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HEISER: Gap between PSU, Big Ten powers growing bigger

Steve Heiser
505-5446/@ydsports
  • Penn State is an 18 1/2-point underdog vs. Michigan on Saturday.
  • James Franklin is 0-6 vs. Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
  • Penn State is 6-10 vs. Big Ten foes since James Franklin took over before the 2014 season.

It's just a number, but it speaks volumes about the state of the Penn State football program.

Saturday, the Nittany Lions will invade the Big House in Ann Arbor to take on the Michigan Wolverines.

Penn State head football coach James Franklin has introduced a drill he calls the “chaos period” that forces his first-team players to open practice with the same intensity expected in a game. The only difference, he said, is that in practice they aren’t fully tackling. Franklin hopes the drill will help solve PSU's problems with slow starts this season.

PSU is a whopping 18 1/2-point underdog.

Who would have thought that a generation ago when PSU joined the Big Ten?

At the time, it was generally thought that Penn State would join Michigan and Ohio State as the dominant superpowers in the league.

For a while, it  pretty much worked out that way.

From their first year in the Big Ten in 1993, through the 1999 season, the Lions compiled a conference record of 41-15, with a winning league record in each of those seasons. That included perfect 8-0 mark in 1994, when the Lions cruised to the outright league championship.

Since that time, however, PSU's Big Ten success has been spotty at best, producing just seven winning league records in 16 seasons. That did include Big Ten co-championships in 2005 and 2008.

Over the last three seasons, PSU has not produced a single winning season in the Big Ten, going 10-14 over that span.

Now the Lions are about to embark on another Big Ten season, and no one is touting them as a Big Ten superpower anymore.

In fact, the gap between Penn State and the league's dominant programs (Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State) seems to be widening with each passing season.

There are extenuating circumstances, to be sure. Namely the Jerry Sandusky scandal and the NCAA sanctions that followed. The NCAA penalties left the program practically decimated.

The penalties, however, have since been lifted, and the team's scholarships have been restored. Soon, there will be no more excuses.

Still, the PSU program appears to be years away from challenging the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Spartans in the stacked Big Ten East Division.

All three of those programs are led by coaches who are generally ranked among the best in the nation in Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh and Mark Dantonio.

At the moment, PSU head coach James Franklin does not appear capable of challenging that power trio anytime soon. He's 0-6 against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State thus far in his PSU career, and it's hard to imagine any scenario where he's not 0-9 at the end of this season.

No. 2 Ohio State, No.4 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State each boast 3-0 records, and each is ranked among the top eight teams in the nation. Right now, no one is confusing the Lions with a Top 25 program.

It's difficult to envision the Lions seriously competing for the division crown this year or next. If the Lions continue to be a Big Ten afterthought, Franklin's job will be in serious jeopardy by the end of the 2017 season.

That might not be entirely fair. After all, just about any coach in America would struggle to beat Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State right now. Those programs are just that good.

But Franklin was hired to restore the roar at Penn State and make the Lions nationally relevant again. The 100,000 fans that file into Beaver Stadium expect nothing less. The same can be said for the school administration and trustees.

COLLINS: Penn State displays new offensive mindset

Continued mediocrity is simply not an option.

Unfortunately for Franklin, there appears to be nothing but mediocrity looming in PSU's future. After two-plus seasons, he has an overall PSU record 16-13 and is just 6-10 vs. Big Ten foes, and there are few signs of real progress.

Rather than challenging Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, the Lions are battling just to stay ahead of struggling regional rivals such as Maryland and Rutgers.

That's not what the PSU brass expected when they opened their wallets 2 1/2 years ago to make Franklin one of the highest-paid coaches in the nation at $4.25 million per season.

In contrast, Harbaugh took over a Michigan program in 2015 that was coming off a combined record of 12-13 over the previous two seasons. He immediately produced a 10-win season in 2015 and currently has the Wolverines in the top five.

Now, his Michigan team is an 18 1/2-point favorite over Penn State.

It's just a number, yes, but it's a very telling number.

Steve Heiser is sports editor for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.