Harrison: Is The Penn State Renaissance For Real?
Penn State came from nowhere to surprise everyone and win the Big Ten last year. Is it a sign of things to come, or a one-year aberration?
We Are … Penn State!
For about five years, that rallying cry took on a far different meaning than previous years with all the ugliness and shameful things that took place with the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
A deep valley
What transpired was a program that was a shadow of its former self. Hamstrung by scholarship reductions and a negative perception that many recruits wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, the program spiraled into an abyss of embarrassment, gloom and despair.
All in all, the program was able to tread water under Paterno, and then Bill O’Brien, but there were some moments behind the woodshed with the more talented teams. The talent gap was obvious, and there was no end in sight. Many wondered if the Penn State program would ever return to anywhere near its former glory.
Turning the page
On January 11, 2014 Penn State hired James Franklin away from Vanderbilt after coach Bill O’Brien left to go be head coach in the NFL. It was a splash hire, but it still paled in comparison to what Penn State had in front of it. There were still scholarship issues to deal with, a tattered and torn perception to repair, and the reality that a bowl-game was off the table for years to come.
But slowly and methodically, James Franklin began building something. Things never got out of the garage with Chrisian Hackenberg at quarterback, but behind the scenes the talent level was beginning to get back to a Penn State level thanks to a roll back of the scholarship reductions and post-season ban in September of 2014.
2015 was another ho-hum type of affair, and so was the beginning of 2016, but then it happened. Penn State did the improbable by beating No. 2 ranked Ohio State in front of a frenzied home crowd.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Nittany Lions went on to roll through the rest of the season and elbowed their way to Indianapolis where they again turned on a second-half barrage to beat West Division champion Wisconsin. It was Penn State’s first Big Ten championship since 2005.
To say hoisting the Big Ten trophy was unexpected would be an understatement of the decade. But will it last? Is Penn State set up to now be an annual contender in the league, and maybe more? Or are the Nittany Lions destined to fall back to the pack and hide back in the shadows a bit?
There are reasons to believe both sides of the argument.
The extreme optimist
Those that say Penn State is back are emboldened by the continued hot recruiting of James Franklin’s staff. According to the 247 Sports Composite Rankings, the Nittany Lions have had the 14th, 20th, and 15th rated recruiting classes in 2015, ’16, and ’17. That’s not Ohio State or Michigan level, but it’s flat out getting it done with momentum building. The 2018 class is currently rated No. 3 in the country.
So the talent is there, and many believe it will continue to be there with Franklin calling the shots. All things being equal, the talent will win out and continue to keep the program up in the top fifteen of the country.
Many would also point to the masterful motivation and passion that James Franklin has a way of wielding. He fights for his guys, and the players love his exuberance and will run through a thicket of thorns for him. Heck, if he could make Vanderbilt a competitive team in the SEC, then surely he can continue to get the most out of his players at a school like Penn State.
After all, the offensive line should be good, the defense a year wiser, and who can forget the dynamic duo of running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley?
The bitter pessimist
Now for the other side of the argument.
It’s one year folks. It might be time to pump the breaks and turn down the volume of the Lion roar over the PA system. Sure Penn State had a hot end to the season last year, but that’s all it’s been so far. There is a whale of a team back on paper, but teams don’t win games on documents of grandeur.
They also don’t become one of the best programs in the Big Ten by winning Big Ten titles in intervals of eleven years.
And what about those recruiting classes? Top twenty and top fifteen classes are light years ahead of the desperate cobbling of classes prior to the full-compliment of scholarships being reinstated, but is it really to the level it needs to be with teams that are continually in the top five and ten?
There’s also the very important detail of what neighborhood Penn State is living in these days. It’s not a stretch to argue that the Big Ten East is the toughest division in all of college football currently. Ohio State and Michigan have things rockin’, Michigan State is still capable of providing a stiff test, and Maryland seems to be on the rise.
One look at the schedule makes this reality sting even more. Penn State has to travel to Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State and Michigan State. It hosts Pittsburgh, Michigan and Nebraska. That’s tough sledding no matter how you spin it.
Lastly, for those on the dead grass side of the fence, the Nittany Lions lost three games last year. One to Pittsburgh, one in embarrassing fashion to Michigan, and a close one in the Rose Bowl (has any team ever gotten more mileage out of a loss). One could even argue that Ohio State thoroughly outplayed Penn State at home save for two huge special teams plays. And frankly, that argument would be spot on.
In other words, it was not the stellar season many would have you believe despite winning the Big Ten title. There were some warts fully exposed.
The sensible conclusion
So which way will this all go? Like most things, it probably won’t be the extreme on either end. Penn State is unlikely to go all beast mode and win the national championship, but it’s also improbable that it’ll tank and finish fourth in the Big Ten East.
No, instead it’ll probably lay somewhere in the middle. My sense is that James Franklin will lead his team to a solid season with some good wins against quality competition. But that schedule is too tough to expect a run like last year. The 2017 Nittany Lions could in fact be a better team than last year, but with fewer wins and a seat at home for the Big Ten Championship game.
And although the Penn State administration is clearly behind Franklin with the huge contract extension, let’s not call this program back among the elite just yet.
We’re talking about a very small sample size here, and are just one year removed from a year in which the Nittany Lions had exactly zero wins over a top 25 opponent.
Still, Franklin clearly has the program on the rise. You can expect Penn State to be much more competitive, and in the race for the Big Ten from time-to-time.
It’s fun to get all geeked up about what happened last year in Happy Valley and go all knee-jerk on the program, but we’re simply not talking about an Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State just yet. Penn State fans don’t want to hear it, but it’s the truth.
To truly be thought of in the same cognitive musings as other blue-bloods in the league, there needs to be more than a one-year flash. There needs to be more talented and consistent recruiting classes above and beyond what we’ve seen thus far.
Then, and only then, can we say that Penn State is back.
After all. We are … what we are.