The Great Jim Harbaugh-James Franklin Debate


It's around this time of the year, with college football only a few months away, that sports Web sites unveil their most updated rankings of players, coaches, teams, national title favorites, etc. There is, perhaps, no ranking more debated than where media outlets slot coaches, and there is no argument that seems to trigger Michigan fans more than James Franklin's coaching prowess relative to Jim Harbaugh's. 

In June, released its coaches' rankings with Harbaugh 11th and Franklin 9th. Similarly, rated Harbaugh 12th and Franklin 9th. At that point, one is splitting hairs, but doubled (or tripled) down on the debate, rating Harbaugh 18th and Franklin 6th nationally.  

Every time a ranking has come out this spring, it has, seemingly, set off a firestorm among Michigan fans. This week, I asked followers on Twitter if they could objectively make a case for Franklin or if the rankings are "utter hogwash done to poke the bear?" As of writing this article, there were 71 responses, many of them reasonable takes one way or the other, and many in disbelief such a question was even being asked, siding with the "hogwash" argument. 

In this debate, I only look at college resumes because it's the only thing the two have in common and as you'll read, they are decidedly similar.

The Case For Franklin

In six seasons at Penn State (2014-19), Franklin has a .709 winning percentage (56-23), with three 11-win campaigns in 2016, 2017 and 2019 that earned the Nittany Lions final AP rankings of No. 7, 8 and 9, respectively. Franklin has a 3-3 bowl record, including a 2-1 mark in New Year's Six bowl games. 

Harbaugh has a .723 winning percentage (47-18), with three 10-win campaigns (no 11-win seasons) in 2015, 2016 and 2018 that earned final AP rankings of No. 12, No. 10 and No. 14, respectively. Harbaugh is 1-4 in bowl games and 0-2 in New Year's Six postseason contests. 

Most importantly, for the sake of this argument, Franklin has two things that have proven elusive for Harbaugh - a win over Ohio State and a Big Ten title, both achieved in 2016. 

The Blue and White scored the game's final 17 points to beat No. 2 OSU, blocking and returning a field goal 60 yards for the winning score with 4:27 remaining in the contest. Michigan fans argue it was pure luck, but Penn State made a game-changing play and rallied unexpectedly from a significant deficit.

Overall, Franklin is 1-5 against Ohio State, but his average margin of defeat is 9.6, including one-point losses to the Buckeyes in 2017 and 2018. In five losses to OSU, Harbaugh's average margin of defeat is 19.0, only a single loss by 10 points or less (three, 2016). 

Franklin's overall final AP ranking is 15.5 for the six seasons with Penn State (when you take the final AP finish and average it out, receiving 26 points for a year a team is unranked at the end of the season). By comparison, Michigan has a final AP ranking of 16.0 under Harbaugh. 

Many will point to Harbaugh's 3-2 mark against Franklin's Penn State teams as the definitive argument settler (with Michigan holding a +50 point margin overall in the five games), but based on tangible accomplishments, Franklin has the edge.  

Prior to his arrival in State College, Franklin did wonders for a Vanderbilt program - a .615 winning percentage from 2011-13 and two 9-4 seasons - that had experienced a single winning season in the 20 years prior to his tenure and had won just 32.8% of its games in the five seasons previously (2006-10). 

In that way, his success at Vandy was similar to Harbaugh's resurrection of the Stanford program. The Cardinal had enjoyed relative good fortunate under Tyrone Willingham from 1995-2001, with four winning seasons, but in the five years prior to Harbaugh's arrival (2002-06), Stanford went 16-40 (28.6%) and was, arguably, the worst Power 5 Conference program in the country. 

Harbaugh would win 58.0% of his games in Palo Alto from 2007-10, including 8-5 and 12-1 campaigns in 2009-10 that he would hand over to successor David Shaw. His Stanford teams unseated USC as the big kid on the block in the Pac 12, going 3-1 against the Trojans, beating No. 2 Southern Cal in 2007 - one of five wins, in 11 tries, against Top 25 teams. Franklin, on the other hand, went 0-8 against ranked opponents in his time at Vanderbilt. 

So they both overachieved at elite academic schools that had fallen on hard times and they have won a similar percentage of games at their Big East powers, but Franklin has more hardware on his mantle and has bested the Buckeyes. With that as the deciding criteria, both and could justify Franklin one or two spots ahead of Harbaugh. 

It's Utter Hogwash 

One of the arguments for Franklin largely centers on what he inherited, a program still recovering from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The NCAA had handed Penn State a four-year postseason ban from 2012-15 and a max roster of 65 scholarships (out of 85) from 2013-17. Walking into that scenario in 2014 would have crippled even a great recruiter like Franklin. 

But he didn't walk into that reality. The NCAA restored the Nittany Lions' postseason opportunities for the 2014 season (and beyond), and by 2015, the program was permitted the full 85-scholarship limit. Bill O'Brien had done a marvelous job keeping Penn State afloat during the lean years, to the point that Franklin took over a program that had gone 7-5 in 2013 and had won 66.7% of its games the previous five years (and had not had a losing season). 

While Michigan wasn't in the throes of a PR nightmare, U-M had fared far worse in the years leading up to Harbaugh's arrival than Penn State had under Franklin. The Wolverines had losing seasons in 2014, 2009 and 2008, had won just 40.5% of their games under Rich Rodriguez from 2008-10 and 60.8% under Brady Hoke from 2011-14. Michigan wasn't Michigan, and the climb back would be steep. 

U-M's poor performances against Ohio State relative to Penn State's - even in defeat, Michigan has looked far worse - are points in Franklin's favor but the Wolverines' decided edge over the Nittany Lions in head-to-head matchups is a chip in Harbaugh's ledger. 

I won't deal with the nonsense that the Buckeyes always have a letdown game against PSU and thus the matchups are not equally ferocious. Even if THE Game matters more, Ohio State has seen three Top 10 Penn State teams and learned firsthand that a loss to the Nittany Lions sent Penn State to Indianapolis. 

I also dismiss such talk that the only reason Franklin has had any success is because he enjoyed a generational talent in running back Saquon Barkley. No doubt Barkley was just that, but Harbaugh has coached two players at Michigan that were ranked among the top-five recruits nationally (Jabrill Peppers No. 3 and Rashan Gary No. 1) and one could easily argue he's had two generational talents also. 

Here are some of Franklin's Penn State numbers that seem to get lost as he's being elevated to Top 10 status: 

• Franklin is 9-14 against the Top 25 (39.1%); Harbaugh is at 41.7% (10-14)

• Franklin is 1-8 on the road vs. Top 25 teams; Harbaugh is 1-7

• Franklin is 2-9 vs. Top 10 teams (18.2%); Harbaugh is 2-12 (14.3%)

• Franklin is 15-13 overall on the road (53.6%); Harbaugh is 15-9 (62.5%)

Those numbers certainly don't offer a rosy picture of Harbaugh but they seem to be daggers constantly used against Michigan's coach while they rarely are brought up by national pundits when discussing Franklin. 

As for the bowl success, those claiming "utter hogwash" will point out Franklin's big wins came against No. 12 Washington and No. 15 Memphis while Michigan has squared off against No. 10 Florida State, No. 10 Florida and No. 9 Alabama in some of its prominent postseason defeats. 

Ultimately, this debate hinges on two games - Oct. 22 and Nov. 26, both in 2016. On Oct. 22, Penn State blocked a field goal, returning it for a TD, and shocked the Buckeyes. Michigan fell in double overtime to Ohio State on a subjective fourth-down call that was literally decide by inches. 

Had U-M gotten the call, the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions would both have a win over Ohio State but Michigan would have gone to Indianapolis thanks to its 49-10 destruction of PSU earlier in the season. Michigan would have almost certainly won the Big Ten, as Penn State did - U-M knocked off Big Ten West champ Wisconsin 14-7 earlier in the year -- and as a 12-1 team would have secured a spot in the college football semifinal. 

What you do with the 2016 season settles the argument. If I was a national writer, tasked with creating a Top 25 coaches list, I'd have Franklin and Harbaugh in lockstep somewhere around 9-10 or 10-11. Who would be first? Honestly, I'd probably flip a coin.