It probably goes without saying, but season ending games, win or lose, have such a sense of finality. That rings especially true in college football, where all but the three playoff games are more or less glorified exhibitions. But to the players taking part, fans who make the trip, and those loyal followers watching at home, they most certainly matter.
When Trace McSorley's hail mary hit the ground on Saturday and the 24-17 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs was final, the feeling seemed much more than just the end of a tumultuous 2015 Penn State football season. The ups and downs, on and off the field, of the last four seasons in Happy Valley do not need to rehashed anymore. We all know them by heart at this point. However, in many ways – some much more real than others – January 2, 2016, marks the end of one era of PSU history and the start of a new one.
James Franklin said after the game that the 2016 will mark the first time in four years the Nittany Lions are back at full strength from a scholarship standpoint. Of course the last of the on-field sanctions were removed in the fall of 2014, but the long-term effects have lingered for the last two seasons. Yes, there have been full recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015, but the smaller classes of the previous years kept the numbers below the full 85 allotted FBS programs.
Next month, the Lions will bring in another class of high school seniors, one that will likely rank in the top-15 nationally. That will mark the second consecutive year of such a highly touted class and the third straight with more than 20 members. As Franklin said on Saturday, the 2016 season will be the first time since 2011 that Penn State will field a team of 85 recruited scholarship athletes. That matters.
All those things are very real, tangible changes that will impact the 2016 season and beyond. But on another level, Saturday marked the end of another era. Bill summed up so well everything Christian Hackenberg has done for this team, program, and university over the past three-plus years. For all of that, all of us will be eternally grateful. But at the same time, perhaps, the departure of one of the all-time great PSU quarterbacks will allow the program to take another step forward.
No one ever wants to lose a quarterback that possesses the type of talent Hackenberg does, but as Penn State transitions to this next phase of "recovery," maybe the timing is right. With new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead set to take over the offense, and one of McSorley, redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens, or true freshman Jake Zembiec set to take over under center, it is hard to ignore that things will look and feel plenty different on September 3 against Kent State.
The heavy lifting for Penn State to take the next step starts now. The argument can be made that this off season is the biggest facing the Lions, at least from an on field standpoint, in over 10 years. That is not to say PSU needs to go 10-2 next year, but those types of expectations are coming. Perhaps these major changes are the next bricks in the building project.