Penn State turned to the bye week with plenty of questions, most notably regarding injuries to three captains and its pending quarterback situation.
But the No. 7 Lions (5-1) maintain a clear path to the College Football Playoff, one that rides through Columbus, a key home date with Michigan in November, a trip to Michigan State and a potential rematch with Iowa in the Big Ten title game. As a result, we ask again, can James Franklin get Penn State to the College Football Playoff?
Former NFL and college head coach Jim Mora Jr. addressed this during the preseason. Let's revisit what he said, which was pretty definitive.
"I think they've got the right man," Mora said in an interview (watch the video above). "If they just stay with him, they'll realize that 2020 was an outlier year, that he'll get them there."
Penn State's 23-20 loss to Iowa might have tested every edge of that theory. The Lions led 17-3 in the first half before starting quarterback Sean Clifford left the game with an apparent injury.
Franklin did not address the severity of Clifford's injury, but the quarterback has until Oct. 30 to get healthy for Penn State's visit to Ohio State. The Lions Big Ten and CFP chances likely will be distilled to that result.
Clifford has made a remarkable turnaround under offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, whom Franklin hired quietly but purposefully last winter. Clifford has said that he "feels like a new player" under Yurcich, which the quarterback's 5-0 start to the season illustrated.
But in getting Clifford ready, Penn State might have sacrificed preparation and playing time for its two other scholarship quarterbacks. Ta'Quan Roberson struggled upon entering against Iowa, as did an offense unaccustomed to playing with him. Penn State went 0-for-10 on third down and committed eight false-start penalties after Clifford left the game.
For Penn State, the game demonstrated another step-forward, step-backward moment under Franklin. Still, Mora said he sees promise in Penn State under Franklin but cautioned fans to continue having patience.
"It's a lofty goal [getting to the CFP], but it's a goal that Penn State fans are accustomed to and they expect," Mora said. "And he has gotten them close but he hasn't gotten them over the hump. I think he has to continue to create the culture that has led him to the cusp of getting into the Playoff. I think he has to continue to recruit great players, and obviously, the quarterback position is one that is so very important.
"Penn State has always played great defense, and they're going to continue to play great defense. They've been explosive on offense but they just have to find that level of consistency that allows them to win the games that they have to win to get where they want to go."
The Lions energized their quarterback recruiting this year, adding Ohio's Drew Allar and Pennsylvania's Beau Pribula to the 2022 class. The duo affirmed their commitments together in June and will bring a unique combination of talents to Penn State next season.
But to bring playoff-caliber quarterbacks to State College, Mora suggested hitting some of the warmer recruiting climates, such as California.
"It can be a little bit difficult, just because of the region that they're in," he said. "You're seeing some of these pass-happy quarterbacks that find their way to the Sun Belt, or they find their way down South, or they stay in California where the conditions are just a little bit better for them on a day-to-day basis.
"But I think you just have to work to convince someone that he can be the change, that he can be the guy that puts Penn State in the College Football Playoff. ... You have to find the hook. You have to build a relationship with them, you have to identify them early so you can build a relationship with them. You have to be able to come out to California and find some of these young, talented guys that are now going to Alabama and Ohio State and places like that. And you have to convince them to come to Penn State and be a difference-maker."
Ultimately, Mora said, Franklin will be a difference-maker at Penn State. And he wants fans to understand that as well.
"Every year his name kind of comes up for other jobs," Mora said. "I like the fact that he doesn't necessarily address those rumors. He doesn't give them any stock. He just puts his head down and goes to work. I know his players love playing for him, and I hope the fans there appreciate what they've got in James Franklin. He's a great coach."
Watch the video above for more from Mora.