Penn State head coach James Franklin has been busy silencing some of his critics this season by coaching the Nittany Lions to a surprising Big Ten East Division championship in the same division as Ohio State and Michigan. With Penn State preparing to take on Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game this weekend in Indianapolis, the media covering the Big Ten awarded Franklin with their Big Ten coach of the year award this week, validating just how good of a job he has done this season with a Penn State program that is playing the best it has in years.

It would seem very few people saw this one coming if you ever scanned Twitter, as Franklin has been a trendy punching bag since taking over the Penn State program. Sure, at the time Franklin was hired, it was seen as a terrific coaching hire by the university who had to replace Bill O’Brien after two seasons (O’Brien left to coach the Houston Texans at the end of the 2013 season). Franklin said all the right things and made it verbally clear his intent to restore Penn State’s place among the powers in the east. Doing so would not be easy, considering the circumstances he inherited. At the time, Penn State still had two more seasons left on a four-year postseason ban, but the job was supposed to get easier for Franklin as Penn State worked its way past the NCAA sanctions dropped on the program in the fallout of the sickening and disturbing Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked the football program, university, surrounding community and beyond in ways we never hope to see again. But Franklin, a self-described “Pennsylvania boy with a Penn State heart” was committed to the job no matter what and was ready to lay the groundwork for success.

That meant Franklin had to talk the talk at every given opportunity, and he did just that, caravanning across the state and into neighboring states, declaring every stop to be Penn State’s territory, including in Maryland and New Jersey (hello new Big Ten division rivals Maryland and Rutgers). Franklin was criticized for raising expectations too high for a program that would be expected to struggle past the sanction phase, even as the NCAA lifted the postseason ban two years early, and later lifted all sanction terms. For that reason, perhaps, Franklin made himself an easy target for critics and naysayers, who would throw Franklin’s name in the hot seat discussion at will.

A somewhat surprising 2014 season ended with a bowl victory but the losses along the way were at times brutal. The 2015 season saw Penn State once again losing to the top three teams in its division; Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. That left Franklin once again a punching bag of sorts for his critics.

The Turnaround Story of 2016

Franklin couldn’t even coach one game before some started outlining his demise. Vice Sports published a story explaining how a Week 2 matchup with in-state foe Pittsburgh would be “the beginning of the end for James Franklin.” The concept was fairly simple, in that a loss to an in-state rival like Pittsburgh a year after losing on the road at Temple would be tough for Franklin to battle back from. In fairness, that is and was a common belief for many. After all, you can’t technically “dominate the state” if you can’t win games in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The game got off to a sloppy start for Penn State, with Pitt cashing in on early opportunities and making mincemeat of Penn State’s defense in the first half. A lack of a good start on both sides of the football fueled the idea Franklin was inadequate in preparing Penn State for a big game. Despite a second-half rally that came close to giving Penn State a wild win, Franklin was roasted (mostly at halftime of the second game of the season).

Two weeks later Penn State would be ambushed by a much stronger and healthier and veteran Michigan team. It was another display of just how far Penn State had to go to be considered a contender in the Big Ten East and conference, as Michigan was rolling and already looking like a national title contender. The game was a disaster from the start for the Nittany Lions with poor special teams play leading to a lopsided game of field position and a defense playing without six starters just getting run over by the much stronger Wolverines. At 2-2 at the end of September, some considered Penn State dead in their tracks and Franklin was the main reason why. As a result, Franklin once again took some shots.

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Previously contributed to Host of the Locked On Nittany Lions Podcast. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.