James Franklin took over as Penn State's third head coach in the last 48 years on Saturday. So today's Take Two topic is: How long until Franklin has the Nittany Lions in serious contention for a Big Ten championship?
Take 1: Brian Bennett
No discussion of Penn State's championship aims can begin without first discussing the sanctions. The school had some of its scholarships restored last year but still won't be playing with a full roster next season, and the gaps initially created by the penalties will really start to show up in the next couple of seasons. So Franklin, like Bill O'Brien before him, will essentially be playing with one hand tied behind his back.
What O'Brien was able to do in luring recruits like Christian Hackenberg and Adam Breneman despite the sanctions was truly remarkable. If Penn State can recruit like that with far more uncertainty than it has right now about its future, then Franklin -- an ace recruiter with strong connections on the East Coast -- could very well clean up. It remains to be seen whether he and his staff will "dominate the state" and "dominate the region" as promised, but they should stock the cupboard full of talent in short order.
It still takes time for that talent to arrive and for it to develop, however. Penn State will also be competing in a much tougher division now that Michigan State and Michigan will join Ohio State in the new East Division. Franklin did amazing work at Vanderbilt, but the Commodores never really threatened to win the SEC East title and feasted on the mediocre to bad teams in the league. That's understandable, given Vandy's resources, but Franklin still has to prove he's a championship coach. Given his early limitations, I think it will take a while. By the time Hackenberg is a senior -- assuming he stays four years -- Penn State will be removed from the bowl ban and recovering from the scholarship reductions. So 2016 is my pick for when Franklin's Nittany Lions will make a serious title push.
The sanctions certainly are a factor, but I don't know if I buy into their delayed effect as much as others, especially when counteracted by Franklin's superior recruiting ability. There's also the possibility, perhaps likelihood, that the bowl ban is reduced either before the 2014 season or before the 2015 campaign. We'll see if the NCAA budges, but it wouldn't surprise me to see Penn State eligible for postseason play in the 2015 season.
I'm going with 2015 as the season when we see Penn State make a serious push in the East Division. Franklin will have more of his recruits in place, Hackenberg will be entering his third season and some of the depth issues, especially on defense, could be fixed. Penn State will undoubtedly need a few more impact freshmen like Hackenberg was in 2013, but I could see it happening under Franklin.
The division isn't getting any easier. Ohio State and Michigan continue to recruit at a very high level, and Michigan State's recruiting should improve after the Rose Bowl run. If Michigan gets its act together in 2014, it could be tough for Penn State to rise up. But I don't think the Nittany Lions are too far away, especially with Hackenberg at quarterback for two more years. The key is developing depth on a defense that wasn't very good this past season. But if we've learned anything from Auburn, it's that teams can improve rapidly, especially with the right coach and the right recruiting approach. Penn State seems to have that in Franklin.
To the highlights:
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Adam. I agree the overall talent level will go up at Penn State with Franklin and his assistants on the recruiting trail. I also think there are some significant depth issues on defense that might not go away for a while. I think Penn State could win 10 games in 2015 and maybe compete for league titles after that point. But like Bill O'Brien, Franklin can't afford to miss on too many players or afford many injuries to starters.
Steven from MN: In my opinion, the competition level of college football is too top-heavy. And the reason for this is summed up well by the Jeff Jones situation. I don't expect Minnesota to keep him because top HS players are more interested in getting to the more "elite" programs, if at all possible. If the trend continues, fans of middling programs like Minnesota's might as well throw real expectations out the window, right?
Adam Rittenberg: I don't think you should lower your expectations that easily, Steven. That said, it has to be discouraging for Minnesota to keep losing top in-state players to name-brand programs. Jeff Jones would be an excellent addition if Minnesota keeps him, but few would be surprised if he signs elsewhere. Minnesota has to make its program as attractive as possible for local prospects to stay home. That includes upgrading the practice facilities, which are outdated in the Big Ten.
Greg from Indy: I saw a list of possible DC candidates for IU, which among others, included each MSU defensive position coach. Wouldn't that be great for IU? Think they can pull any away from MSU?
Adam Rittenberg: Greg, Michigan State's defensive staff would be an excellent place for IU to start. Harlon Barnett (DBs) and Mike Tressel (LBs) would be the likely candidates for a DC opening, as Ron Burton is a new addition to MSU. I spoke with Indiana athletic director Fred Glass this week, and he said IU plans to pay the next coordinator more than fired DC Doug Mallory. It will take a nice offer to take Barnett or Tressel away from a good situation in East Lansing.
Bryan from Atlanta: It seems that the Big Ten is losing a lot of good receivers this year. If there is one area where Big Ten teams can improve, it is in the passing game. Whether it is due to QB play or the lack of play-makers at the receiver position, it seems to me that Big Ten teams, when compared to top-tier teams from other conferences, do not have explosive passing attacks. Which Big Ten team returns the best receiving corps and has the ability to have a dynamic passing game?
Adam Rittenberg: Bryan, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts on the lack of explosive passing attacks and top-level receivers in the Big Ten. You watch Big Ten bowl opponents like Clemson and South Carolina and realize what the Big Ten is missing. Looking at the league next year, I like the receivers from Nebraska, Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana (even without Cody Latimer) and Northwestern. The groups from Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State certainly could take a step forward. Michigan State's receivers really have made a dramatic turnaround.
Thanks again for the questions. Let's do it again soon.
But in Big Ten country, the deadline to declare for the draft passed quietly on Wednesday. Because barely any Big Ten players opted to make the jump.
Only four Big Ten players publicly announced their plans to enter the draft early.
- Indiana WR Cody Latimer
- Ohio State CB Bradley Roby
- Ohio State LB Ryan Shazier
- Penn State WR Allen Robinson
Barring some unannounced surprises, that's it, folks. The small number continues a trend for the Big Ten, which had only six early departures to the NFL draft last year.
There's no doubt the Big Ten group could have been larger. Running backs like Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah could have made the jump, along with Iowa offensive lineman Brandon Scherff and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.
The good news for Big Ten fans is all those players return for the 2014 season. But what does it say about the league? Other conferences like the SEC and Pac-12 have many more early entries. Look at what's happened to LSU alone in the past two years (17 total departures).
Underclassmen declaring for the draft is one measure of talent in the league. And in this area, the Big Ten seems to be falling short.
De'Andre Thompkins, ATH (Swansboro, N.C./Swansboro)
HT: 5-11; WT: 176
Positional Rank: No. 8 ATH
ESPN 300: No. 73
Under Armour All-American
Michael O'Connor, QB-PP (Bradenton, Fla./IMG)
HT: 6-5; WT: 223
Positional Rank: No. 6 QB-PP
ESPN 300: No. 132
Under Armour All-American
Antoine White, DT (Millville, N.J./Millville)
HT: 6-3; WT: 265
Positional Rank: No. 80 DT
Chasz Wright, OT (Woodbridge, Va./Milford Academy)
HT: 6-7; WT: 295
Positional Rank: N/A (post-grad)
ESPN JC 50 defensive tackle Tarow Barney (Bainbridge, Ga./Northwest Mississippi CC) signed in December, according to GoPSUSports.com.
- Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg sat down with new coach James Franklin shortly after he was hired, but he wasn't looking for a sales pitch.
- The Michigan secondary didn't grade well at all in 2013, and it's clear it will need to show marked improvement in defending the pass in 2014.
- Former Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough has no plans to make himself available to the media, and not only is that at odds with his reputation as a stand-up leader, it's become an "elephant in the room," writes Mike Griffith.
- An ability to communicate and build relationships with his players has been at the heart of new Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson's success.
- Ohio State's schedule didn't impress many people around the country during debates about its merit as a national-title threat in 2013. Next season presents a few more challenges.
- Could the "Year of the Blackshirt" be just what the Nebraska program needs to give it a jolt of life?
- Minnesota wide receiver Jamel Harbison announced on Twitter that he will transfer.
- Purdue defensive lineman Langston Newton, a transfer from Kentucky, could potentially be eligible right away and provide some help for the Boilermakers up front.
- Josh Klecko, son of a NFL great Joe Klecko, is leaving Rutgers.
- Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand, a Michigan man, had an interesting idea for a tattoo from a rival school if Jim Tressel joins the staff and helps the organization win.
"Nothing's changed in my mindset," he said Wednesday. "Coach Franklin is going to work with our strengths, and a lot of our strengths were what Coach [Bill] O'Brien was running last year. So I don't feel there's going to be too much change. We're just going to go forward."
The Big Ten freshman of the year is forced to go with feel instead of facts at this early point. Hackenberg twice fielded calls from Franklin back when the high-energy coach hoped to sway him to Vanderbilt, but those brief talks were their only communication until a sit-down Sunday meeting -- in an office that, three weeks ago, held a photo of O'Brien posing alongside Tom Brady.
"I wasn't hoping to get any answer," Hackenberg said, while weights clanged in the background. "I was just sitting down trying to get to know my new coach."
This first week must feel a bit surreal for the young quarterback and his Nittany Lions. The blue-lettered mantras covering the weight-room walls -- Hair on Fire, One Team, Iron Lion, etc. -- are left over from the old staff, but the familiar faces from just last month are nearly all gone. Some of the assistant strength coaches have returned, but the men who persuaded Hackenberg to pass over Alabama and Georgia for a school mired in sanctions have since handed in their resignations.
Hackenberg didn't initially enroll in Penn State for the rolling valleys or for the fans who recognized him by the thousands. He came for O'Brien. But now, he said, he's staying for other reasons.
"After you finally get on campus and get to build a relationship with the guys and people here, it's tough to leave," he said. "It's a special place, and people really don't understand that until they step up here and are really a part of it. It's not only me; I think almost every single guy in that locker room feels the same way."
When asked whether he ever considered transferring, or whether the thought even crossed his mind, Hackenberg quickly responded: "I didn't." He paused for several seconds afterward, waiting for the next question. He didn't feel that one needed anymore elaboration.
Franklin told the media on Saturday he expected to use a multiple pro-style offense, something that fits Hackenberg well. But little else is known at this point. Hackenberg tried to take that all in stride, saying he learned one playbook, and he'll learn another again.
Some things are sure to carry over, although the verbiage will likely change along with the coaches he's taking instruction from. Still, he stepped on campus last June and took over the starting job in August after transitioning from a simple high school offense.
At least this time around, he has a full offseason to prepare. And he won't have to sit at his kitchen table, between baseball practices, while studying flash cards of O'Brien's offensive plays.
"People come and go," Hackenberg said. "But you can never forget what each one teaches you, and you got to be more excited when you get the next guy.
"And I think Coach Franklin is a great fit here."
2. NCAA President Mark Emmert will deliver his State of the Association address Thursday, and the title of the speech alone speaks to the pomposity that the NCAA needs to reduce. How Emmert survived the mess his administration made of things at Penn State and Miami is beyond belief; his inability to push through the increase in benefits to student-athletes he has championed for three years is another poor grade on his report card. Perhaps his remarks Thursday can begin to turn around a disappointing tenure.
3. The first thing to leap out about the Pac-12 schedule announced last week is how well things set up for Oregon. Three of the Ducks’ toughest opponents -- Michigan State, Washington and Stanford -- come to Eugene; the Pac-12 South teams that Oregon skips are defending division champ Arizona State and USC; and the toughest road games are at UCLA and at Oregon State. The intersectional game against the Spartans in Week 2 will serve as a national stage for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Let the Heisman talk begin.
Ed S. from Belleville, Ill., writes: Please ask James Franklin how he can justify going after kids he recruited for Vanderbilt and whether he is going out of his way to try to wreck the Vanderbilt football program. What happened to his "fierce loyalty" to the Commodores and what does he now think of recruits who renege on their commitments to other schools?
Brian Bennett: Ed, those are fair questions. Some coaches say they won't recruit players who committed to their previous school when they switch jobs. There are a couple of things to keep in mind here. One, the better players in Vanderbilt's class almost certainly committed to the Commodores because of Franklin, so it makes sense that they'd be interested in following him to another school. Given Penn State's scholarship limitations, he may feel an even bigger need to flip some of those Vandy recruits. And this is who Franklin is, a guy who's going to be aggressive in everything he does, especially so in recruiting. He's going to push the envelope and ruffle some feathers.
Glenn K. from Leesburg, Fla., writes: Brian, regarding your article about BIG ticket sales for bowl games, don't you think attendance might also have been affected by the economy and the weather? If you want to enjoy the whole enchilada with your team before the actual game, including airfare, hotel, parties, tours, etc., you're looking at thousands of dollars (I know from experience), plus thousands more if you're taking your whole family. I wouldn't think that the weather in the Midwest and East helped much, either, as far as traveling goes.
Brian Bennett: The economy absolutely plays a factor, Glenn, and I mentioned the costs in my post. Airfare and hotel rates have gone up, and I was astounded at how expensive hotels in south Florida were over New Year's. These are not cheap trips, for the most part, especially because the majority of Big Ten bowl sites are located more than a comfortable driving distance away from campuses. I doubt very much that weather played a role in keeping people away, since you really need to book these kinds of trips a couple of weeks in advance to have any success finding good deals. If anything, the weather fosters more travel as Midwesterners love any excuse to escape the winter. But there's little question that bowl trips are becoming more difficult for the average fan, and it will be interesting to see how fans travel if their team can make it to a Big Ten championship game, national semifinal and national title game all in about a month's time under the new playoff system.
Kevin from Saline, Mich., writes: What is it that has made this 2013 MSU football team so much more successful than the 2011 Spartans? Every skill position on that 2011 team was terrific, the defense was still elite, and the chemistry and leadership with Kirk Cousins at the helm was extremely good as well. Is it just finding the inches, as Mark Dantonio always says? I was convinced that 2011 team was destined to be the team to break our Rose Bowl drought. I couldn't be happier with this season and this team, but when I compare them side-by-side with the 2011 version, that 2011 version seems more talented to me.
Brian Bennett: Kevin, you're right that the 2011 Michigan State team was awfully good and probably still a bit underrated in hindsight. The offense was much more experienced in 2011 with Cousins and B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin at receiver. The defense was very good, though not quite as elite as the 2013 team. The 2011 team turned in a couple of clunkers, however, including an 18-point loss at Notre Dame and a 24-3 defeat at Nebraska in which the Spartans looked completely flat a week after beating Wisconsin on the Hail Mary.
Still, that team was extremely close to making the Rose Bowl, losing a back-and-forth Big Ten championship game to Russell Wilson's Wisconsin team that turned on a late running-into-the-punter penalty. And those Spartans went on to beat Georgia in the Outback Bowl. This year's team might have benefited from an easier schedule leading up to the Big Ten title game -- the 2011 squad, for example, played three teams ranked in the top 15 in the regular season, while the 2013 squad faced none. But this year's Spartans turned it on when it really mattered and "found the inches," as Dantonio said. That last step from being a very good team to a championship one is sometimes the steepest.
David K. from New Haven, Ind., writes: Brian, any chance that IU might actually spend what it takes to get a proven defensive coordinator? I think Kevin Wilson has the program going in the right direction, but unless they get somebody in there who knows what he is doing and has been with a winning program, I fear he is doomed to fail because of the awful defense. You get what you pay for, and if they go that way, then the Hoosiers and Wilson are doomed.
Brian Bennett: David, every Big Ten team has money. It's good to see teams like Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan making major commitments to coaching salaries this winter, because that is what it's going to take to win at the big-boy table. Indiana doesn't have quite the deep pockets as some other schools, mainly because of the Hoosiers' attendance problems. Wilson's highest-paid assistant is offensive coordinator Seth Littrell, who is making $356,500 -- and earning it, based on IU's offensive numbers in 2013. I doubt you would see Indiana go much higher than that on the defensive side. Just how many superstar coordinators would be interested in coming to a program that has struggled on defense for so long and now has an offense-first mentality? That remains a major question. There's nothing wrong with finding an up-and-comer to run the defense. Indiana's challenge will be to keep top assistants such as Littrell when they become hot commodities.
Samuel from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Hey, Brian. Some big coaching moves in the East got me wondering about Iowa. Kirk Ferentz is one of the best-paid head coaches. But what about the assistants? Did I read correctly last week that Iowa is once again one of the most valuable football programs in the country? Does Iowa have the resources the make some big assistant coaching moves like OSU is doing?
Brian Bennett: Iowa does have strong resources. Not quite Ohio State or Michigan level, but certainly in the upper half of the Big Ten. Much of those resources are going to pay Ferentz close to $4 million per year. Neither defensive coordinator Phil Parker nor offensive coordinator Greg Davis are among the top 10 in salary among assistants in the Big Ten. That has been the pattern under Ferentz, who promoted Parker from within and hired Davis after he had been out of football for a year. Perhaps whenever Ferentz retires, the pay scale between the Iowa head coach and his assistants will tilt a little.
Andrew from San Ramon, Calif., writes: Hi, Brian. I've done some research, and the Huskers have an OK schedule coming up this year. Notable teams like Fresno State and Miami lose a lot of key players to the draft. Seven home games and five away games. With the win of the Gator Bowl on their shoulders and new recruits coming in, what do you think the Huskers' chances are at going possibly 10-2 or 11-1? (Losses might be @ Wisconsin and/or Michigan State.)
Brian Bennett: It's entirely too soon to start predicting team records for 2014. I do like Nebraska right now as the early favorite to win the West Division, but I think the conference schedule is a little harder than you make it out to be. The Huskers not only have to travel to Michigan State and Wisconsin but also to Northwestern -- which has played Nebraska extremely tough and should bounce back from an abysmal 2013 -- and Iowa, which just won in Lincoln to close out the recently completed regular season. Compare that to new division rival Wisconsin, which does not play Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State from the East and whose hardest conference road games are Iowa and Northwestern.
I like the potential for Nebraska's young defense in 2014, and if quarterback Tommy Armstrong makes a significant jump in the offseason, the offense could be really good, too. But Bo Pelini's team is going to have to get some work done on the road in league play to get back to the Big Ten championship game.
Let's get started ...
1. Michigan State (13-1, previously: 1): The Spartans rallied to beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO to record their team-record 13th victory. Thanks to stifling defense and improved quarterback play, Michigan State had its best season since the mid-1960s. The Spartans return QB Connor Cook and most of the skill players on offense, but must replace a lot of production on defense.
2. Ohio State (12-2, previously: 2): After winning 24 consecutive games to open the Urban Meyer era, Ohio State dropped consecutive games on big stages. The Buckeyes' defense couldn't slow down Clemson's pass game in the Discover Orange Bowl, and turnovers doomed Ohio State in the second half. Meyer's defensive staff will have a different look with new assistants Chris Ash and Larry Johnson.
3. Wisconsin (9-4, previously: 3): Like Ohio State, Wisconsin ended its season with a thud and a sloppy bowl performance against South Carolina. The Badgers received big performances from running backs Melvin Gordon and James White but couldn't stop South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw or hang on to the football.
4. Nebraska (9-4, previously: 6): All roads lead to 9-4 for Bo Pelini's team, but the Huskers are much happier to be there after an upset victory over Georgia in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. An improved defense did a nice job of keeping the Bulldogs out of the end zone, and seniors such as wide receiver Quincy Enunwa stepped up in their final college game.
5. Iowa (8-5, previously: 4): A stout Hawkeyes defense kept the team in the Outback Bowl, but the offense never truly got going and lost starting quarterback Jake Rudock to injury. Iowa had its chances for a quality bowl win, but has to settle for a strong regular-season improvement and raised expectations entering the 2014 season.
6. Penn State (7-5, previously: 7): An impressive victory at Wisconsin marked the final game of the Bill O'Brien era. New coach James Franklin has brought a lot of enthusiasm to Happy Valley and should sparkle on the recruiting trail. His management of talented quarterback Christian Hackenberg and an undermanned defense will loom large this fall.
7. Minnesota (8-5, previously: 5): The Gophers had by far the most favorable bowl matchup but didn't reach the end zone for more than three quarters against Syracuse. Although a special-teams play ultimately doomed Minnesota, the Gophers' inability to establish a better passing game was a key element in a very disappointing loss. Minnesota should expect more in 2014.
8. Michigan (7-6, previously: 8): You knew it would be tough for Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl when quarterback Devin Gardner hobbled off of the plane on crutches. But the Wolverines never gave themselves a chance in the game, caving defensively against Kansas State's Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett. A blowout loss ended Michigan's highly disappointing season and marked the end for offensive coordinator Al Borges. Can coach Brady Hoke get things turned around in 2014?
9. Northwestern (5-7, previously: 9): Northwestern is awaiting confirmation that running back Venric Mark can return for a fifth season, and should get it in the next few weeks. Mark will help an offense that never truly got on track last fall and might need to be more of a pass-first unit if Trevor Siemian remains the starting quarterback. The defense returns nine starters.
10. Indiana (5-7, previously: 10): It took a little longer than expected, but coach Kevin Wilson fired defensive coordinator Doug Mallory last week as Indiana again will try to upgrade a perennially porous unit. The Hoosiers will be more experienced throughout the roster this fall, but the defense must change the script under new leadership as they enter the brutal East Division.
11. Illinois (4-8, previously: 11): While Wilson made a change at defensive coordinator, coach Tim Beckman is sticking with Tim Banks and the rest of his staff for a pivotal 2014 season. Like Indiana, Illinois will be more experienced on defense but must replace Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback. A favorable schedule gives Illinois a chance to make a bowl game.
12. Purdue (1-11, previously: 12): No Big Ten team is more excited to start working this offseason than the Boilers, who are rebuilding through the quarterback spot with Danny Etling and early enrollee David Blough, who officially arrived this week. Purdue must improve along both lines and replace veteran defenders such as cornerback Ricardo Allen and tackle Bruce Gaston Jr.
- Penn State players like what they've seen so far from James Franklin. Four Vanderbilt assistants appear to be on their way to State College.
- Ohio State's defensive makeover begins with the hiring of Larry Johnson and Chris Ash. Johnson should make a recruiting splash for the Buckeyes.
- Nebraska's 99-yard touchdown in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl is even more remarkable considering how the Huskers had performed inside their own 20.
- Grading Michigan's linebacker play this past season.
- A closer look at Purdue early enrollee David Blough, who could challenge Danny Etling for the quarterback job.
- The state's top quarterbacks will attend Iowa's junior day on Saturday.
- The Big Ten East Division should be a cage fight.
- Maryland's lawsuit could be about applying pressure on the ACC for a settlement.
- Rutgers could need new offensive and defensive coordinators.
There were fewer than 24 hours to go before six distraught high school seniors and their parents flooded Tulsa's campus demanding answers. The school was without a football coach and a half-dozen official visits were scheduled to begin the next day.
The few remaining assistant coaches pressed the athletic director to cancel the visits, but he insisted a coach would be named the next day. So during a brainstorming session, running backs coach Bill Blankenship formulated a plan.
Spring Game Wrap-Up
BIG TEN SCOREBOARD
TBD California Northwestern TBD Indiana State Indiana TBD Jacksonville State Michigan State TBD Appalachian State Michigan TBD Florida Atlantic Nebraska TBD LSU Wisconsin TBD Youngstown State Illinois TBD Northern Iowa Iowa TBD Ohio State Navy TBD Western Michigan Purdue 8:30 AM ET Penn State UCF