Penn State's James Franklin unsure if 2020 Big Ten football season was worth sacrifices

PARTH UPADHYAYA
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin watches from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Over the past few months, Penn State head coach James Franklin has often talked about the sacrifices that he, the rest of his staff and his players have had to make in order to play every week. With COVID-19 protocols, many coaches and players haven't been able to see their families or friends — or really have lives outside of football.

Now, with only two games left in the Nittany Lions' regular season, Franklin was asked on Tuesday afternoon if all the hurdles his program has had to jump over have been worth it to compete this season. The seventh-year head coach paused before answering.

"That's a good question," Franklin told reporters on a Zoom conference call. "I guess right now, in the heat of it all, it's hard to answer that. Because to me, I'm not just looking at it from football — I'm looking at the whole picture."

Franklin added that when the Big Ten made the decision to play, "it was hard to predict how this was gonna play out." And for now, he's more focused on what's right in front of him and his team than what's already happened.

Since opening their season with a program-worst 0-5 start, the Nittany Lions have won back-to-back games on the road against Michigan and Rutgers. They hope to carry that momentum into this week's home matchup against Michigan State.

The Spartans — coming off a 40-point blowout loss to Ohio State — are 2-4.

But Franklin knows his group can't overlook any opponent if it wants to keep building on its recent success and end the year on a high note.

An abnormal Senior Day: Penn State will honor 12 seniors on Saturday afternoon for what will potentially be their last game at Beaver Stadium.

The list of players who will be recognized includes: redshirt junior tight end Trevor Baker, redshirt junior kicker Carson Landis, senior safety Jaquan Brisker, senior cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, senior safety Lamont Wade, redshirt senior offensive lineman Will Fries, redshirt senior receiver Isaac Lutz, redshirt senior offensive lineman Michal Menet, redshirt senior defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, redshirt senior defensive end Shane Simmons, redshirt senior defensive end Shaka Toney and redshirt senior receiver Benjamin Wilson.

"Senior Day is something that has always meant a lot to me and the parents and our players," Franklin said. "And it will be different. We can't have the parents on the field like we normally do."

On Senior Day in normal seasons, fans arrive early to show their appreciation for the Nittany Lions' seniors during pregame festivities. Seniors are announced one at a time to step onto the field and be greeted by their parents. Though parents will have to remain in the stands on Saturday, seniors will still be recognized on the field before kickoff against Michigan State, Franklin said.

"It's really important to me that (with) these seniors, we do everything we possibly can — starting with today's practice — to send them out the right way," Franklin said. "Again, you look back at the entire season. Obviously, there's a lot of things and experiences that would've liked to have gone differently — some that were in our control and some that were not."

Could some seniors return? With the NCAA not counting this season as a year of used eligibility for athletes, some of Penn State's seniors could return for the 2021 season.

Franklin said even in normal years, conversations about players' futures are saved until the end of the season. So, right now, he doesn't know which — if any — of his seniors will come back next season.

"There's a lot of conversations that we always have at the end of seasons with young men and their families about their futures," Franklin said. "And obviously, this year, a lot of the things that are going on and some of the decisions that the NCAA made and that the Big Ten made make those conversations a little bit different. And obviously, this season has had an impact on that, as well."

Though he doesn't want to rush his players in the decision-making process, Franklin said he's encouraged his assistant coaches to begin those conversations with players during Thursday and Friday practices and meetings.

"There's some conversations that are gonna be needed to have ... not just about their futures, but just in general," Franklin said. "Making sure we're talking to our guys enough during a time where those conversations are probably more valuable than ever."

Interest in potential bowl berth: Another way in which the rules in college football this season are different is with bowl eligibility requirements. The NCAA waived its bowl eligibility requirements in October because of the reduced number of games being played due to the coronavirus.

Now, teams don't have to have a .500 record to qualify for a bowl game.

If Penn State wins its next two games to finish the regular season with a 4-5 record, the Nittany Lions could make a case to punch their ticket to a bowl.

But Franklin said the possibility of accepting or declining a potential bowl bid is something that he hasn't even discussed with his team yet.

"We haven't talked about anything else, because bowl games keep getting canceled," Franklin said. "Every other day you see bowl games getting canceled. There's no bowl requirements in terms of the number of wins this year. So it's hard to say. It's hard to predict — it's hard to know."

Franklin added — in his typical fashion — that his team is just concerned about its next task and not looking too far ahead into the future.

"For us, we're just trying to control the things that we do know right now," Franklin said. "Which is today. Which is Michigan State on Saturday, and then knowing that there's gonna be a game after that. But to be honest with you, we don't even know that. It hasn't even been clearly defined from the Big Ten what that last week is going to look like."