What It Will Take for James Franklin to Make Penn State a National Contender

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIJanuary 22, 2014

STATE COLLEGE, PA - JANUARY 11:  James Franklin, head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions poses for a photo between Dave Joyner, Director of Athletics of The Pennsylvania State University (Left) and Rodney Erickson, President of The Pennsylvania State University on January 11, 2014 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

If there's any question as to whether James Franklin can eventually make the Penn State Nittany Lions a national-title contender, look no further than Columbus, Ohio for the answer.

After years of being dominated in the national championship race by the Southeastern Conference, after years of seeing touted Midwest recruits head south, Ohio State caved and hired an SEC coach—Urban Meyer. Now, PSU has done the same, pulling Franklin from Vanderbilt.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Immediately after the hiring of Meyer, the Buckeyes were viewed right alongside their southern counterparts as a legitimate national title threat. Now, as Franklin has brought his SEC pedigree to a Big Ten program with tradition and resources similar to that of OSU, there's no reason why he can't put his program right up with Meyer's.

Of course, it will be a tougher climb for Franklin. 

Ohio State had gone to eight BCS bowls in the final nine years under Meyer's predecessor, Jim Tressel, and was much closer to national contention than Penn State currently is.

Also, Meyer came to Columbus already wearing two national title rings from his time at Florida. Ohio State was Meyer's fourth head coaching job, while PSU is just Franklin's second. In his lone job, Franklin did an excellent job at keeping Vandy competitive in the SEC, going 24-15 with three bowl berths in three seasons.

That certainly doesn't mean he can't take the next step in Happy Valley, just as Meyer did in Gainesville.

Franklin's first step, bringing in national-title-caliber recruits, has been the source of controversy. As Franklin left Vandy for PSU, he brought several committed recruits with him.

Commodores fans and rivals alike took exception to Franklin's incessant flipping, but they're all missing the point.

At the basic level of the issue, Franklin has to watch out for No. 1. It's no longer his job to make sure Vanderbilt is successful—he is paid to win at Penn State.

Additionally, the idea of the commitment is really subjective. Recruits commit to much more than just a school. They commit to an entire coaching staff, an idea for the future, a road to the NFL, a happy parent at home and much more.

And in most cases, the process is centered around the relationship that recruits and their families build with coaches over a long process, as Franklin told The Jim Rome Show:

I’d say it’s either 50/50 or even 60/40 in a lot of cases with the coach. I think a lot of kids it may be about the school, but if they don’t have a connection with the coach they’re not going to go there.

I understand people’s concern and people’s frustration and I can understand. But recruiting is about relationships, it always has been and always will be...We’ve broken bread with their families. We’ve built relationships with the high school coaches, the parents, and there’s a trust factor there and when you’re comparing a lot of really good schools.

It's much more difficult to build a relationship and establish a trust factor with a bunch of brick buildings, even on a campus as beautiful as Vanderbilt.

Franklin knows how to build relationships and attract recruits, as displayed by the number of recruits who followed him to his new job—and that recruiting ability will be a major factor in his success at the new job.

He'll also be moving between two similar programs, in that both boast high-value academic experiences as part of their recruiting pitches.

But now, it'll be a bit easier to make the rest of the pitch. Penn State has a gargantuan fanbase, one of the best venues in college football and a tradition of winning, even despite the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

That will be his biggest hurdle, though the sanctions have already been reduced, with the possibility of further reductions coming next year. Mark Dent of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that, if PSU keeps its nose clean, the punishment could be reduced after September's progress report.

Even if he has to wait for scholarship and postseason restrictions to taper off, Franklin will be ready in time bring Penn State back to the top of the Big Ten, which was ruled by Meyer's Buckeyes and Mark Dantonio's Michigan State Spartans last year. 

The sooner, the better for the Big Ten, which had just two BCS-caliber teams last year: MSU and OSU. Franklin not only has the ability to build the Nittany Lions to that level, but he has the personality to pull the spotlight away from Meyer and Dantonio.

The Big Ten hasn't won a national title since 2002, so the final roadblock will be going from a contender to a champion. That step will take a perfect storm of talent, fortune and circumstance, but Dantonio and Meyer have proven that the Big Ten isn't as far off as some might think.

Franklin can bring Penn State into that conversation.