As James Franklin enters his prime, Penn State hopes to hold off USC, other potential suitors

James Franklin just might be the best big-time coach you haven't heard enough about. Oh, you've heard of him. The Penn State coach is never anonymous. The average fan doesn't know enough about him.

Franklin has spent six years taking the coaching baton from Bill O'Brien and rebuilding Penn State back into a national power. That alone is a career achievement. But beat No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday, and No. 8 Penn State takes a giant step toward its first College Football Playoff appearance.

At 47, Franklin has won more conference titles and been to more major bowls than Pete Carroll or Nick Saban -- combined -- at the same age.

At 47, Brian Kelly was in his third year at Cincinnati, two years from arriving at Notre Dame. Franklin has already been coaching Power Five schools for nine years.

At 47, Franklin has already won a Big Ten title and been to two New Year's Six bowls.

At 47, history would suggest he has yet to reach his coaching peak. Franklin already holds an unofficial record that may never be broken. He was the first -- and perhaps only? -- coach ever to win nine games in consecutive seasons at Vanderbilt (2012-13).

In Franklin, we are witnessing a coach about to hit his sweet spot. Dabo Swinney just turned 50 and is chasing his third title at Clemson. Carroll won his first national championship at 53. Paterno did it at 56, Saban at 58.

Maybe it's unfair to compare Franklin until he's actually won a natty.

The more relevant question is where Franklin will be when he does break through. He has climbed so far, so fast that it's possible he just may be too good for Penn State.

Don't freak out, Nittany Nation. This is strictly business. USC is close to needing a new coach. If it doesn't get Urban Meyer, there are multiple reports that Franklin is the next-best choice.

"It's that time of year where all this stuff happens," Franklin said, addressing the subject.

Actually, he said that a year ago -- Nov. 20, 2018. That's at least how long his name has been tied with an opening that still officially isn't open yet. But the thirst for winning -- for relevance -- these days waits for no one.

No school wants to be a steppingstone, especially one that has given Franklin a lucrative extension. But we're long past the point where loyalty is defined by heart strings. The emotional attachment to Good Ol' State U is often in direct proportion to the number of zeroes at the end of the salary number -- or the digit in front of it.

Franklin will be paid $6.25 million in 2022, the last year of his current contract. Judge for yourself how far USC would go to get him. One observation: A lot more than $6.25 million.

Franklin is the "face of the program" type that USC needs. He's a buttoned-down, smart, personable football mind.  His .678 career winning percentage is better than Frank Beamer, Mack Brown, Lou Holtz and Bill Snyder.

Who knew Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was the Big Ten's second-leading passer, ahead of Ohio State's Justin Fields? On Tuesday, Franklin deftly handled a question about Clifford getting social media death threats after the Minnesota game.

"It's part of our reality," Franklin said. "You see a lot of behavior in our society that we accept. … I'm not sure why we accept it."

He went so far as to blame the ramped-up pressure on "this playoff model."

Bottom line: The guy is not going to embarrass your school. Franklin's smoothness, confidence and ability would play well in Southern California. Not to mention, the dude can coach -- and recruit -- his ass off. There have been five consecutive top 20 recruiting classes at Penn State, per the 247Sports Composite team rankings.

USC is in a desperation mode (from a football perspective) similar to the one Penn State faced on the field after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. That July day in 2012 when the NCAA hammered the program, it looked like Penn State football was burned to the ground. Seven short years later, it has returned to its former self -- a proud football factory.

Like Penn State years ago, USC desperately wants to be relevant again. The Trojans looked like they had returned to prominence with a Rose Bowl win in 2016 and a Pac-12 title in 2017. Since then, the Trojans are 12-11.

At the risk of being redundant, Clay Helton is on the hot seat. At this point, any guess on which way USC is leaning beyond Helton is just that ... a guess. There has been one report Meyer is absolutely USC's No. 1 choice "if he's really interested."

There is at least one other report that new USC president Carol Folt is against Meyer's hiring. The addition of Mike Bohn as new USC athletic director is seen by some as a sign that it won't be Meyer. The only tie between the two is that Meyer played baseball at Cincinnati, Bohn's old school.

One high-ranking college football source close to the coach told CBS Sports they firmly believe that Meyer is done. Maybe. Meyer was done twice at Florida before coming back to Ohio State.

USC is one of the few Pac-12 schools that would have the financial will to go after Meyer: The ability and willingness to offer something close to $8 million a year. That's approximately what it's going to take to get Meyer.

Meyer's hiring would be a coup, possibly lifting the entire conference. The Pac-12 doesn't get better until it gets better coaches. That's what happened in the Big Ten when the hiring of Jim Harbaugh at Michigan quickly followed Meyer's arrival at Ohio State.

Some perspective on what Saturday would mean for Franklin and Penn State: A win would be the program's first in Columbus, Ohio, since 2011. The Nittany Lions would be taking down a power that has won 10 consecutive games by at least 24 points.

With a win Saturday, Franklin and Penn State take the next step.

Whether that means Penn State ultimately becomes a steppingstone is still to be determined. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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