Penn State Has A Chance To Beat A Ranked Opponent For The First Time Under James Franklin
The first iteration of the College Football Playoff selection committee’s rankings were released Tuesday night, kickstarting a firestorm of speculation, criticism, and everything else such a list entails. There were a number of surprises, some foregone conclusions, and plenty of mounting suspense as the national playoff push ensues. However, Tuesday’s reveal created a storyline entirely unique to Penn State, presenting an opportunity that’s yet to be accomplished by the school’s current regime — defeat a ranked opponent during the Franklin era.
I know what you’re thinking, “hasn’t he had enough opportunities in a season and a half?” The answer is yes, and quite frankly this storyline would’ve been a thing of the past had it not been for a few particularly oblivious officials in one of the most controversial games of the year. The fact of the matter is that there’s never been a better matchup for the Lions than the one they face this weekend in Evanston, where they’ll face newly-minted No. 21 Northwestern.
In a somewhat shocking decision, the selection committee opted to slot the Wildcats — who suffered consecutive blowouts to Michigan and Iowa — at No. 21, but left 7-2 Wisconsin — whose only losses come against perennial powerhouse Alabama and Iowa, who won by four points — out of the Top 25 altogether. Regardless, there’s never been a better time for Franklin to secure his first victory over a ranked opponent as Penn State’s head coach, and that’s not a knock against the Wildcats.
Dating back to 2014 when Franklin took over, Penn State has faced a ranked opponent only three times: the first against No. 13 Ohio State in 2014, the second against No. 10 Michigan State during the 2014 regular season finale, and the third on the road against the top-ranked Buckeyes. All of these — save for the 31-24 heartbreaker Penn State suffered against Ohio State the first time around — were unmitigated blowouts, but Saturday’s meeting could prove to result in a much different ending.
Northwestern can certainly run the football, led by sophomore sensation Justin Jackson’s 731 yards and 4.2 yards per attempt, but the Wildcats do struggle through the air and putting points on the board — a possible correlation seeing as quarterback Clayton Thorson’s accounted for the team’s six passing touchdowns in 2015. Though Thorson can scramble, if Penn State can contain him through the air, then the contest might play in the Lions’ favor. Penn State’s typically stout front seven will be challenged, but the duo of Thorson and Jackson will be nothing like the threat J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott posed a few weeks ago in Columbus.
This milestone carries great significance not only for James Franklin’s coaching resume, but also for Penn State’s faint Big Ten hopes. The team’s prior two losses might put it at a slight disadvantage, but there’s still plenty of football left to be played. If the various hands dealt throughout the upper half of the Big Ten East are played in Penn State’s favor, then a title run remains within the realm of possibility.
The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been, adding even more fuel to Saturday’s highly-anticipated meeting.