CHICAGO -- Penn State arrived unexpected in 2016, going from unranked to an outright conference championship.
The Nittany Lions lost 52-49 in the Rose Bowl to Southern Cal but beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game for the right to get there.
Fourth-year head coach James Franklin went from being on the purported hot seat in September after a 2-2 start to being touted as a coach of the year candidate by the end of the year.
Franklin, 49-30, isn't quite buying the angle that Penn State is ahead of schedule five years after the university was sanctioned -- a $60 million fine and mass reduction of scholarships -- as part of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
"That's probably better for you guys to talk about," Franklin said Tuesday at Big Ten Media Days. "I'll allow the fans, the media to do those types of things. For the last three years, we've been making some really, really strong progress. We just kept working. I make the argument that our probably best years coaching were years one and two. We aren't really a goal-setting organization, but we focus on maximizing every day -- offseason, in camp, days leading up to the games. Then the games will take care of themselves."
Penn State has a polished offensive line -- a massive change considering Franklin inherited a roster with seven scholarship linemen -- and a special running back in Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley, the top-ranked running back in the nation according to NFLDraftScout.com.
"We realize everybody's game plan is going to be Saquon Barkley, but the type of talent we're surrounding him with is going to make it difficult for him to do that," Franklin said. "We have so many guys who have played a lot of football for us. I think that's where the excitement comes from."
Barkley has 2,572 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in his first two seasons. At 5-11, 223 pounds, Barkley is being compared to recent Big Ten peer Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing with the Dallas Cowboys last season. Fair comparison? Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, who coached Elliott for three years, believes it is.
"It's probably pretty fair," Meyer said at Big Ten Media Days. "I think he's that quality of a back, that quality of a worker. ... I think that's very fair."
Scouts are clamoring for Barkley not just because of his 1,496-yard season in 2016. At "Lift for Life" last week, Barkley was unofficially timed in the 4.3 range in the 40-yard dash -- according to Penn State director of performance Dwight Galt -- and flung up 30 reps of 225 pounds on the benchpress. His resume appears to universally have a gold star stamp from the NFL even before he plays a down in 2017.
Current peers aren't bashful about complimenting Barkley.
"He's really fast. He's really quick. And he has that ridiculous hurdle that no one can predict when it's coming," Michigan State linebacker Chris Frey said.
Resumes, personal and team-wide, are not any matter Franklin wants to discuss.
"We're not going to spend a whole lot of time at all talking about last season," Franklin said. "They understand it. They get it. None of those points, none of those wins are going to transfer over. ... How we learned, how we grew from those things, that we're going to take with us. For us, we're going to spend our time focused on the things we need to do to grow, evolve as a program, individually and the whole package."
NOTES: Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said all signs of progress with the Boilermakers are positive, including a facelift on the football facility and recruiting, where the opportunity to play right away is giving Brohm more of a boost than even he expected. "We have to make sure the product we put on the field is better," Brohm said. ... Nebraska hired former UConn head coach Bob Diaco as defensive coordinator with a targeted mission, coach Mike Riley said. "Back to my roots coaching defense, I was a 3-4 defensive coach. I have been for a time interested in looking into a 3-4. The availability of coach Diacco led me there, and the interview convinced me what else he would bring: good teacher, fundamental 1-2-3-4 how it's done, love the detail and love the enthusiasm. That has all been confirmed through his initial time with the team." ... Penn State kicker Joey Julius is no longer on the roster. No reason was provided by PSU. Julius missed spring practice to seek treatment for an eating disorder. He also received treatment in 2016. Tyler Davis handled kickoffs in the Rose Bowl and could take over those duties if Julius does not return.