STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — No program has come closer to breaking through to the College Football Playoff without actually crashing into the field than Penn State, which managed to win the Big Ten and still get shut out back in 2016.
The Nittany Lions have emerged as a curious dichotomy in recent seasons, as they managed to contrast three 11-win seasons in the past six years with an 11-11 two-year dip in 2020 and 2021. With coach James Franklin entering his ninth season , the program has both teased the sport’s highest levels and tumbled to mediocrity, showing the potential in State College and highlighting the flaws.
Last season, Penn State managed to do both. It began 5-0, rose to No. 4 in the rankings and appeared on its way to a convincing win at No. 3 Iowa forward quarterback Sean Clifford and star defensive lineman PJ Mustipher suffered injuries.
After the Nittany Lions skidded to six losses in their final eight games, both the school and coach did something unusual during a downturn — they committed to each other long term. In signing a 10-year deal, Franklin staked his bet that Penn State could unlock the school’s potential and Penn State made a sizable commitment on Franklin being the best possible coach to reach it.
“To be that close,” Franklin said, referencing rankings as high as No. 2 in 2017 and playing in three recent New Year’s Six bowls, “you want to finish the job.”
And that leads to the existential question that’s being tackled by Franklin and new athletic director Patrick Kraft. How does Penn State, a strong program, break through as an elite one?