The College Football Playoff committee snubbed Penn State, but a trip to the Rose Bowl is validation enough that the Nittany Lions are back on the national stage.
The James Franklin who campaigned on the field for a College Football Playoff berth seconds after winning the Big Ten championship Saturday night wasn’t the humbled man we’ve come to know.
The uncertainty of Penn State’s bowl future rested on the decision of a committee that never could understand the difficulty of what Franklin and his players accomplished simply by reaching Indianapolis.
And it took only three years.
“How long it was going to take us to get to one of these games, I did not have a number on it,” Franklin said. “Obviously, we walked into an interesting situation, probably one of the more interesting situations in college football history.”
Former coach Bill O’Brien had just bolted for the NFL when Franklin accepted the job in 2014, and two seasons remained on the NCAA’s postseason ban as part of the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Penn State program wasn’t quite in shambles, but it had certainly been flipped on its head.
Joe Paterno’s legacy had been tarnished before he passed away in 2012, and pained feelings resonated around Happy Valley. Franklin’s intentions of bringing the Nittany Lions back to national prominence seemed outlandish. One coach already had given up after only two years.
But a lot changed on Sept 8, 2014. The NCAA lifted the program’s bowl ban, effective immediately, and scholarships were restored for the 2015 season. A little over three years after Paterno’s sudden firing and just two days after Franklin coached his second game for the Nittany Lions, the program had life again.
Now, it’s fully resuscitated.
Franklin had every right to call out the College Football Playoff committee after Saturday’s night’s thrilling 38-31 come-from-behind victory over Wisconsin. Ohio State, which Penn State beat on Oct. 22, was a lock for the Playoff. Yet the Nittany Lions, fresh off winning their ninth consecutive game, needed the committee to come to its senses.
“No different than life,” Franklin said. “The script is not always going to go the way you want it to go. You take the hands you’re dealt and you play it to the best of your ability. That’s what our guys are learning.”
The snub became official on Sunday when the committed ranked the Nittany Lions No. 5 in its final standings. Penn State is heading to the Rose Bowl to face USC instead of the Peach Bowl to play No. 1 Alabama for a shot at the national championship.
But Franklin seemed to know the inevitable Saturday night. He stated the Nittany Lions’ case many times over, and once the campaign trail finally hit its end, Franklin began to soak in the moment.
After all, even he didn’t expect to be celebrating a Big Ten championship so soon.
“It’s been a challenging three years,” Franklin said. “It’s all the hard work and all the positive steps that we’ve been taking for three years. It didn’t always seem that way maybe to others, but we felt that way. It wasn’t easy. Those steps weren’t downhill. Those steps were up Mount Nittany.”
They haven’t reached the summit yet, but at least it’s now within sight.