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Penn State 2023 Season Review: 10 Wins Is A Good Thing, Seriously

To those of you laughing in the back: hear me out...

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin on the sidelines against the Mississippi Rebels during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Allow me to recap the 2023 Penn State Nittany Lions football season by not talking about the 2023 Penn State Nittany Lions football season at all. Instead, if you will, come with me on a journey.

The year is 2014. After proving that even Vanderbilt can have some relative success, James Franklin was hired as the next coach of the Nittany Lions. Having more than enough room due to the recently lifted sanctions, Franklin brings a number of his 2014 recruits from Vanderbilt to Penn State.

Six years prior, a man by the name of William Christopher Swinney, or more commonly known as Dabo , was made the permanent head coach at Clemson. During the early part of his tenure, the Tigers became known for a term known as “Clemsoning,” which is defined as “the act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, on a grand athletic stage, or when the stakes are high.” For years, Swinney’s program was known for faceplanting when it mattered. Until it didn’t.

Seven years after that hire, in 2015, another Big Ten team needed to make a hire of their own. In comes Jim Harbaugh, the prodigal son, the man to take Michigan to the heights it so desperately needed to get back to. Things went great out of the gate, but Harbaugh would constantly run into a given roadblock, The™ Ohio State Buckeyes. In most years, it also included a loss to one of Michigan State, Penn State, or a random (i.e. Wisconsin or Iowa from the West), leading to a narrative that Harbaugh couldn’t beat his rivals, or win a big game. His abysmal record in bowl games only made matters worse. And then everything turned around.

Four years after that hire, a man by the name of Ryan Day* took over The™ Ohio State job. Success of that magnitude had yet to be achieved in Columbus, leading to many folks positing that maybe Day was better than his predecessor, Urban Meyer. Gone were the days of random losses to teams OSU had no business losing to. In were the days of exceptional quarterback play, near guaranteed playoff appearances, a run to the title game mixed in there, and hopes of a second dynasty emerging. Accusations of “being born in third place but thinking one hit a triple” were lobbied. Ohio State had everything they wanted. Until everything changed.

These three scenarios all have one thing in common. Each respective coach took over a better situation than the next, with Day inheriting a well oiled machine, Harbaugh taking over an immensely talented, but imbalanced roster, and Swinney taking over a program with enough talent to compete, but not enough to win.

There’s another similarity in these programs: For all their trials and tribulations, they all struggled with teams at or above their level. Upsets by inferior teams were few and far between, and, for the most part, their reputations hinged on “winning the big one.” This takes us back to 2014.

Penn State, under James Franklin, took over what should inarguably be the worst situation of these four coaches. Yet, if we look at the progression:

  • It took Swinney nine seasons to reach the mountaintop.
  • It also took Harbaugh nine to reach his.
  • Day, having just completed his fifth season, is still looking for his title.

So, why did I spend all this time talking about irrelevant information before hitting on 2023? Well, for two reasons. The simple one is “winning is hard.” But the other, more nuanced reality, is that it takes time to build the kind of team and program that can win consistently enough to reach that elusive mountaintop. All three of those aforementioned coaches are generally believed to be better than Franklin. Yet it took them time to construct a roster that could compete at the highest levels, with one of them still looking for the perfect formula.

Now, we take that nuance and put in into context. Franklin, who started from a worse place than these coaches did, should naturally take longer to get the kind of team he needs to win. Some view that as stagnation. But, what those people view as stagnation, should really be seen as a sign of progress. Just like those previous coaches, Franklin has reached a point in the program where the embarrassment comes at the biggest stage, because the inexplicable upsets are few and far between. The reputation of “being unable to win the big game” is magnified, because Penn State now plays in such big games on a near equal footing. The fears of Penn State losing to a vastly inferior opponent is more of a fleeting thought than a real possibility. That is where those other programs found themselves before they reached the mountaintop.

I can’t begin to tell you whether the next natural step will mirror those of Dabo Swinney and Jim Harbaugh. And I won’t argue against Penn State already having a roster that can win. But, losing to top 10 teams is indeed progress, and if the past is any indication, you can have the roster capable of winning and still fail to do so. Until you don’t.

*Some would argue John Cooper to Jim Tressel is a better comparison, but that was too long ago to be meaningful.