College football is a funny thing. It has become an even more bizarre thing in our age of 140 characters of instant analysis. Yes, Penn State is coming off of a loss against Northwestern. It was a game that, as we discussed last week, the Lions had more than a few chances to close out. With a weekend off, the salt has sat in that wound just a tad longer. But a year after struggling to achieve bowl eligibility and eeking out a seventh win in the Pinstripe Bowl, the Lions sit at 7-3 and a chance at much more.
This Saturday, the No. 15 Michigan Wolverines visit State College. In a year with a, shall we say, less-than-grueling schedule, Jim Harbaugh's squad will be just the third ranked team (at the time of the game) the Lions have faced. It is also the first (and only) time in 2015 that a top-25 team will visit Beaver Stadium. The following week, PSU heads to East Lansing for a date with a Michigan State team still harboring hopes of a Big Ten Championship and a playoff bid.
Yes, Penn State sits at 7-3, but the road there has hardly been smooth. It has featured less than inspiring wins, blowout losses, and plenty of head scratching decisions along the way. But in a year without a signature win (sorry, Illinois), it is hard to not get excited about the possibilities in front of James Franklin's team to close out the regular season.
Through 23 games in Happy Valley, Franklin has a rather respectable 14-9 record, given the circumstances he walked into. What he, and his program do not have, however, is a signature win. You could make a case that the best "win" of his time at Penn State was the double overtime loss a year ago versus the eventual national champion Ohio State. Bill O'Brien certainly had some tough losses (Ohio, anyone?), but there were also wins against a ranked Northwestern squad in 2012, an undefeated Michigan team in 2013, and a top-15 Wisconsin to wrap up that same year.
The opportunity that lies in front of Penn State these next two weeks doesn't belong to just Franklin. Yes, this team's seven wins have ensured them 15 additional practices and the reward of a bowl game in a yet to be determined locale. But heading into the postseason with three straight losses and a 7-5 record does not exactly feel like progress.
Instead, Penn State has a huge chance to not only knock off their first ranked team of the Franklin era, but to take a real, tangible step further out of the depths of the sanctions. There have been the smaller, behind the scenes moves such as likely back-to-back top-15 recruiting classes and the first significant facilities upgrades in decades. But this is still a results business at the end of the day, and the results, by in large, have not quite been there.
That is of course a somewhat unfair assessment, given the obstacles the program has had to overcome. But over the next 11 days, that script can be completely rewritten against two of the best in the nation.