James Franklin has an Ohio State problem.
Of course, so does every other football program in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes have been just that dominant in recent seasons.
Franklin’s Ohio State problem, however, became more acute in recent weeks on the recruiting trail.
First, in late May, Franklin lost the No. 1 recruit in the state when Southern Columbia’s Julian Fleming picked the Buckeyes over the Lions. A few months back, PSU was considered the favorite to land the nation’s No. 1 wideout recruit.
No matter how you slice it, losing the top recruit from you own backyard must be considered a major defeat, especially for a coach who promised to dominate the state in recruiting upon his arrival in Happy Valley.
Then on Sunday, the Lions’ first verbal commitment in its 2020 recruiting class, four-star offensive lineman Grant Toutant, dropped the Lions in favor of the Buckeyes.
Obviously, there is no guarantee that either player will develop into All-Americans. Recruiting can be more art than science. There is no denying, however, that recruiting remains the life blood of any top program. There’s a reason the top-ranked recruiting classes typically lead to top-ranked teams a few years later.
No top program can consistently lose pivotal recruiting battles to a conference rival and expect to win championships. It just doesn't happen.
Unfortunately for Franklin, those were just two more setbacks in a litany of losses to Ohio State.
New Day dawns: Even worse, Franklin didn’t lose those recruits to coaching legend Urban Meyer, but to Ryan Day, a head-coaching novice. Day served as Ohio State’s interim head coach for three games last season when Meyer was on administrative leave. That is Day’s only head-coaching experience.
When Meyer resigned after the 2019 season under a cloud of controversy, it was viewed by many as an opportunity for other Big Ten programs, including PSU, to close the gap on the Buckeyes, both in recruiting and on the field.
How the Buckeyes perform on the field under Day has yet to be determined. When it comes to recruiting, however, Day is more than holding his own, especially in the head-to-head showdowns with Franklin. At the moment, Ohio State has the No. 1 recruiting class in the Big Ten, while PSU is listed No. 2.
Closing the gap: There is no doubt that Franklin has closed the gap on Ohio State in recent seasons. The Lions stunned Ohio State in 2016, storming back for a pulsating 24-21 victory in front of frenzied Whiteout crowd at Beaver Stadium. That sparked the Lions to the program’s first and only victory in the Big Ten championship game.
The blue-and-white faithful were hopeful that win was a sign of great things to come for PSU.
Unfortunately, that victory was followed by a pair of devastating one-point losses to OSU in 2017 (39-38) and in 2018 (27-26). In each of those losses, Franklin’s team blew double-digit, fourth-quarter leads. On each occasion, Franklin’s fourth-quarter sideline decisions came under heavy criticism.
To many, during crunch time, it seemed like Franklin couldn’t match up with Meyer.
Of course, that’s not a damning statement. Meyer, under any win-loss metric, is one of the top college football coaches in history. His record, including his 83-9 mark in seven seasons at Ohio State, is proof of that.
Meyer’s record against Penn State was 6-1, including a 4-1 mark since Franklin arrived in 2014. Now, Franklin deserves to get a pass on his first two years, when the Nittany Lions were operating under severe NCAA sanctions in the wake of the Sandusky scandal.
Going toe-to-toe with Buckeyes: Since that time, Franklin has vastly improved the PSU talent level and the Lions have gone toe-to-toe with Ohio State on the field, only to come up short in the past two match-ups.
There is little doubt that Franklin’s ultimate goal for the Nittany Lions is to become the premier program in the Big Ten and a consistent national title contender.
The road to that goal runs directly through Columbus, Ohio.
Thus far, the Buckeyes have become a roadblock that the Lions have been unable to consistently hurdle.
Meyer’s departure, and the hiring of an inexperienced head coach, gave hope to many in Nittany Nation that the road ahead may finally be clear.
PSU’s recent recruiting setbacks, however, indicate that OSU’s new head coach will be a formidable foe.
That means that James Franklin still has an Ohio State problem.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.