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How Far is Penn State From the College Football Playoff?

Penn State has invested in becoming a playoff contender. When will it pay off?

Penn State looked like a College Football Playoff contender in October — at least as much as any team can in October. The 5-0 and fourth-ranked Lions led Iowa on the road, by two touchdowns, when the trap door released and their weaknesses were exposed.

A lapsed few years of quarterback development, a long-term issue on the offensive line, and an offense that didn't mesh under first-year coordinator Mike Yurcich all contributed to Penn State's 2-6 finish. That offense was particularly lackluster in the Outback Bowl, scoring a season-low 10 points in a fizzling loss to Arkansas.

Coach James Franklin's eighth season at Penn State arguably was his least successful. He went 7-6 twice before, in the 2014-15 seasons still affected by NCAA sanctions, and 2020's losing record can be dismissed as a situational outlier.

But last season, Penn State had one of the Big Ten's top receivers, draft picks across its defense (potentially six by our count) and a third-year starting quarterback. It also started the season 5-0 with quality wins over Wisconsin and Auburn. To finish 2-6, including the 24-10 loss to Arkansas in the Outback Bowl, were results that didn't appear to merit a new 10-year contract with a $1 million annual raise.

However, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said that Franklin is "our guy."

"You look at what we’ve seen from James as it relates to who he is, what his values are, what his fit is for us, how he develops student-athletes and then, oh by the way, he's also won a lot of football games," Barbour said. "As you really dig into it, that [2016-19] period was as good as we’ve been in 35-40 years."

When, though, does Penn State's future arrive? The Lions have longed for a playoff spot, have been close in the past, and now seem to be drifting away. How to get this playoff train back on track? A few thoughts.

It's time for that championship offense

Before the Outback Bowl, Yurcich promised that he would build a "championship-level" offense at Penn State or "die trying." He has a lot of work before him.

Penn State finished the season 90th nationally in scoring offense at 25 points per game, its lowest since 2014. Worse, the Lions ranked 118th in rushing offense at 108 yards per game, the second-lowest average in program history. Further, Penn State did not have a 100-yard rushing game for the first time since 1978.

This wasn't the offense Franklin expected, or promised, when he hired Yurcich from Texas. Penn State seemed to struggle with a disconnect in its run schemes, notably on the offensive line, which Yurcich needs to fix. The backfield had too much talent for its best game to be 79 yards (Keyvone Lee vs. Michigan State).

Moreover, the Lions need to build more offensive depth outside of running back. That's something ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit has noted about Penn State.

“In an era of offensive football, they need five, six, seven options at the skill spots, not two or three,” Herbstreit said of the Lions in 2019. "And I think that’s the area of the program, when I look at [Penn State], that I still think they’re developing and still growing: the playmakers at the skill spots, the depth."

Put a quarterback in the NFL

The fastest way to change an offense is through an elite quarterback. Could Penn State have one in Drew Allar, who started in the All-American Bowl before enrolling early at Penn State? That would be game-changing.

Granted, Franklin has coached only three starting quarterbacks at Penn State, but none is an NFL starter. Meanwhile, Alabama is in its second consecutive CFP title game (with the Heisman-winning quarterback), and Ohio State has another gem in C.J. Stroud.

"You know, at Ohio State, if you come to be the quarterback, you're shortstop for the New York Yankees," Buckeyes coach Ryan Day has said. "That's what I was told when I got here, and I totally agree with it. And it starts right there. You know, you have a quarterback, you've got a chance. If you don't, you don't."

In 2020, plans for a "Quarterback Lab" at Penn State appeared on a local planning-commission meeting schedule. They weren't terribly detailed but did describe a space that would hold "specialized audio-video and technology solutions to support quarterback training."

Penn State is expanding the Lasch Football Building as part of a $69 million project to improve the facility. This lab should be part of it.

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Build for the 12-team playoff

Franklin's call to make the College Football Playoff "as big as possible" might carry a little self-interest. Had a 12-team format been in place from 2016-19, Penn State would have qualified each season. In fact, Penn State would have had a first-round bye as the Big Ten champ in 2016.

Since the 12-team playoff still might be a few years off, which gives Penn State a runway to become competitive. That means:

  • Adding a few more top-10 recruiting classes on top of the 2022 group.
  • Continuing to develop offensive linemen (particularly tackles) under Yurcich.
  • Recruiting more defensive linemen, notably the ends for whom Penn State has been a strong developmental program.
  • Getting creative with its Name, Image and Likeness opportunities. Franklin has said that Penn State must get much more aggressive in this aspect of the game.
  • Expanding and strengthening its support staff, especially to include more analysts who can help with scouting and gameplanning.
  • Filling essential gaps with players from the NCAA Transfer Portal. Franklin was successful with this in 2021, particularly on the defensive line with Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo. Targeted use of the portal can raise a lineup's profile quickly.

Embrace being uncomfortable

Remember Franklin's 2018 thesis that Penn State must become "comfortable being uncomfortable"? This might be as uncomfortable as Franklin has been in eight years at Penn State.

Sure, he has the comfortable contract, though many fans are uncomfortable with it, particularly the buyout clause. It favors Franklin overwhelmingly.

Let's say, for instance, that Penn State struggles for another two years, winning 7-9 games but not approaching the playoff threshold. What recourse does Penn State have? Not much.

Should Penn State want to fire Franklin in 2024, it would owe him $8 million per year for the deal's remaining seven years. That's a spending chasm Penn State's administration likely would be unwilling to cross. Franklin and Penn State are hip-tied, for better or worse. That's pressure. That's potentially uncomfortable

In addition, Franklin has lost three longtime members of his staff since the end of the regular season. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry became the head coach at Virginia Tech and hired Michael Hazel, Penn State's senior director of football operations. Then strength coach Dwight Galt retired.

Those are significant losses. All three had been with Franklin for more than a decade across coaching staffs at Vanderbilt and Penn State. They had his trust and his confidence. Their departures leaves Franklin with a dwindling number of longtime confidants.

Cornerbacks coach Terry Smith is the last remaining assistant from Franklin's first staff in 2014. Key staffers such as Kevin Threlkel (chief of staff) and Andy Frank (director of player personnel) remain, but the operation churns as it grows.

Franklin hasn't revisited his "great-to-elite" comments lately, knowing full well that Penn State hasn't been great for the past two seasons. Lately, Franklin has turned to an awkward metaphor — "the other 364 days."

It's his way of saying that Penn State must be competitive year-round, in everything, and not just on gamedays. One day before Penn State announced his new contract, Franklin hammered home this point.

"It's about competing in every single thing 365 days a year," he said. "That's what I think makes football so exciting and why it's so competitive, because everything matters."

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