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Ron Cook: Penn State's James Franklin might be coaching his way out of town

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Six weeks ago, when their team was 5-0 and No. 4 in the country, many Penn Staters feared they were going to lose James Franklin to USC.

Now, after four losses in the past five games in a season that has careened out of control, many Penn State fans are fearful they will be stuck with Franklin because no other program wants him.

How quickly things change.

Last season was rough for Franklin. Penn State started the COVID year with five consecutive losses, the first coming against Indiana when he showed horrible clock management at the end of the game. That set the tone for the program's first losing season since 2004 despite wins in the final four games.

This season has been brutal for Franklin. He has to take nearly all of the blame for the collapse for a couple of reasons.

One, Franklin did nothing to shoot down the rumors he might leave for USC or even LSU. I get it that coaches don't want to close the door on any job, even if they plan to use the outside interest only to get more money from their current program. But it's hard to believe the talk about his potential exit wasn't a distraction for the team. Franklin could have shut it down in the same leave-no-doubts way Mike Tomlin did when asked about a potential move to the college game: "Never say never, but never."

And two, Franklin was largely responsible for all of the losses.

— Penn State took a 17-3 lead late in the second quarter on the road at No. 3 Iowa. It lost, 23-20, because Franklin didn't have a backup quarterback ready after starter Sean Clifford was injured. It couldn't even get off a snap without a false-start penalty.

— Penn State lost at home to Illinois, 20-18, in nine overtimes. Franklin couldn't figure out a way to stop Illinois from rushing for 357 yards and a 5.3 yards-per-carry average on a day it passed for just 38 yards.

— Penn State lost at Ohio State, 33-24, because, well, Ohio State has better players. Who has to take blame for that? Franklin might be a terrific recruiter, but he can't figure out a way to beat the Buckeyes. He is 1-7 against them.

— Penn State lost at home Saturday to Michigan, 21-17, blowing a late 17-14 lead on a 47-yard catch-and-run touchdown by tight end Erick All. Franklin's decision to go for a fake field goal that failed late in the first quarter on 4th-and-goal from the Michigan 2 when Penn State led 3-0 was a big part of the defeat.

The one constant in Penn State's suddenly lost season is its inability to run the football. It averages just 106.7 rushing yards per game to rank 119th in the country.

What in the name of John Cappelletti?

The Illinois loss was the worst of Penn State's four defeats, but the reaction by Franklin and many Penn State fans to the defeat at Ohio State was nearly as bad. They practically hurt themselves with their pats on the back for keeping the game close. Has the Penn State program really fallen that far? That they celebrate keeping a game against Ohio State closer than expected? What happened to Franklin's message from his rant a few years ago about wanting to become an "elite" team?

It's not just Ohio State that beats Franklin far too often. He also has a losing record against Big Ten East rivals Michigan (3-5) and Michigan State (3-4). Michigan State figures to hand him another loss when the teams meet Nov. 27 in East Lansing.

This might be the most damning stat of all about Franklin, in his eighth season in Happy Valley:

Penn State is 2-13 under him against top-10 opponents. That includes a current streak of nine consecutive losses.

Franklin is signed at Penn State through the 2025 season. It is believed he makes close to $6 million a season.

Losing Franklin to USC or any other school won't be a problem for Penn State.

Having to keep Franklin might be a big problem.

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