It took a couple of years, but James Franklin is finally in position to leave his stamp on the Penn State football program. A strong contingent of Nittany Lions fans are unwilling to accept the idea Penn State has been in a rebuild mode since Franklin’s hiring following the departure of Bill O’Brien to the NFL, but there is no better way to describe the state of the program than by suggesting Franklin took over a rebuilding project. Franklin has generated some recruiting momentum in his time in State College, and the 2016 season will be used as the first true litmus test for what Franklin has to offer.
For the first time since taking the job, Franklin is essentially out of excuses. Franklin took over a team in the midst of a postseason ban and reduced scholarship totals. He inherited an offensive line in shambles. He inherited a quarterback many deemed not the right fit for his offensive philosophy. For the most part, those were some issues Franklin had no choice but to plow through for better or worse. The result? A 14-12 mark over two seasons with plenty of work to do to improve the offense, which Franklin does shoulder some of the blame for with his staff decisions.
He has already made a switch at offensive coordinator by firing John Donovan and bringing in Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to bring some creativity to the stale and predictable offense. Moorhead will have the luxury of playing with a deeper offensive line, the position arguably hurt the most by the abbreviated NCAA sanctions against the program. The line has padded its depth with three respectable recruiting classes under Franklin, and it is not as though it could get much worse at this point.
Penn State also breaks in a new quarterback after three polarizing seasons of Christian Hackenberg, now in the NFL with the New York Jets. To some, the early departure of Hackenberg comes across as addition by subtraction, a point supported by the rally backup Trace McSorely orchestrated against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl this past January. This may prove to be true, but that also accounts for an improved offensive line and a better offensive scheme cooked up by the coordinator. McSorely may not even be the answer at quarterback, but it will finally be a QB that Franklin brought in.
As the Penn State program begins to put the impact and effects of the sanctions behind them, the pressure to start showing progress under Franklin is pretty high in 2016. Penn State went 7-6 in each of the past two seasons, with one bowl victory. This is now a program that has gone six full seasons without hitting 10 wins in a single season, a stretch not seen in Happy Valley since the 1960s. It’s true, there were some very strenuous circumstances holding the program down, but the time for those excuses has reached an expiration date. Penn State is still a good distance behind Big Ten championship-caliber programs like Ohio State and Michigan State, but it some degree of progress on the field this fall will be expected to restore faith in Franklin’s ability to lead the program to that kind of pedigree.
Considering Franklin managed to go back-to-back seasons with nine wins at Vanderbilt before being hired by Penn State that is not a lot to ask, even with a challenging schedule that includes games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Pittsburgh and a Temple team that is no longer intimidated by the Nittany Lions.
Fans have every right to expect more from Penn State in 2016. The bar for success should now be raised. Seven wins should be unacceptable for Franklin and Penn State, but if that is the win total at the end of the season then there will be some obvious glimmers of hope along the way.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com, TheComeback.com and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.