James Franklin lost another game against a top ten team this weekend. This has been a talking point about Franklin’s tenure at Penn State thus far, as he’s won just two games against such competition in his eight-plus seasons with the Nittany Lions. But how many is expected? Top ten teams tend to be pretty good, and beating them every time certainly isn’t the expectation for most programs.
To answer this, I decided to compile the records of every Big Ten coach against top ten and top five opponents so we can see what kind of coaches do handle their toughest foes. I’ve sorted them into three tiers: those who can’t hang with the best, those who hold their own, and those who are made for the moment. I’ll let you decide how important these games are to your team, and how often you want to win, after seeing how other coaches around the league do.
As a point of clarity, this is counting games against top ten/top five teams at the time of meeting, according to the AP Poll, or CFP rankings (or BCS poll) when available. I’m aware that this allows early season clownfraud trasch wins, but y’all play pillow-soft non-cons anyways, so it’s legitimate more-often-than-not. Also, if we only took end-of-season rankings, nobody would have wins because there’s only like 12 combined losses in the top ten at the end of the year.
Can’t Cut It
Mike Locksley (0-9, .000)
Locksley lost to #7 Oregon and #4 TCU while at New Mexico, and has gone 0-7 against top ten teams and 0-3 against top five teams so far at Maryland. He’s had two of those top ten games at home, and five on the road. This does include a 2015 game at tenth-ranked Iowa while Locksley was the interim in 2015, so you can discount that if you wish. Regardless, Locksley clearly is the worst coach in the conference against top competition.
Mickey Joseph (0-1, .000)
Joseph’s first game as the head coach of Nebraska came against sixth-ranked Oklahoma, which doesn’t feel fair. Regardless, he lost, and so he’s 0-1 in his career.
Jim Leonhard (0-0, .000)
The coward Jim Leonhard has yet to play a top ten opponent while at Wisconsin, making even Gary Barta blush at the Charmin-esque schedule. Disgusting.
Tom Allen (1-14, .067)
Allen is in his sixth year at Indiana, and, because he plays in the East, has already faced fifteen top-ten teams. His lone win came against Penn State in 2020, a Penn State team that was later revealed to be made up of scarecrows. He’s 1-7 at home and 0-7 on the road, and nine of his losses have come to teams ranked in the top five. Also, five were Ohio State, with the lowest-ranked Buckeye squad coming in at sixth.
James Franklin (2-20, .091)
And here he is, the reason we’re here today. Franklin did come into Happy Valley already carrying an 0-5 record, but since arriving, he’s lost 15 of 17 opportunities against top ten teams. He’s won one game in eleven chances vs top five teams: 2016 against Ohio State. Nine of his losses (and seven of his top-five losses) have come on the road, with just six opportunities coming at home. He’s 1-1 in neutral site games, winning the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin before losing to USC in the Rose Bowl. He’s in his ninth year, and faces a top-ten foe every five games on average. Credit to him, that is a lot, but it’s also a lot of opportunities.
Pat Fitzgerald (3-18, .143)
This was probably the most surprising result for me. Fitzgerald is constantly a thorn in Iowa’s side, but Iowa isn’t good enough for that to be impressive. They did give Fitzgerald his first top ten win in 2009 after those dirty Wildcats injured American hero Ricky Stanzi, and he would later collect wins against ninth-ranked Nebraska in 2011 and tenth-ranked Wisconsin in 2020. However, Fitzgerald is a shocking 0-8 all-time against top five teams, begging the question: how has he only faced eight top five teams in two decades?
PJ Fleck (1-6, .143)
Fleck has an identical win percentage to Fitzy, however, that includes an 0-3 record at Western Michigan. Interestingly, Fleck is 1-3 against top ten teams with the Gophers, but all four opponents were ranked in the top five. However, all four games were also at home, so that doesn’t excuse much. He did earn a win over Penn State in 2019, the high point of a magical season for Minnesota. Then what happened?
Guys That Are Pretty Good, Considering
Greg Schiano (2-9, .182)
Alright, Schiano’s comes with an asterisk: neither of those wins were against Big Ten teams. Schiano’s first Rutgers tenure came before the sleeping giant rested its head in the Bee One Gee, and so his wins were against Louisville and USF. Still, those teams were ranked third and second, respectively. Schiano actually has a higher win percentage against top five teams, going 2-6 in his career. Still, he’s 0-2 since rejoining the Scarlet Knights.
Bret Bielema (5-18, .217)
Oh Bert. Maybe the toughest one on this list to sort out, his 5-18 record was accumulated with three different teams. He went 2-7 with Wisconsin before jumping ship for Arkansas, then 2-11 with the Razorbacks before limping back to the Big Ten. He’s 1-0 so far with Illinois Fightin Illini, beating, wait for it, Penn State last year. He’s 1-7 against top five teams, beating top-ranked Ohio State with the Badgers back in 2010. He has the most diverse schedule, with 13 different teams making up his 23-game record.
Mel Tucker (2-6, .250)
Tucker lost one top-ten game while at Colorado, and is 2-5 so far in the Big Ten. That includes four losses to top five teams, three of whom were Ohio State. Guess there’s something in the water in Michigan that prevents coaches from beating Ohio State. I mean, there’s definitely something in the water in Michigan. Anyways, a 2-3 record with Michigan State against teams not named Ohio State is still pretty impressive for a coach this short in his tenure.
Jim Harbaugh (7-14, .333)
Remember when it was a big deal that Harbaugh didn’t win the big ones? Since starting his Michigan career 1-9 against top ten teams, Harbaugh has won three of the last six to bring his record up to 4-12. Couple that with a 3-2 record while at Stanford, and maybe the Michigan Man is actually okay at this coaching thing. He is still just 1-5 against top five teams with the Wolverines, but 1-1 at home (and 4-4 against the top ten in the Big House). He’s no world-ender, but he’s clearly got an impressive program on the rise.
Kirk Ferentz (12-24, .333)
That’s right, the godfather does alright. After starting his career 0-6 in such games, Kirk Ferentz is 12-18 (and 5-9 against top five teams). Nobody in the Big Ten has beaten more (or played more) top ten teams than Ferentz, but maybe give Ryan Day like three more years. Perhaps most impressive is his 4-2 home record against top five teams since 2008. Contextualize this within the expectations of the Iowa Athletic Department, and there’s a reason he’s signed through 2029. We won’t get into the reasons why he shouldn’t be today.
Made For This
Jeff Brohm (3-5, .375)
Jeff Brohm, bringer of harbors and crusher of dreams, is an even 3-3 against top ten teams since joining Purdue. He’s 3-1 against top five teams, and 2-0 at home. He has a small sample size, especially when considering this is his sixth year with the Boilermakers, but he got his second win against a top five team (second-ranked Iowa in 2021) faster than everyone on this list except the next guy.
Ryan Day (6-3, .667)
Yeah dude, Ryan Day is good at this. He also inherited an Ohio State program in incredible shape, but yeah, he beats good teams, and that’s what we’re here to talk about. He’s 2-3 against top five teams, which means he’s 4-0 against teams ranked 6-10. Somehow, though, he only has one road game against the set, losing at #5 Michigan last year. Combined with his neutral record, he’s 2-3 away from home, which is slightly more human than his overall record would indicate.
Jim Leonhard (0-0, 1.000)
The man, the myth, the legend, Jim Leonhard has never lost to a top ten team. Undefeated. Amazing. When the pressure is on, Leonhard does not let down. Simply put, the clutchest coach in the Big Ten, not just now, but ever.
So, is James Franklin bad against top teams? Yeah. Compared to his peers? Still, yeah. You can interpret this list how you want. You can judge these coaches through whatever lens you want. Did Ryan Day start with a massive advantage over Mike Locksley? You bet. But I want to hear the argument about how James Franklin had it tougher than Jeff Brohm.
Are you happy with your coach’s record?
This poll is closed
Yeah, my team is bad, I can’t expect better
Yeah, my coach is really good
No, my team should be able to compete more than this
No, my team should be able to luck into a win, statistically, at some point