College Football Catches Up With James Franklin on the Playoff

The Penn State coach advocated for College Football Playoff expansion in 2020. He was prescient.
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Penn State coach James Franklin repeatedly has cautioned that the College Football Playoff leads to outsized fan expectations and premature declarations of a team's demise.

The CFP and its many partners appear to be catching up with Franklin.

In a thorough story for The Athletic on college football's "Playoff-centricism," multiple stakeholders expressed Franklin's sentiment and discussed how the new playoff format might recast the system. The proposed 12-team playoff will bring more teams from more regions into the mix, thus giving more fans more hope deeper into the season.

But until the 12-team plan is enacted, college football will continue wrestling with something it has done to itself. Lee Fitting, senior vice president of production at ESPN, distilled the issue into one hypothetical scenario involving Penn State.

"If we just become too much about Playoff and you lose one game, and we're saying, 'Forget about them, they lost the game. They're out. They're done," Fitting told The Athletic. "I hate that. I don't want to hear that: 'If Penn State loses in September, they're out. They're done.' I mean they're Penn State. They have an enormous national following. They're a huge part of the fabric of college football. They're not done.

"They may be out of the Playoff race today, but their games are still relevant to their fan base and in the conference. They're a big part of the sport. So how do we continue to cover them properly?"

Fitting sounded just like Franklin did multiple times during the 2020 season.

On Nov. 3, after his team lost to Ohio State and fell to 0-2, Franklin in part said this when asked how he's addressing team morale: "That's the challenge. In college football, every season, every game is so meaningful. And in some ways, I think the College Football Playoff has made college football even more exciting. But it's also I think created some challenges. It's very all or nothing with the College Football Playoff now."

Two weeks later, after Penn State lost to Nebraska and fell to 0-4, Franklin turned to the playoff again as a factor in player motivation.

"I'd say it's more challenging than it's ever been," the coach said. "Social media plays a part in it. It's really hard as the head coach to insulate the players from a lot of noise out there.

"I think the other thing that's maybe challenging is our playoff system. There's a mentality and a sense [that] you're in the playoffs and playing for a national championship or you're not. That's changed college football. Again, it is what it is in 2020, all these challenges, all these issues, all these changes. You've got to embrace it. You've got to evolve. ... We all have to evolve with it because college football has probably changed more in the last 10 years than probably any other point in our history."

And in late November, after Penn State lost to Iowa to reach 0-5, Franklin took this path once more. Asked whether he had lost his team, Franklin turned back to the playoff.

"To be honest with you, I think that's a little bit of the nature of college football now with where programs, like a Penn State, are in terms of the playoffs," Franklin said. "I remember hearing things and seeing things and having conversations about that. You lose a game, and there's a portion of the fan base that feels like you're out of the playoff. It's a different college football now than it was 10 years ago, because of the playoff system.

Later in the same news conference, Franklin advocated for playoff expansion.

"I am a fan of the playoffs," he said. "I do think a playoff expansion, which has been discussed for a while, is important so that every conference, every Power 5 conference, would get an automatic bid. I think that's important. And then it also allows you to have someone from a non-power five conference to be able to get in as well.

"This was discussed a lot going into the playoff system. ... I do think there's some positives and I do think there's some challenges that have come from that. It's been discussed a lot. There's no doubt about it. But, I think in theory, I'm supportive of it, but I wouldn't say it's perfect. I think a lot of people would probably agree with me."

Evidently they did, because playoff expansion is coming.

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