of expectations, there will be criticism. 

When Penn State plays an inferior opponent, people want a blowout.

But when Franklin and PSU play No. 3 Michigan at home Saturday, even a 6-4 win will send the program and its fanbase over the moon for obvious reasons. 

I’m tired of addressing about Franklin and Penn State’s failures against Michigan and Ohio State, but not because they’re invalid. I wouldn’t write about them so often if there wasn’t truth to them. I understand that, for the better part of this millennium, Ohio State has beaten the hell out of almost everybody. I also understand that, over the past two seasons, Michigan’s done the same (insert Connor Stalions joke here). At the same time, a one-point loss to Ohio State more than five years ago drove Franklin crazy to the point where he delivered what might always be his most famous press conference. 

The gist of that PC was that Franklin felt Penn State was a “great program” but was tired of being “great” and wanted to be “elite.”

As soon as Franklin finished that speech, it was inevitable that people would hold him to his words.

“If James Franklin doesn’t accept losing to Ohio State,” many fans probably asked that night, “why should I?”

Since then, Franklin and Penn State are 0-5 against Ohio State and 2-3 against Michigan, the latter of which it hasn’t beaten since the COVID season. 

The definition of an elite college football team is subjective, but by Franklin’s definition, Penn State isn’t there yet.

It can take a giant step Saturday.

Every time Penn State plays a team America knows it will beat (Illinois, Northwestern, Indiana, Maryland), fans measure the performance against the two Big Ten schools PSU hasn’t proven itself against.

If PSU plays well— which it did Saturday—they’ll say “Do that against Ohio State and Michigan.”

If the team wins ugly– which it’s done multiple times this year– they’ll say “That won’t cut it against Ohio State and Michigan.”

Penn State couldn’t cut the mustard against Ohio State two weeks ago in Columbus, and to be fair to Franklin, PSU’s struggles against OSU and UM predate him (Joe Paterno was a combined 11-26, for reference). 

But Franklin’s had almost a decade to change that narrative and hasn’t. 

Franklin and Penn State have a chance to do that Saturday, and no reasonable person will take it for granted if they capitalize.

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