It should come as no surprise that one scalding take heading into this college football season is that Penn State coach James Franklin is on the hot seat.
It’s understandable if you consider the fact that the Langhorne native has finished 7-6 each of his first two seasons, or that he is a combined 0-6 against Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan, the three teams he absolutely must beat to succeed in the rugged Big Ten East.
(Also to be taken into account is that the Lions lost to Maryland two years ago for the first time since 1961, and to Temple last year for the first time since 1941.)
Take a step back, though. Consider that he is still dealing with the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal — that, specifically, the draconian NCAA sanctions left him with a threadbare roster when he arrived from Vanderbilt.
Hot seat? Well, maybe a little toasty, but nothing more.
For the record, Franklin declined to play along when asked Tuesday afternoon about any noise pertaining to his job. He said during the Big Ten coaches’ conference call that he was concerned only with the task at hand — Saturday’s season opener against Kent State in Beaver Stadium and the day-to-day machinations of his team.
“Focus on that, not anything else,” he said. “Not any other conversations or anything else going on. Focus on the things we can control.”
He has said on other occasions that he considers this Year One of his program, since he finally has a full complement of 85 scholarship players (or thereabouts) at his disposal. He and his staff have consistently brought in top-notch recruits, something best reflected at the skill positions.
The Lions, however, are painfully young (12 players with senior eligibility) and have a new quarterback (redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley), questions along both lines and little depth on linebacker. They are also facing a tough schedule, especially early. September includes visits to Pitt and Michigan sandwiched around a home meeting with Temple, and later they not only face the Buckeyes and Spartans but an always-respectable Iowa club.
So if they tank — if, say, they go 4-8 (not an impossibility) — then it is safe to say that Franklin might be in jeopardy. If they again piddle along in the middle of the pack, which seems more likely, he will almost certainly get another year.
McSorley, a smallish run-pass threat (at 6 feet, 201 pounds), would appear to be a better fit for Franklin’s preferred offensive mode than the departed Christian Hackenberg, a classic dropback type — particularly since new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, formerly the head coach at Fordham, has brought his no-huddle spread attack to Happy Valley.
McSorley spelled an injured Hackenberg midway through last season’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia, going 14 for 27 for 142 yards and two touchdowns, and he certainly has a pedigree. He was a rare four-year starter at Briar Woods High School in Virginia, leading his team to four consecutive state finals and winning the first three of those.
“Trace just has that gene inside him that just makes him a competitor, and just a winner,” said Wake Forest tight end Cam Serigne, once McSorley’s high school teammate.
That is literally true. McSorley’s dad, Rick, played football at Richmond, and a paternal uncle, Jeff, played at Marshall. But McSorley has seemingly taken that DNA and run with it.
In his very first high school game he led his team, minus its top two running backs, on a game-winning 88-yard drive in the final minutes. And in his career he won 55 of 60 games.
“He was kind of smart beyond his years,” Briar Woods coach Charlie Pierce said. “I’ve been coaching for 27 years and a head coach for 17 years at a couple different high schools, and I’ve only experienced a couple players that had a football acumen like Trace. Trace had the best, by far, at an early age.”
Now he will be entrusted with a unit that promises to be heavy on run-pass options.
“I think that’s going to be one of the best things of our offense,” McSorley said, “because the defense can in one sense never be right.”
He has a guy who can run in sophomore Saquon Barkley (a school freshman-record 1,076 yards last year) and a bunch of guys who can catch, headed by Chris Godwin (69-1,101-5 TDs) and DaeSean Hamilton (45-580-6 TDs).
But the line remains a question, and only one projected starter — right tackle Andrew Nelson — will open in the same position he filled a year ago. (The new left guard is Ryan Bates, a redshirt freshman from Archbishop Wood.)
The defensive line, which lost three NFL players in Austin Johnson (Titans), Anthony Zettel (Lions) and Carl Nassib (Browns), is likewise unsettled. Only end Garrett Sickels returns.
Linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White, a Philadelphia native, was lost for the season with a knee injury sustained in the 2015 opener against Temple. The fifth-year senior is back and will man the weak side, after playing the middle last year.
Jason Cabinda slid over from the weak side to fill the breach when Wartman-White was injured, and led the team with 100 tackles. He’s also back. So too is Brandon Bell (Mays Landing, N.J./Oakcrest High) on the strong side. He made 65 tackles last year despite “playing with two bad wheels” and “a shoulder that kept popping out,” according to Brent Pry, who was promoted to defensive coordinator after Bob Shoop left for Tennessee.
The secondary is likewise well-fortified, and includes cornerback John Reid, a sophomore from St. Joe’s Prep.
Bottom line: There are too many questions surrounding the Lions to believe they can challenge Ohio State and Michigan atop the division, and (perhaps) enough to drop them below the .500 mark for the first time since 2004. Split the difference, then. Figure that they remain a middle-of-the-road club, and that Franklin’s seat doesn’t become too hot to the touch.
Not yet, anyway.
Freelance writer Gordie Jones is a regular contributor to CSNPhilly.com.
Phillies (60-72) vs. Nationals (77-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN
For the second time in less than a week, the Phillies try to avoid a sweep by winning the final game of a series against a division opponent. Adam Morgan will try to overcome the Phillies' struggles as well as his own, while the Nationals toss out veteran lefty Gio Gonzalez.
Here are five things to know for Wednesday night.
1. Close to quality
For just the fifth time this year, Morgan put together a quality start for the Phillies on Aug. 19 against the Cardinals. In his follow up outing against the Mets on Friday, he came quite close to another one.
If it wasn't obvious from his 1-8 record and his 6.50 ERA, Morgan has been absymal this season. He's shown glimpses of his talent, such as his strong start against the Cards or his seven innings of one-run ball on May 10 in Atlanta. Yet for the most part, his outings have been filled with hits and home runs.
Back to Friday. He had gotten through the Mets' lineup with just two runs in five innings, keeping the Phillies in the game while Bartolo Colon held them at bay. But a grand slam ended his night and gave him an ugly six-run, eight-hit line in five innings of play. While he tied a career-high with eight strikeouts, he allowed three home runs. That simply won't get it done.
In his final start of the month, he needs to put together a strong outing to prove he's worthy of a rotation spot even after rosters expand in September. If he keeps allowing more runs than innings pitched, it'd be tough to keep handing him the ball.
2. Lefty in decline
In the first two games of the series, the Phillies saw two starters that they will see plenty of in the future: Tanner Roark and Max Scherzer. Now they face a man who headed their rotations of the past.
Gonzalez was traded to the Nationals in 2012 for his age-26 season after becoming an All Star for the first time. Not only did he come up with another All Star appearance in 2012, he won a league-high 21 games and finished third in the Cy Young vote.
However, that was Gonzalez's peak. His ERA has declined every season since 2012 and he no longer strikes out more than a batter an inning. When he was truly at his best, he was able to keep the ball in the ballpark at a very solid rate (0.4 home runs per nine innings in 2012). He was able to match that mark in 2015, but he's given up his most home runs per nine innings (1.0) since his rookie season in 2009.
The bad news for the Phillies is Gonzalez has a solid track record against them. He's 8-6 in 18 starts against them with a 2.82 ERA. He strikes out almost exactly a batter an inning in those games while not walking as many batters as he usually does. He's even better at Citizens Bank with a 2.52 ERA in 11 starts.
Despite giving up just two earned runs over 13⅓ innings against the Phillies in April, he did not earn a win in his two starts. In fact, he lost his second start against them while the Nationals lost both games.
3. Outperforming expectations
The Phillies are nowhere close to their 14-10 start, but that was to be expected. Very few thought the Phils could begin the season on such a strong run, which lasted into mid-May.
Right now, they have a 60-72 record. However, their pythagorean record (which uses their runs scored and runs allowed to project what their record should be) is 51-81, nine games worse.
Meanwhile, the Nationals are 77-55, comfortably in first place in the NL East. But their pythagorean record is 81-51, four games better than their current pace.
There are plenty of reasons why teams can outperform or underperform compared to their pythagorean record. A team that outperforms can have a series of blowout wins that inflate their runs scored despite a 10-run outburst only contributes to one win. Teams that underperform tend to have lot of success in close games (or have suffered a few blowout losses), yet they also usually regress and start playing more toward their projected record.
The easiest way to explain why the Phillies and Nationals would have the out or underperformed is their bullpens. The Phils have had a strong backend of their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez and Hector Neris, who have been able to close out many close Phillies wins. Meanwhile, the Nationals had Jonathan Papelbon closing for them. Papelbon had a poor enough season to be designated for assignment after blowing a few games this summer.
The other reasons are the ones listed above: the Nationals' offense has produced some big outbursts thanks to hitters like Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper and the Phillies have had some blowout losses (that Mets series last week was a great example).
However, the main takeaway from this may be the surplus wins the Phillies have produced thanks to their bullpen. Without Neris or Gomez, the team would not be where they are because close leads wouldn't have been as safe as they've been.
4. Players to watch
Phillies: With the news that Ryan Howard will be getting less playing time, Tommy Joseph is the man who will benefit. He takes on a lefty tonight, although he hasn't faced Gonzalez before because he was not in the majors in April.
Nationals: Despite going 0 for 4 on Tuesday, former Phillie Jayson Werth has been on a tear this month. He's hit seven home runs, including one Monday. He also has a .346 average against lefties.
5. This and that
• The Phillies are 1-7 against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park this year. That includes a sweep by the Nationals from May 30-June 1, the first sweep by the Nationals at CBP since Sept. 20-22, 2011 (a four-game series).
• Freddy Galvis has the most at-bats of any current Phillie against Gonzalez. He's 8 for 31 with a home run, two doubles and a walk.
• Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa is 2 for 6 against Morgan with two home runs. Nats catcher Wilson Ramos is 3 for 5 with a home run and five RBIs.
• The Phillies are 12-13 in August despite have allowed 150 runs and scored just 111. The Nationals are 16-11 this month.
Covering Colts receivers T.Y. Hilton or Donte Moncrief is a daunting task for just about every cornerback in the NFL, let alone an undrafted rookie. That's precisely what the Eagles were asking of C.J. Smith on Saturday when they plugged the North Dakota State product into the game with the first-string defense.
And the results weren't bad. Hilton and Moncrief made some catches, but each time, Smith was right there to challenge them, wrap them up and get them to the ground. No busted coverages. No missed tackles. No backing down.
"I think I did all right, but I think I have a lot of things to improve on," Smith said of his performance Saturday. "The game was a little faster than when I played in the preseason before, so I definitely think I have a lot of room for improvement."
All right would be a fair assessment. Smith wound up finishing with a team-high seven tackles, which is not a great stat for a corner because it usually means passes were being completed. Although once again, consider his background and the opponent. This 23-year-old hasn't even been practicing with the first-team defense, then one day all of a sudden Andrew Luck is throwing in his direction.
"Coaches gave me a little heads up," Smith said. "They didn't give me too many reps in practice with the ones, but I think they just wanted to see if I could handle being out there, thrown in the fire in my situation."
Nobody could've blamed him if he was nervous, if he would've made a mistake or got beat.
"A little nerve-racking at first, but things started to settle in," Smith said of facing a dangerous Colts passing attack. "My teammates had my back, so that was the biggest thing. And then the coaches said everything translates from practice to the game, you just have to trust it."
Seeing Smith out there with the first-team defense was something of a surprise. There's already a logjam at cornerback, where Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Eric Rowe and Jalen Mills are jockeying for position. Smith getting a shot might mean the Eagles are considering keeping six corners, or that one of the others could be on the move.
The 5-foot-11, 189-pound defensive back impressed throughout training camp as well as in the Eagles' preseason opener, where he recorded three pass breakups and an interception. Smith also notes he played a lot of man coverage in college, a skillset he believes is attractive to this coaching staff.
Perhaps Smith getting a shot with the ones shouldn't have been a surprise based on the summer he's had. He's starting to build the case he shouldn't have gone overlooked in the draft either.
"I was hurt going into my senior year with a pretty bad knee injury, so I had to overcome that," Smith said of going undrafted. "And then I still think playing at the FCS level, it's tough to overcome that too."
Smith will have at least one more opportunity to show the Eagles what he can bring to the table Thursday when the preseason schedule wraps up against the Jets. Now that he's gone up against Pro Bowl-caliber talent, he should really shine in a game typically reserved for backups and fringe NFL talents.
Maybe that's expecting too much, but Smith probably won't mind.
"You try to expect a lot of yourself," Smith said. "I'm just taking things day by day, trying to get better every day, trying to control the things I can control."