STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (WHTM) — Three years ago this week, Penn State James Franklin made an iconic statement about becoming an elite team in college football after the loss to Ohio State 27-26 in 2018.
“We’re gong to break through and be an elite program by doing all the little things,” Franklin said. “We’re a great program. We lost to an elite program. And we’re that close.”
So 34 games (24-10 record), two offensive coordinators, and a new starting quarterback later, just how close is Penn State to being an elite team?
Sure, the Nittany Lions are ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 Poll, their highest ranking since 2017. But is that enough to consider this team among the elite? Or a true contender for the College Football Playoff and eventual CFP National Championship game?
As Penn State sits at 4-0 starting down Indiana in Beaver Stadium this weekend and No. 5 Iowa on the road on Oct. 9th, now would be a really good time for Penn State to consider themselves elite.
And their third-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford already came out calling Penn State the best team in the country after the 38-17 win over Villanova.
So this week, in his weekly availability, abc27’s Allie Berube (me writing this article) asked James Franklin where the team is on its journey to coming an elite program in college football.
Question: In the past you’ve talked about making the leap from being a great team to an elite team in college football. Where do you think you are on that journey? And do you agree with [Sean] that this team has the potential to be the best in the country?
Answer: “I appreciate Sean’s confidence, and I appreciate Sean’s belief in his teammates and program and the statement [that he believes this is the best team in the country]. But as you guys know, and I know you guys hate it because it seems boring, but I just want to beat Indiana. I think if we approach it like that week in and week out, it’ll give us the best chance to reach our potential, whatever that may be.
“So, I appreciate Sean and his confidence and his belief in his teammates and our program and the type of support that we’ve gotten from the commmunity and the buzz and excitement that we feel in Happy Valley right now. But what I’d prefer is that everybody pour their energy into Indiana and our players preparing like they’ve’ never prepared before for a game and our fans packing Beaver Stadium and making Saturday night one of the toughest environments in all of college football.
“And then Saturday night we can have another discussion about where we sit in the football hierarchy, and then I’ll probably give you another boring answer. But I just want to find a way to beat Indiana.”
The history of the great to elite statement
On September 29, 2018, Penn State lost to Ohio State 27-26 in the annual White Out game on a particularly difficult to stomach late-game performance. The Nittany Lions gave up a 12-point fourth quarter lead to Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes. The Penn State offense failed to convert a fourth-and-5 on a Miles Sanders handoff.
After the game, Franklin explained the progression he wanted to see from his team before Penn State would be considered elite.
“The realty is [that] we’ve gone from an average football team, to a good football team, to a great football team. But we’re not an elite team yet,” Franklin said. “The work that it’s going to take to get to an elite program is going to be just as hard as the ground and the distance that we’ve already traveled to get there.”
Franklin is 1-6 against Ohio State during his tenure as Penn State’s head coach. The lone win came in 2016, where Penn State won 24-21 enroute to the Big Ten Championship.
So it’s no surprise that Franklin was emotional back in 2018 after the loss to Ohio State by one point, leading to his answer about wanting to become an elite team.
How far away are the Nittany Lions from being elite?
So clearly, Franklin didn’t answer the question. But I can’t say I really expected him to when I asked. Sometimes, as a reporter, you just want to see if you can shake something loose.
After Penn State beat Villanova by three scores on Saturday, I asked Franklin about the confidence level of his team and if he wanted them to keep the underdog mentality.
“I think they’re getting patted on the back,” Franklin said of his players. “I think they are reading articles, and we’ll make sure that there’s no leftovers of that come Sunday. I’ll make sure that we clear all those things out of the fridge.”
Coach James Franklin’s cleaning out the fridge this week.— Allie Berube (@allieberube) September 25, 2021
“I think they’re getting patted on the back, they’re reading articles & we’ll make sure there’s no leftovers of that come Sunday.”
Penn State to refocus before Indiana on Oct. 2.
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Franklin talked about not liking the effort level of his team and the mentality during the Wednesday practice leading into the week. He expressed wanting to nip that in the bud and removing complacency from the mindset. So I went on to ask the players how they felt about the confidence level of the team.
Most players answered with the “one day at a time” adage, or expressed support for the upcoming tough practice promised by Franklin for Sunday. One glaring exception, was Clifford when I asked him if he wants to keep an underdog mentality or if he liked the confidence.
CONFIDENCE or COMPLACENCY?— Allie Berube (@allieberube) September 25, 2021
Penn State QB Sean Clifford says Penn State is the best team in the country. Knows the confidence this team has in themselves.
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“This time last year we were 0-5, sitting in the locker room sad, like we’re 4-0 [this year],” Clifford begins. “We’re one of if not, I still think, we’re the best team in the country. That’s our mentality right now.”
“We’re going to keep the underdog mentality and all that,” Clifford continues. “You guys talk about it, but we know the confidence we have in the room and on the team so it’s all about getting better every single day.
Clifford also references that now-infamous Wednesday practice.
“Days like Wednesday can’t happen again,” Clifford said. “We got to make sure we are maximizing all the potential we have every single day.”
If Penn State can pull together some more wins over ranked Iowa on Oct. 9 and No. 11 Ohio State (both on the road), it will be almost undeniable this team is one of the best in the country.
This week, Penn State hosts Indiana in Beaver Stadium. Kickoff is 7:30 and will be broadcast live on abc27.