Commentary: Weighing chances of USC landing Penn State's James Franklin as coach

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Penn State coach James Franklin during a victory over Auburn on Sept. 18, 2021.
Penn State coach James Franklin during the No. 10 Nittany Lions' 28-20 win over No. 22 Auburn on Saturday night in State College, Pa. (Barry Reeger / Associated Press)

James Franklin’s night began at the opening of the Beaver Stadium tunnel, holding his players back from storming onto the field as 100,000-plus white-clad fans serenaded them under the lights. It ended with sweat beading down his shiny dome as he spoke to a national audience after Penn State’s latest “White Out” victory, this one over Auburn of the Southeastern Conference, 28-20.

“It’s great to have football back in Happy Valley,” Franklin told ESPN’s Holly Rowe.

As the Nittany Lions locked arms and swayed, singing the school’s alma mater into the warm Appalachian evening, Happy Valley did not look like a place that would be easy to leave, particularly if one had put in the time to make it feel like home as Franklin has these last seven years.

From the moment USC athletic director Mike Bohn announced Monday that he was firing Clay Helton, Franklin’s name was floated as one of the consensus top candidates to lead the Trojans, including by yours truly. The specter of Franklin’s rumored interest in coming to Los Angeles absorbed the Penn State-Auburn buzz, and Franklin did not help to quell the din of speculation by refusing to issue the standard in-season denial.

I wonder what USC fans were thinking as they watched Franklin coach in this atmosphere Saturday night. Leading into Saturday, I thought Franklin was a realistic target for the Trojans. But, though I still think there’s a chance he could be swayed to move, I have to admit that experiencing the magic of one of the sport’s greatest spectacles gave me some pause.

Why would Franklin leave Penn State for USC? To come up with an acceptable answer, we should start by assessing what exactly he would be walking away from:

  • A team in the top 10 with two top-25 victories in three games and a program that belongs among the top 15 perennial powers (and that’s being conservative).

  • The No. 1 2022 recruiting class, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings. (I doubt the Nittany Lions stay there, but they’re clearly stacking talent right now.)

  • The undying loyalty of a rabid fan base that will pack 100,000 into Beaver Stadium every Saturday, because there’s no other game in town in the middle of Pennsylvania.

  • Franklin’s ties to the state where he was born, where he played his college football at East Stroudsburg and where he got his first coaching job at Kutztown.

For these reasons, of the logical candidates to replace Helton, Franklin has the most to lose by taking the USC job. If he does have legitimate interest, it would be quite a statement about the ceiling of the USC job and the allure that exists around it — and a statement about Franklin’s ambition.

The only reason that someone with Franklin’s status would risk coming to USC is because his priority above all is winning a national championship. It is undeniable that the sport’s pinnacle is far more reachable from L.A. than State College, and of course Franklin knows that.

At Penn State, he has to deal with Ohio State within his own division, and, in most years, Michigan has been a pain to deal with too. USC, despite the results of the last decade, should expect to win the Pac-12 every year when things are rolling.

That advantage, of course, comes from the plentiful talent in Southern California. USC should be able to recruit within a 100-mile radius of L.A. and stockpile top-five classes. Franklin is a formidable recruiter without such a luxury. The combination of the USC brand plus Franklin’s brand in recruiting would be the ultimate draw for him to uproot, far beyond the weather and the scenery. It is also the best argument for why USC should pursue him and see if it can get traction.

Now, don’t take any of this to mean I think Franklin is the best candidate. He’d just be the most impressive get for USC because of what he’d be giving up compared with Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, each of whom coach underdog programs that now have some real bite.

Franklin already has a coveted position, but I’m not convinced he is that good of an in-game coach. He often tightens up with a fourth-quarter lead, although that wasn’t an issue against Auburn. But it’s easy to imagine that — if he were allowed to recruit at USC for a few years — the Trojans would not be in many close games to reveal any deficiencies.

Alabama is ... vulnerable?

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young celebrates after the Crimson Tide beat Florida on Sept. 18, 2021.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young celebrates after the No. 1 Crimson Tide beat No. 11 Florida 31-29 on Saturday in Gainesville, Fla. (John Raoux / Associated Press)

Florida could have done the rest of the country a huge favor by beating No. 1 Alabama. The Gators had their shot with a two-point conversion try that would have tied the score, but the Crimson Tide shut down a surprisingly vanilla play call from Florida coach Dan Mullen to hold on for a 31-29 victory.

An Alabama loss in September would have given the sport hope of someone new winning the national championship. Still, Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon and any other team that fashions itself as a title contender should be glad to see the Crimson Tide actually challenged for a few quarters of football.

Alabama got up 21-3, as sophomore quarterback Bryce Young of Santa Ana Mater Dei looked unstoppable. But the Gators fought their way back into the game by running the ball at will against the Crimson Tide, giving future teams a blueprint — eat the clock and keep Young off the field, you can have a chance.

The problem is that Nick Saban has a way of fixing glaring problems with his defense.

Spencer Rattler is struggling

When Spencer Rattler committed to Oklahoma, the Sooners were coming off back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners and No. 1 overall NFL draft picks in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.

Rattler was the top quarterback recruit in the country out of Arizona, and the natural assumption was that he was going to begin a reign of terror on the plains in Lincoln Riley’s spread offense.

Rattler is three games into his second season as the starter, but, for some reason, it just hasn’t happened. The Sooners are not nearly as explosive in the passing game as they’ve been in the past, and it nearly cost them Saturday in a 23-16 win over Nebraska.

Rattler began the season still being projected as one of the top picks in the 2022 draft. It’s time to start wondering whether he’s deserving of the hype.

Oregon hangover

Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson breaks away against Tulsa on Sept. 18, 2021.
It took awhile for running back TreVeyon Henderson and Ohio State to break away against Tulsa. (Jay LaPrete / Associated Press)

After losing to Oregon last week, Ohio State had another rough outing Saturday against Tulsa, which lost to UC Davis in its opening game. The Buckeyes led by just a touchdown early in the fourth quarter before pulling away 41-20.

This is shaping up as that rare year when another team could win the Big Ten East. Penn State is 3-0 and has the potential to win with its offense or defense. Michigan State just whipped No. 24 Miami on the road, 38-17, and looks to be a revamped group in Mel Tucker’s second season. Michigan still has to show it can beat a legit opponent — sorry, Washington — but the Wolverines look competent and capable after going 2-4 in the pandemic season.

Ohio State should be the favorite for now. The Buckeyes host Penn State and Michigan State and travel to Ann Arbor, where they have won four straight.

Clemson in trouble

Maybe it shouldn’t be that puzzling that Clemson’s offense is broken to start this season. The Tigers lost the No. 1 overall pick in the draft in Trevor Lawrence, plus star running back Travis Etienne. But it’s still shocking to see Clemson put up two touchdowns in a 14-8 win over Georgia Tech.

The root of the issue seems to be the offensive line, not quarterback DJ Uiagalelei of St. John Bosco. Last season, Uiagalelei put up big numbers when Lawrence was out because of COVID. On Saturday, it seemed the coaches had no faith in Clemson’s ability to protect him for downfield throws. Uiagalelei finished 18 for 25 for 126 yards.

The Tigers will be in danger of suffering a second loss at North Carolina State next weekend if they don’t make major improvements.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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