Penn State's James Franklin talks about Outback Bowl, D-coordinator, possible opt-outs

CRAIG MEYER
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State head football coach James Franklin.

James Franklin had a busy Sunday.

The Penn State football coach led a morning practice, working to prepare his team for whatever bowl game awaited them. He and three members of his coaching staff went on the road for home visits with three recruits. His search for a new defensive coordinator is ongoing after Brent Pry left earlier in the week to become the new head coach at Virginia Tech. He even found a few hours to spend with his family.

Though he admittedly didn't have much to do with the selection process, the Nittany Lions also found out Sunday which bowl game they will be playing in and who they'll be facing — Arkansas in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 1.

It will mark the first meeting between the Nittany Lions and Razorbacks, which are seventh and 23rd, respectively, in all-time wins in Football Bowl Subdivision ( FBS) history.

The game will kick off at noon and air on ESPN2.

Following Pry's departure, Franklin said his search for a new coordinator is ongoing and that no decision has been made on an interim coordinator for the bowl game.

"Obviously, the person that's going to come in is going to be able to put their stamp on it, but from a structure standpoint, we'll be similar," Franklin said.

No word on possible players opting out: He added that nothing has been finalized as it relates to player decisions on whether or not to opt out of the bowl game, as has become increasingly common in college football during the past five years. Several Nittany Lions players are projected early-round NFL draft picks who may want to not risk injury in what is largely a meaningless exhibition.

"I don't think that's my place, but there are obviously ongoing conversations with all the guys about their futures and what it looks like and where we're going and how we're doing it and who will be involved in that process," Franklin said.

Hoping to end on high note: If nothing else, the bowl will be an opportunity for Penn State to end the season on a high note after it spent much of the past two months going from bona fide College Football Playoff contender to a fourth-place finish in the seven-team Big Ten east division.

The Nittany Lions finished the regular season 7-5, a mark that only provides so much of a window into what a roller coaster the past three months have been. They started the season 5-0, earning victories against two ranked teams (Wisconsin and Auburn) and climbing up to No. 4 in the Associated Press poll. From there, beginning with a 23-20 loss at then-No. 3 Iowa on Oct. 9, Penn State lost five of its next seven games. Four of those losses came to teams that were ranked in the top 15 of the polls at the time and those struggles, at least at the start of the skid, were compounded by an injury to quarterback Sean Clifford.

Bowl positives: This bowl game will provide several positives, at least as Franklin sees it. The four Florida natives on the roster will get a rare game close to home. Franklin, his team, his coaching staff and their families will briefly get to escape the gray skies and cold temperatures of a central Pennsylvania winter for a few days. Then, of course, there are the extra weeks of practices for which coaches long, a time in which the skills of veterans are sharpened and younger players get some much-desired extra snaps.

"It's very similar to what you would do in spring ball and very similar to what you would do during training camp."

It's the 51st bowl appearance in program history. Penn State has 30 victories in those games, ranking it fourth in FBS history, behind only Alabama, USC and Georgia. Under Franklin, the Nittany Lions are 3-3 in bowl games. Of those six appearances, three came in New Year's Six bowls — a loss in the Rose Bowl in 2017, a win in the Fiesta Bowl in 2018 and a victory in the Cotton Bowl in 2019.

Next month's game will mark Penn State's fifth appearance in the Outback Bowl, the most recent of which came in 2011, when it lost to Florida, 37-24, in what would be the program's final bowl game ever under coach Joe Paterno.

The Razorbacks: This time around, it will meet Arkansas, which finished the regular season 8-4 overall and 4-4 in the SEC. The Razorbacks, who rose as high as No. 8 in the AP poll in the first month of the season, were 21st in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Under second-year coach Sam Pittman, the Razorbacks sport the No. 13 rushing offense in FBS, averaging 217.3 rushing yards per game and 4.92 yards per carry. The Nittany Lions are 24-23 all-time against current SEC programs.

"I've got a ton of respect for what Sam has been able to do in a short period of time," Franklin said. "I know he has done a really good job of embracing what Arkansas is and what Arkansas stands for. It seems like the community and the university have done the same thing with him. He's brought a hard-nosed, tough, positive energy. He's doing some really nice things."