Penn State football: Franklin: Bowl eligibility still has to be earned on the field

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It was just a few hours after the news came down and James Franklin’s phone was already on its way to filling up.

Voicemails and text messages flooded in, congratulating the Penn State head football coach on his team’s newfound bowl eligibility after the NCAA dropped the final two years of Penn State’s postseason ban and restored all scholarships on Monday.

Franklin was quick to remind them of one caveat.

“It’s amazing how many people texted me and emailed me last night and said, ‘How awesome that you’re bowl-eligible. We’re not bowl eligible. We have the opportunity to go to a bowl game,” Franklin said. “We need to make sure that we can take care of our business this week, which is Rutgers.”

Penn State (2-0) will open its Big Ten schedule with a game against the Scarlet Knights (2-0) at High Point Solutions Stadium at 8 p.m. Saturday.

It’ll be a divisional measuring point as the Nittany Lions and Scarlet Knights will vie for early control of the Big Ten’s East Division. And now that Penn State is eligible to compete for the Big Ten championship and for a spot in the four-team playoff, the game will now have early postseason implications for both teams, not just Rutgers.

A win puts the victors in control of the East and also gets them halfway to earning bowl eligibility. A week ago, the Nittany Lions couldn’t use those aspects as motivating factors.

“Honestly, I wasn’t really expecting it to happen,” senior linebacker Mike Hull said. “As soon as the sanctions were put on us I was expecting to ride it out just how it was, play for each other, play for the Penn State community and fortunately they were reduced and I think a lot of the guys, especially the seniors are excited about it.”

Those seniors were among the 49 players honored at a team meeting called at the Lasch Building to discuss the developments. The NCAA included a transfer waiver as part of the sanctions which gave Penn State players the option to switch to other Football Bowl Subdivision schools without being forced to sit out a year.

A number of players, notably running back Silas Redd, wide receiver Justin Brown, linebacker Khairi Fortt and kicker Anthony Fera, left Penn State before the 2012 season. Most of the roster stayed, however.

“We did bring the 49 guys who stayed up front, and the rest of the team gave them a standing ovation and told them how much they mean to them, how much we are all in debt to them, how much respect the university, the alumni, the community has for them,” Franklin said. “And that we’re going to play for them because they were here for this program and university when we needed them the most.”

And Penn State will be able to fulfill some of its other needs sooner than expected.

As part of the NCAA’s decision to wipe out the sanctions, Penn State can have the normal allotment of 85 scholarship players on its roster starting next season. Penn State would have previously been limited to 80 scholarship players next season. The scholarship additions come at a perfect time. Penn State currently has 62 players that could return on scholarship next season and 19 in the current recruiting class which could put the Nittany Lions over the previous 80-player threshold by one.

Early graduations and not renewing certain one-year scholarships could still affect the overall total but it shouldn’t be as tricky for Penn State as it would’ve been under the scholarship limitations.

“It’ll have an impact on this class, there’s no doubt about that,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if it will be as big of an impact as some people think, but we’ll get a few more scholarships. The other thing that’s being reported, we’ll be able to get to 85. I’m still working through that to see how we’re going to be able to do that, be able to get to the 85. That’s one of the couple things we’re working through right now to make sure we completely understand because it’s never as clean as everybody thinks it is, or black and white as it is reported. There’s a lot more specifics and details that go into it so we’re going to work through that right now.”

The timing couldn’t be better for Hull and his senior teammates, most of whom found out via social media.

Hull, along with his roommates — defensive end Brad Bars, safety Jesse Della Valle and offensive guard Miles Dieffenbach — read the news as they were leaving a local fast food restaurant on Monday.

“The whole thing has been kind of a roller coaster ride, a lot of ups and downs,” Hull said. “Whenever it first initially happened, it was kind of tough. But yesterday kind of brought the whole thing back around full circle. We’re really excited for the opportunity but we’ve still got to take it one game at a time.”

Franklin said the possibility that the sanctions would be lifted was not a selling point from Penn State administrators when he interviewed for the job over the winter.

But the NCAA’s decision could impact Franklin financially. According to Franklin’s contract, he will make $200,000 if the Nittany Lions appear in a bowl while a win in the Big Ten championship game is good for a $350,000 bonus.

“The way it was discussed is that the last time the report came out, it was really favorable and that Penn State is working extremely hard to continue working to make some changes and some adjustments and do the things necessary and that we take a lot of pride in that,” Franklin said. “That was kind of addressed and if the next report comes out positive again, then we'll see what the future holds. But that was really it. Very similar to what I've told you guys before with recruits; that that carrot was never dangled in front of me.

“It was never dangled in front of the recruits. It was very black and white. These are what the sanctions say right now and this is what we are living with, and we are moving forward.”

Now, the Nittany Lions don’t have to worry about that.