What a weird time to be a Penn State fan, especially a relatively young one like myself. Christian Hackenberg, face of the program since he was a senior in high school, could well be playing his last game. Josh Moyer did a great job distilling Hack's career down, which you should read immediately. We can and will speculate on his and on Austin Johnson's futures until they announce their decisions (Jourdan Rodrigue's article on Johnson tentatively staying is also worth a read for the most important story of bowl season: the seafood buffet). What will the future look like though?
You have a new, innovative offensive coordinator, an elite defensive coordinator, an incredible recruiting class, an army of talent at the skill positions, the most exciting freshman running back in the country, and still plenty of questions on the offensive line and, presumably, quarterback. That's another post for another dead period in the offseason, but it's certainly strange that, if they're being truly honest, nobody knows what the first team will look like on Blue & White Weekend. Of course, that's the very nature of college football: it is a game built on turnover.
More precisely, it is a game won by efficient, effective, consistent turnover. That's what makes this stretch, from the last regular season game, the layover, and the bowl right on through next April, such a strange and fascinating period. It's a sort of purgatory, but the chance for ascent is the odds-on favorite. For all of the turmoil, there has been a sort of odd stability in the sanction and post-sanction eras, at least in the most visible part of the game to the casual observer. The last time nobody knew who would start at quarterback was pre-2011, which is far longer ago in Happy Valley than most anywhere else on earth. For many that aforementioned stability is embodied in the three-year starter at quarterback. Assuming he leaves, what's next? Other than the continue reign of Saquon, it's pretty much a blank slate.
An obviously major two-year period is coming up, perhaps the most important stretch with regards to Penn State head coach job stability since the early 2000s. James Franklin has to start getting on field results and show tangible improvement. His off-field performance has been excellent, but his decision making when walking the sidelines has been questioned loudly and frequently. 2016 will be the first year in which JFF no longer has a major excuse, and Nittany Nation is hungry to see the team return to national prominence. Firing John Donovan in favor of Joe Moorhead has bought him plenty of goodwill, and once national signing day comes many will remember what he has done to revolutionize Penn State recruiting.
Adding a sweet ending to the season against a disappointing Georgia team, whose new head coach in Kirby Smart is preparing for Alabama's playoff game, will make the offseason that much easier for the squad in the Lasch building, at least from the message board crowd. The future breeds hope and fear in State College as it does in life, and a season-ending achievement helps to reinforce the long-term outlook's positives. In a relatively ugly season, a bowl win can make a lot of fans have shorter memories. If you need an example, just look at the Pinstripe.
As I mentioned in the depth chart post, this is guaranteed to be the last hurrah for several program standouts like Carl Nassib, and Anthony Zettel. Their performances for alma mater will be remembered for a very long time. If it does end up being the curtain call for Hack and AJ as well, let's remember the good times and be hopeful for the future. If not, we should win nine games next year. Isn't college football great? Please, don't let it end.
Georgia 20 - Penn State 13
Matt: To some degree, Penn State and Georgia's seasons played out in a similar fashion. Wins against teams they were clearly better than, losses to those they weren't. After 15 years of much of the same, Mark Richt found himself out of a job for about 72 hours. That change means UGA will face the Lions with about half of their coaching staff in place, not to mention several key players out with injuries, or other issues.
Bowl games often come down to who wants to be there more, and at least on paper, it's tough to see how Georgia gets up for this game with all the change in Athens. With that said, the Bulldogs still have plenty of talent, and can make life miserable for PSU's offensive line, Christian Hackenberg, and Saquon Barkley. But I expect the difference to be a healthy, and rested, Nittany Lions defensive line. Nassib, Zettel, Johnson, and Sickels have not been together, and at 100% (or close) since October. Those 4 will bottle up the Georgia offense, and force a couple turnovers. In what is likely his final game at PSU, Christian Hackenberg takes advantage of those, and the Lions get a close, ugly, win.
Penn State 20 - Georgia 16
bscaff: Two terrible offenses, both heavily greased with incompetence, wrestling in a hog pen of despair, merely trying not to hurt themselves, and doing a poor job even of that. If such a thing as a Colonoscopy Bowl existed, this would be it. Penn State injures itself less, and "wins".
Penn State 17 - Georgia 16
Dan: I am dreading this game even though objectively I should not be. I have Penn State pulling it out because I'm going with my head over my heart, but do not mistake this for any sort of confidence. If Mark Richt was still the coach at Georgia I'd be predicting a loss. Also, I'm trying to remind myself that Penn State has Saquon Barkley. He's good.
Penn State 21 - Georgia 13
Bill: I hate this game for like 10,000 different reasons, but the thing that I think I hate the most is that we have zero idea what either team is going to look like. Georgia lost Mark Richt and has suffered a whole lot of injuries over the course of this season. Penn State will have someone other than John Donovan calling plays and we're not quite sure about how healthy some guys (Nassib, Carl) are going to be for the game. Honestly, I think trying to pick this one is kind of dumb, because there are so many things that are unknown that it's hard to get a grasp on anything.
Ultimately, it comes down to which not great offense will do the most against a really great defense. I'll do the safe thing and ride with Georgia, which has gobs of talent all over the place on defense and is capable of doing some good stuff on offense when Greyson Lambert has time to throw (which, admittedly, sounds a lot like Penn State with Christian Hackenberg, I just trust Georgia's ability to keep Lambert upright against Penn State's front than I do Penn State's ability to keep Hackenberg upright against Georgia's front). Give me an ugly game that I will hate watching but I will enjoy because it gives me an excuse to cheer on the Nittany Lions one last time this year.
Please don't leave, Christian. You almost definitely should but please don't.
Georgia 17 - Penn State 10
Tim: If it weren't for the loss of over half of their coaching staff, I would no doubt be projecting a victory for the Dawgs. However, with position coaches and grad assistants plugging in the leaks on this UGA ship and with the motivation of their players being a huge factor combined with nearly every key injured player on PSU (I'm especially looking at you, Carl Nassib) being healthy again and John Donovan no longer around to call plays, I'm liking PSU's chances of improving to 2-0 against Georgia. It won't be pretty, not in the least bit, but Saquon Barkley will somehow get his yards (replete with a huge burst or two), Christian Hackenberg will have a 'decent enough' performance (not 2014 Pinstripe Bowl caliber, but enough to avoid critical turnovers and make some clutch throws in spots), and a healthy defensive front of Nassib, Anthony Zettel, and Austin Johnson playing their final game altogether will be looking to go out with a bang. PSU will win and we will be glad online.
PSU 20 - Georgia 17
Chris: Penn State will play loose on offense and the defense will provide at least one touchdown, possibly from a fat guy. The Lion's run game will provide steady yardage in the first half and in the second half it will open up the pass game. Christian Hackenberg will introduce a new concept, the deep throw off play-action, and it will blow everyone's mind. Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall will each catch touchdown passes of over 40 yards. Saquon Barkley will have a touchdown run of over 40 yards. Penn State will miss an extra point.
Initially Georgia will hold the lead in the first half but the Dawgs offense will sputter out shortly after halftime. Late in the game it will score a meaningless touchdown with our second-team defense on the field as Austin Johnson and Carl Nassib empty a gatorade bucket over the shiny head of coach Franklin. In the locker room after the game Anthony Zettel will reprise all of his pre-season antics, kicking a water bottle into a tree, causing it to fall over while doing the Thriller dance. He then will conduct post-game interviews in character as a velociraptor.
Penn State 30 - Georgia 17
Nick: I couldn't tell you why, but I'm feeling strangely optimistic in what will likely be Christian Hackenberg's final game as a Penn State Nittany Lion. Georgia has so many issues right now between a lack of coaches and injuries, that I consider the advantage they hold in athleticism to be moot. Greyson Lambert doesn't instill much fear in me as a Penn State fan, especially considering his struggles with a good pass rush. Thanks to the return of Carl Nassib, who Penn State sorely, sorely missed at the end of the regular season, I think that the Lions reacquaint themselves with the backfield in this one. I also feel very good about Saquon Barkley in this game. After having time off to heal up and return to 100%, and with an interim offensive coordinator at the helm, I expect to see a lot of the true freshman.
I think Penn State gets off to a good start in this one, and scores on their opening drive while establishing both Barkley and the play-action. They'll run into a wall for a big portion of this game though, because Georgia's defense is very good. I think Penn State's defense should be able to hold down the Bulldog offense, as well, but I also think Malik Golden gets taken advantage of for a big touchdown at some point. Overall, it will be an ugly game predicated on field position and defense. Can Penn State win a game like that? Yeah. Will Penn State win a game like that? Sure!
Give me 247 yards and 2 touchdowns for Hack, 168 yards and 1 touchdown for Barkley, 112 yards and 1 touchdown for Godwin, 2 sacks for Nassib, an interception for Trevor Williams, and 16 tackles for Jason Cabinda. Go State.
Penn State 24 - Georgia 20
Cari: Georgia comes in with a better record (by two games) and plays in the vaunted SEC. If Penn State played Georgia's schedule, they too would have a 9-3 record--if not 10-2. There, I said it.
All five teams the Penn State lost to would beat this UGA team, and San Diego State likely would as well. Plus, I'd like that Northwestern game back for our Nittany Lions, not having played nine games in a row going into that game and with Carl Nassib for the last series.
I get that both defenses in this game are legit. Really, I do--but I also really feel that UGA's defense is inflated by their weak schedule, and the fact that they won't have their defensive coordinator there definitely helps. Plus, we've played five (if not six, if you count MSU) defenses that I'd argue are better than UGA's and we did better against them than UGA did against Alabama and Tennessee. And yet their offense is supposedly better than ours? AND THEIR OFFENSE WILL BE GOING UP AGAINST THE NATION'S #1 SACK LEADER, ON THE TEAM THAT GETS TO THE QUARTERBACK THE MOST IN THE NATION?
Yeah, maybe I'm drinking too much blue kool aid, but I don't buy it. I get that both teams have coaching transitions--but we only have one, and it's addition by subtraction. And yeah a lot of bloggers say that...but I really mean it, dammit. And 1 is less than a bajillion, anyway.
I feel, going in, that we'll win this one comfortably. Which means we probably won't, but I'm still confident. Blast me some Demi Lovato, and give me the Nittany Lions (with one of the scores on defense or special teams--or because of defense or special teams).
Penn State 27 - Georgia 14