Why Penn State-Pitt is the most important game of James Franklin’s career

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Penn State coach James Franklin isn’t on the hot seat — yet.

But Franklin is in a critical third year of his tenure as the Nittany Lions’ head coach, and public sentiment toward him and his regime could quickly turn if progress isn’t shown.

Penn State has gone 6-6 and 7-5 in Franklin’s first two regular seasons, and another similar season could put him in a hole he probably won’t be able to escape next year.

The political aspects of college football are drastically underrepresented. The notion that the wins and losses are the only things that matter is misguided. That might be in the case in the NFL, where there is only one person a coach needs to appease — the owner — but not in college football, where there are hundreds of thousands of boosters (anyone who buys a ticket qualifies) who own the team, and a few dozen of them actually have true influence over the athletic department. It doesn’t matter if you’re winning if they don’t like you or the direction of the team.

Look at what happened to Bo Pelini at Nebraska, or Mark Richt at Georgia, or the saga with Les Miles at LSU last year. Win all you want — if you don’t meet the expectations, fair or not, of the boosters, you’re going to find yourself looking for a new job.

Some realism has shown up in Happy Valley, it seems, but expectations remain high for the once dominant program. Franklin’s seat might not be burning, but his footing is uneasy. He needs to show more than what’s been shown, and soon.

One of the easiest ways to lose the trust of the money men who own the team is to lose to a rival, particularly an in-state one that is historically viewed as the little brother — that’s a taste that’s hard to chase.

That makes Saturday’s game at Pitt the most important game Franklin has coached at Penn State.

Pitt has an upward trajectory. Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers’ second-year head coach, is respected around college football for his defensive genius, and he’s clearly following his former boss Mark Dantonio’s gameplan in building the Pitt program. His team boasts one of the best 1-2 punches in the nation at running back, Qadree Ollison and James Conner, and one of the best offensive lines in the nation. That, and the defense is nasty: sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead is one of the most spellbinding players in college football, and the Panthers boast an experienced defensive line that registered 59 tackles for loss against FBS winning teams last season (15th nationally).

Right now, Pitt is what Penn State wants to be — a program that’s good and clearly getting better.

Penn State might match that status this season, but it’ll need to prove it’s on the up. As of now, the Nittany Lions have the talent and few results. Furthermore, they take a defense that has depth issues at all three levels, and a new offense being run by a first-time starter in Trace McSorley, who looked particularly overconfident in his arm in Penn State’s win over Kent State, to Pitt. Right now, the only reliable aspect of this Nittany Lions team is running back Saquon Barkley, the freshman All-American.

So it should come as no surprise that the people who get paid to be correct about these sort of things in Vegas have Pitt as a touchdown favorite Saturday, despite the Panthers’ bland effort against Villanova (86 rushing yards, 261 yards of total offense) in a 28-7 win.

There’s no way being an underdog to Pitt syncs with the Penn State boosters’ expectations for the contest.

Should Penn State lose Saturday, there’s a good chance that the Nittany Lions will head into October with a 2-2 record, as they have to play at Michigan Week 4. The threat of 1-3 loomed larger before Temple — Penn State’s Week 3 opponent — lost to Army.

From there, Penn State will be fighting to get over that .500 mark. Games against Ohio State and Michigan State loom after the bye, as well as contests against Iowa and a sneaky upset special at Indiana.

A win over Pitt carries the weight of a rivalry and the possibility of being a springboard to a breakout season for the team. A loss could make the dogs start barking in State College. No matter which way it goes, this is the linchpin game of Franklin’s tenure.