John Beale/Associated Press
James Franklin seems like a natural fit for Penn State's program.
Two years ago, Bill O’Brien walked into a seemingly impossible situation. You never want to be “the man who replaces the man,” and succeeding college coaching icon Joe Paterno, O’Brien was most certainly that.
Add in the fact that Paterno was forced out in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal and O’Brien’s job got exponentially harder. Throw in the historic NCAA sanctions imposed in July 2012 (40 scholarships over four years, $60 million in fines, a four-year bowl ban) and, well, you get the idea.
O’Brien succeeded despite the odds, compiling a 15-9 record with a team that had no hope of reaching postseason play.
The former NFL assistant received significant pro interest, returning to the NFL in January as the Houston Texans’ new head coach.
Enter someone else who also found success in an impossible situation: James Franklin.
Before Franklin took over in 2011, Vanderbilt had never reached a bowl game in consecutive seasons. Franklin took the Commodores to bowls in each of his three seasons, winning nine games in 2012 and 2013 and finishing both seasons with bowl wins.
The Pennsylvania native was a natural candidate for Penn State, and O’Brien left him an improving picture. The NCAA announced last fall that it will walk back its scholarship reductions, allowing the Nittany Lions to compete with 75 scholarship players this fall, 80 in 2015 and a full 85 in 2016.
That should help Penn State compete, and O’Brien left talent behind.
Big 10 Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg returns for his sophomore season as the Nittany Lions’ quarterback after a solid freshman season (2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns against 10 interceptions).
Plus, the three-headed backfield of Zach Zwinak, Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton will provide solid ground support.
A replacement must be found for All-America receiver Allen Robinson, who took his 1,432 receiving yards to the NFL (Geno Lewis is the top candidate entering spring). Depth at defensive end is an issue, and there are concerns at safety, but plenty of solid pieces remain in place on defense.
Penn State will begin the season in Ireland against Central Florida, but the Knights will be breaking in a new quarterback to replace NFL-bound Blake Bortles. On the Big 10 slate, Penn State travels to Michigan but hosts Ohio State and Michigan State, avoiding Iowa and Wisconsin in the league rotation.
There’s reason to believe the Nittany Lions could improve from 2013 if Hackenberg develops and the defense finds answers.
2014 Prediction: 9-3