Preview 2017: Penn State Woke Up
It took a while for Penn State to wake up, but now under James Franklin, it’s all in place to be great.
The James Franklin era needed a little while to wake up. When it did, the results were fantastic.
2016 wasn’t supposed to happen.
Last season was expected to be all about Ohio State, the resurgence of Michigan, and the return of Michigan State in a brutal-looking Big Ten East. After going 14-12 in Franklin’s first two seasons, Penn State was merely a team in the division – nothing more.
The punishments from the Joe Paterno era were supposed to keep the football team down – sort of like the sanctions hamstrung USC for so many years. But Bill O’Brien and Franklin were able to keep the recruiting wheels rolling, the NCAA caved after not really picking a lane with its initial stance – either the NCAA overreached with its punishment and was out of its jurisdiction, or it should’ve gone in full-force; it wasn’t definitive enough either way – and the pieces were in place to start winning again.
Franklin went from having to deal with a program that was in limbo, to taking it to three straight post-season games – even if the first two were underwhelming. Even so, after with a rocky start in Year Three, if he wasn’t on a hot seat, he was in desperate need of something positive.
It didn’t help to lose a shootout to Pitt, and then struggle with Temple in a game marred nationally by a shameful display that further proved how far the place still needs to go in so many ways – really, Penn State, a commemoration and celebration of the Paterno era … REALLY?! – and then came the 49-10 clunker to Michigan to open the Big Ten season.
With Minnesota in charge of the October 1st game in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions appeared to be on their way to a 2-3 record with Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State still to deal with. But the team rallied back, forced overtime, pulled out a 29-26 win, and didn’t look back until it got to Pasadena.
And that was Penn State last season. It took a while to wake up.
Miserable in most first quarters, down at most halftimes, and unstoppable late in games over the second half of the season, once the Nittany Lions were able to find their groove, they were something amazing.
From the stunning finish to beat Ohio State, to the weekly offensive explosions to get to the Big Ten Championship, to the stunning second half against a brick wall of a Wisconsin team to take the title, Franklin and his team pitched a gem.
No, winning the Big Ten Championship didn’t heal anything, and it wasn’t the return to Camelot – as Fox broadcaster Gus Johnson suggestively gushed after the win over the Badgers – just like the loss to USC in one of the greatest Rose Bowls of all-time wasn’t a setback. It was a great year by a great team – nothing more.
Penn State deserved to be in the College Football Playoff after winning the toughest conference in college football, but it was just fine accomplishing what it did. That has to be just the start, though, of doing that on a yearly basis.
Now that Franklin proved he could coach up a winner, that’s the expectation from here on. There aren’t any excuses, there aren’t any free passes, and there’s certainly no more sympathy.
Penn State is good enough to keep winning Big Ten titles.
Ohio State is still fantastic, but Michigan State isn’t going to be back to its 2015 state and Michigan is undergoing a total personnel overhaul. It’s all there for the Nittany Lions to be right back in the hunt, with 16 starters returning, and a not-that-bad schedule – other than a trip to Columbus.
RB Saquon Barkley might be the best player in the Big Ten, while QB Trace McSorely gets everyone back in his receiving corps but Chris Godwin. Okay, Godwin was sort of a big piece in the puzzle, but the talent its there to pick up the slack. With four starters back up front, the transformation of the O line from brutally-miserable a few years ago to a positive should continue.
The defense isn’t going to be the killer it was in 2014, but it was okay last season and things turned out to be fine. The back seven is strong, the secondary great, and if a pass rush can come from the new starting ends, there should be an overall improvement.
But the rest of the Big Ten isn’t going to sleep on Penn State any longer. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, with the ultimate caffeine jolt of a head coach in Franklin now hitting his stride, that might not matter.