James Franklin is nothing if not consistent about how he handles every week during the football season, giving out Twitter reminders about Penn State’s next opponent and reminding everyone that the only goal is to go 1-0 on Saturday.
In the year of the pandemic, however, nothing is quite routine. Even though it’s December, the Nittany Lions continue their regular season with a matchup against Michigan State on Saturday, when they will try to avoid their first winless season at Beaver Stadium since 1918.
The game has Franklin’s attention, but it’s not the only matter on his plate. The topics are:
Senior Day. The Lions will honor 12 seniors before the game but for the first time, parents and families can’t come on to the field to hug their loved ones because of COVID concerns, though they can watch from the stands.
A ninth game. The Big Ten promised teams a ninth game on championship weekend Dec. 19 featuring matchups between East and West Division teams occupying the same rung in the standings. But Franklin wonders if games that were canceled earlier in the season would be rescheduled.
Signing Day. Franklin and his staff are trying to close out the Lions’ 2021 recruiting class for National Signing Day on Dec. 16, which would be right in the middle of a game week if a ninth game was to be played.
Bowl possibilities. With bowl eligibility requirements waived for this season by the NCAA Division I Council, Penn State could accept an invitation, although winning its last two games to go 4-5 would look a lot better. But given all the sacrifices they’ve made, would the Lions want to continue for a week or two more?
At Tuesday’s weekly news conference, Franklin said he was “very sensitive” to getting everyone safely home with their families after the season ends. That includes him being reunited with his own family which is in Florida keeping his younger daughter, who has sickle cell, safe.
That may prompt Penn State to pass on a bowl game. The available spots are dwindling with 10 contests already having been canceled. One, the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, has ties to the Big Ten.
“We haven’t talked about anything else because bowl games keep getting canceled,” Franklin said. “Every other day you see bowl games getting canceled. It’s just hard to say. It’s hard to predict. It’s hard to know for us. We’re just trying to control the things that we do know right now, which is today, which is Michigan State on Saturday, and then knowing there’s going to be a game after that.”
Regarding a ninth game, Franklin said conditions haven’t been “clearly defined” and wonders if the conference would stray from the crossover-game model that was proposed in September.
“We’ve heard stuff about maybe the Big Ten changing the model based on games being canceled and not meeting certain thresholds, and games that people want to be played based on the game being played for 90-something years consecutively,” he said. “There’s still a lot of things out there that we’re not completely sure on.”
The ninth game, plus National Signing Day, leaves Franklin and his staff with a busy Dec. 16, and some significant schedule juggling.
“We’ve got to try to make it as special as we possibly can for those young men and their families and their high school coaches,” he said. “But Wednesday is a huge workday for us. We’re doing football all day to get ready for that practice and finish the game plans. And now you’re trying to do that on a day that’s usually dominated on celebrating young men’s and families’ futures. So we’re going to do the best we possibly can to serve both groups.”
Franklin said one plan is to have his offensive, defensive and special teams staffs mostly work on football, and perhaps grab a position coach and a member of the recruiting staff to join him in welcoming the new signees.
In the meantime, Franklin will devote some attention to have his seniors, including five fifth-year players, honored in the best way possible. He indicated he’ll get the word out to folks who stand alongside the road to watch team buses go by.
“I would love for them maybe to all do something for these seniors,” he said, “maybe divvy up all the seniors and do something, because I’d like for it to be special for them in any way we possibly can. There’s not a whole lot that we can do in the stadium that a lot of these guys have waited years to do. We’ll still be calling their names out and bringing them out on the field.”