As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Will it be a smooth regime change at Penn State?
When Bill O’Brien decided to leave Penn State and take the head-coaching job with the Houston Texans, there wasn’t much time for Nittany Lions fans to get too angry. That’s because the athletics department acted swiftly in hiring James Franklin away from Vanderbilt, and Franklin’s track record, personality and already stunning recruiting success has won fans and observers over in droves.
Like the hiring of O’Brien before it, Franklin’s hiring earned rave reviews. O’Brien’s biggest accomplishment in two seasons that saw a combined 15 wins will be surpassing expectations and keeping a program that collapsed under the weight of the Jerry Sandusky scandal shockingly relevant on the field. Franklin, however, is looking to contend for championships on an annual basis.
And O’Brien’s willing departure — unlike that of one of his predecessors, the legendary Joe Paterno, who was fired in the wake of the scandal — is what makes this transition of power such a peaceful one. It’s the ever-growing popularity of Franklin that made it a tolerable one. There’s no reason to believe it won’t be a smooth transition in Happy Valley, and Franklin’s the one behind it all.
Franklin comes in after an extremely successful tenure at Vanderbilt, where it isn’t the easiest to match winning football with high academic standards — particularly in the ultra-competitive SEC. But in three seasons, Franklin took the Commodores to three bowl games, winning the most recent two to cap a pair of nine-win seasons.
It might be hard to believe that success awaits Franklin in State College when looked at strictly on paper and without any context. After all, Franklin will be the fourth man to serve as the Penn State head coach in four seasons when the Nittany Lions kick off in Dublin, Ireland, to open their season against UCF. Paterno was fired midway through the 2011 campaign, which was finished by Tom Bradley. O’Brien’s stay lasted only two seasons, and now it’s Franklin’s turn. It's not the greatest amount of stability, yet just three years removed from the initial Sandusky fallout, it seems the Nittany Lions finally have some stability.
Of course, the same challenges O’Brien faced will be there for Franklin as he starts out. There are two seasons remaining on the Penn State bowl ban, meaning there’ll be more waiting to do when it comes to seeing the Nittany Lions win their first bowl game since the 2009 season. But Franklin will have challenges O’Brien didn’t, too. O’Brien’s success and Franklin’s splashy arrival have raised expectations. Even with repercussions from the Sandusky scandal still affecting the program, 7-5 might not cut it in 2014. Not that Franklin thinks it will.
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The Nittany Lions this season return quarterback Christian Hackenberg, as well as 14 other starters between the offense and defense. If it wasn’t for a few close calls last season, the Lions could have been a nine-win team. They lost a pair of games by three points.
And the future looks bright too, as there has already been success before a Franklin-coached team has even taken the field. The new coach is blowing his competition out of the water when it comes to recruiting. Rivals ranks the Penn State Class of 2015 as the fourth-best in the country. Only Southern schools Alabama, Clemson and Texas A&M have Franklin beat. The next best Big Ten team, Nebraska, ranks all the way down at No. 17. Franklin has aggressively stated his intention to rule the region when it comes to recruiting, already making rivals out of Big Ten newcomers Rutgers and Maryland.
After O’Brien helped move the program away from the scandal-ridden Paterno years, Franklin seems to already have pushed it past recovery mode and into competition mode before coaching his first game. The bowl ban is still in place, and competition awaits in the new Big Ten East Division, where Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all play. But if Franklin’s players can embrace him the way the fans and observers already have, the winning ways could return to Penn State mighty soon.