Ten Years of James Franklin's Penn State Teams, From Worst to Best (2024)

James Franklin has run a marathon as Penn State's football coach over the past decade. He began his career in Ireland, won a Big Ten title in Year 3, was booed off the field more than once (including in that championship season) and celebrated three New Year's 6 bowl victories. He has signed four contracts, the most recent in 2021, has hired 28 different assistant coaches and has won 88 games.

In his first 10 years leading the Nittany Lions, Franklin has produced five 10-win regular seasons, three Big Ten losing seasons and a 4-5 record in bowl games. How to rank all of this? Before heading into Year 11 of the Franklin era at Penn State, let's look back at his first 10 seasons.

No. 10: 2021

Record: 7-6, 4-5 Big Ten

Final AP ranking: Unranked

What happened? Though not Penn State's worst season, it certainly was the most disappointing. The Lions were unbeaten and ranked No. 4 when they took a two-score lead at No. 3 Iowa. Then quarterback Sean Clifford got hurt, Penn State lost to the Hawkeyes and the season derailed. The Lions lost six of their last eight game, including the nine-OT debacle against Illinois, and finished with a forgettable opt-out bowl performance against Arkansas. Then it led Big Ten in 2022 with eight NFL Draft picks. Sigh.

No. 9: 2020

Record: 4-5 (4-5 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: Unranked

What happened? Franklin's asterisk season was derailed from multiple directions. The Nittany Lions installed a new offense, with one-year coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, via Zoom during the early stages of COVID. They lost two key players (Micah Parsons' to an opt-out decision, Journey Brown to a career-ending medical condition) before the season and lost the opener to Indiana on a still-contested 2-point conversion in overtime (right call, new Penn State DC Tom Allen said). Then they lost tight end Pat Freiermuth to a season-ending injury and went 0-5 for the only time under Franklin. Still, this season wasn't as bitter as 2021.

No. 8: 2015

Record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: Unranked

What happened? Penn State began its first season fully post-sanctions ominously against Temple, whose defense sacked quarterback Christian Hackenberg 10 times in a 27-10 Owls victory that foreshadowed a rough year. Penn State lost three games by 17, 28 and 39 points, the last at Michigan State. The Nittany Lions then fell to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The Bulldogs since have won two College Football Playoff titles.

No. 7: 2014

Record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: Unranked

What happened? Franklin's debut season was fairly strong, considering the roster changes and continuing scholarship restrictions. The Lions were limited to 65 scholarships, though Franklin said he had 41 eligible scholarship players available for the Pinstripe Bowl. Franklin's first victory was a memorable last-second escape from Ireland's Croke Park against Central Florida, and the Lions took eventual national champ Ohio State to double overtime during the regular season. A 29-6 loss to Northwestern delivered a dose of reality after a 4-0 start.

No. 6: 2018

Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: 19

What happened? Penn State averaged 55.5 points per game in its first four wins, though the team needed overtime to beat Appalachian State in a terrifying opener. Then came the notorious 4th-and-5 decision in a one-point loss to Ohio State, followed by another cringe defeat vs. Michigan State. Michigan routed the Lions 42-7 in November, and Kentucky sealed the disappointing finish with a 27-24 win in the Citrus Bowl.

No. 5: 2023

Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: 13

What happened? Penn State was a preseason playoff pick among some national writers and certainly had a championship defense. The Nittany Lions led the country in total defense and allowed just 11.4 points per game before the Peach Bowl. But their offense had issues, notably in losses to Ohio State (1-for-16 on third down) and Michigan (74 passing yards). Franklin fired offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich the day after the Michigan loss, and the team suffered from "too many moving parts" in a Peach Bowl loss to Ole Miss.

No. 4: 2019

Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: 9

What happened? This was Franklin's highest-ranked team in terms of recruiting, featuring 50 players ranked as 4- or 5-star recruiting prospects. That often showed, too. Penn State opened 8-0 with ranked wins over Iowa and Michigan and a 21-point victory at Michigan State. Then it went to Minnesota, where the upstart Gophers won a frantic game 35-31. Ohio State ended the dream after that. Still, Penn State capped the 2019 season with a Cotton Bowl win over Memphis that featured MVP performances from linebacker Micah Parsons and running back Journey Brown. Which was the last Penn State game for both players.

No. 3: 2022

Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: 7

What happened? Quarterback Sean Clifford led a comeback win at Purdue in the opener to fast-track a fun start. But Penn State's nemeses, Michigan and Ohio State, subdued its playoff hopes once more. After the Ohio State loss, the Nittany Lions won their last four games by an average margin of 32.3 points and beat Utah in the Rose Bowl. Ultimately a really good season that should have been a playoff launch point for Penn State.

No. 2: 2017

Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: 8

What happened? This might be Franklin's best team and represent his biggest missed opportunity. With Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki back on offense, the Lions throttled early opponents, beat Iowa on a legendary walk-off play and reached No. 2 nationally at 7-0. Then, Ohio State's J.T. Barrett happened. The quarterback led the Buckeyes on a breathtaking fourth-quarter rally in a 39-38 victory at the Horseshoe, and wild weather the following week in East Lansing contributed to a 27-24 loss to Michigan State. Penn State beat Washington in the Fiesta Bowl in Barkley's farewell.

No. 1: 2016

Record: 11-3 (8-1 Big Ten)

Final AP ranking: 7

What happened? Fans booed Franklin off the field at halftime against Minnesota in Week 4, when the head coach's future was in question. Then McSorley found Irv Charles for an 80-yard touchdown pass, Barkley scored in overtime and the Nittany Lions rallied to beat the Gophers. That touched off a nine-game win streak, punctuated by the greatest victory of Franklin's career against No. 2 Ohio State. The Nittany Lions rallied from a 21-point deficit against Wisconsin to win their first Big Ten championship game, and Franklin was named the conference's coach of the year. Even the Rose Bowl, a 52-49 loss to USC, was epic. Though not the greatest season in Penn State football history, it certainly ranks among the most memorable.

More Penn State Football

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AllPennState is the place for Penn State news, opinion and perspective on the SI.com network. Publisher Mark Wogenrich has covered Penn State for more than 20 years, tracking three coaching staffs, three Big Ten titles and a catalog of great stories. Follow him on X (or Twitter) @MarkWogenrich.

Ten Years of James Franklin's Penn State Teams, From Worst to Best (2024)
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