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Smeltzer: Penn State Season Not a Failure, but a Missed Chance

Photo by Matt Lynch, Nittany Sports Now: James Franklin

I’ve written plenty of columns about Penn State football. Naturally, the head coach has been at the center of a few of them.

After Penn State lost to Michigan Nov. 11, I wrote this. A close friend criticized me for it.

The friend has no allegiance to Penn State football. In he can’t stand the program. But he told me that he read it. I was flattered.

I was even more flattered when he told me I wrote a good column, which is a positive thing for any writer to hear. But I wasn’t so flattered when he told me to “pick a lane.” What he meant by this was that he wanted me to either write something close to 100% critical of James Franklin or something that was clearly in defense of him. It’s a fair critique, I suppose. But had I “picked a lane” when it came to Franklin and Penn State’s 2023 season, it would have been dishonest, because it toes the line between success and failure.

There are people who believe Penn State should fire Franklin and people who don’t want to hear even the slightest criticism of him. I try to go away from either extreme.

I think Franklin is one of the best college football coaches in the country.

That sentence will make some Penn State fans cheer and others chafe, but the facts are the facts.

Franklin took over a program when it was still recovering from sanctions and made it a consistent presence in the top 10. He’s won the Big Ten. He’s beaten Ohio State and Michigan (not often— more on that later). He’s won half of the New Year’s Six bowl games. He’s done just about everything there is to do at Penn State… except lead it to the College Football Playoff.

Penn State won’t be in this season’s Playoff, but it still won 10 games with a chance for an 11th.

In a vacuum, that’s pretty good, and it’s even better considering that Penn State’s only losses were by single digits to two of the top three teams in the country.

But everything needs context, and that’s why, despite Penn State finishing with the same record as it did last season, the overall feeling is different than it was a year ago, and mine is, as well.

Last season was an unquestioned success. Penn State started the year outside of the top 25, coming off two seasons in which it went a combined 11-11. It ended up finishing 2022 No. 7, capping off the year by winning the Rose Bowl. It was a great year, and I wrote a column proclaiming it as such after the team beat Michigan State to win the coveted Land Grant Trophy at the end of the regular-season.

That team’s success led to this team having much higher preseason expectations. Sure, there are Penn State fans who come into every season believing it should go undefeated and win a national title regardless of what happened the previous year and realistic outlook for the one ahead. But this season, people outside of the delusional believed that going 10-2 again wouldn’t be good enough, that the team must beat at least one of Michigan or Ohio State—told you I’d be coming back to them— to have a successful year.

Penn State didn’t beat Michigan or Ohio State and now is a combined 4-16 against those two under Franklin.

That fact hurts Penn State enough, but what hurts more is that both games were winnable.

PSU scored 12 points against Ohio State and 15 against Michigan, underwhelming totals that are even worse when considering 12 of those points came after the outcome was all but decided. The defense, on the other hand, played well enough to win and would have won if the offense showed up.

These losses brought out both extremes when it comes to how Penn State fans feel about Franklin.

The “#FireFranklin” crowd wanted to, well, fire Franklin, and showcased some of that anger by booing him off the field after the Michigan loss.

Those people are out of line. For all his faults, Franklin is very good at his job and the best man for Penn State.

The “ForeverFranklin” crowd (I came up with that just now) came to his defense to a level that, to me, was a little much, and I’ll go through some of those defenses.

“They’re lost to two of the top three teams and nobody else,” is one defense.

That’s true. But Penn State didn’t lose those games because of a lack of talent. It lost because the offense— equipped with a five-star QB, five-star RB, elite left tackle and quality tight ends— wasn’t good enough, and since offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich was fired the day after the Michigan game, I’d say Franklin agreed.

Here’s another one.

“Penn State doesn’t have the resources to get the players Ohio State and Michigan can get.”

Drew Allar. Nicholas Singleton. Olu Fashanu. Chop Robinson. Kalen King. Abdul Carter.

Before that, Micah Parsons and Saquon Barkley, just to name a few.

Next?

“Penn State doesn’t try hard enough to keep up in NIL.”

Alright. Penn State finished the regular season 10-2 three times between 2016-19 (before NIL) and twice between 2021-23 (during). That tells me NIL isn’t the reason Penn State can’t get to the next level.

I don’t think this Penn State season was a failure. Failure is what happened at Texas A&M, where the University fired its head coach before the end of the season  despite owning him more than $76 million. Failure is USC, who returned last year’s Heisman trophy winner and went 7-5. Failure is 3-9 Pitt.

10-2 is a damn good place to be. But this season should have been better.

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