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Penn State at a Crossroads: The Importance of 2016

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The college football landscape has changed significantly since Penn State was a major national player. Now they must start finding their way back.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Penn State Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the start of the 2011 season, Penn State will be on a level playing field with its opponents.

Penn State has done a tremendous job of holding the program together during the past five years, especially considering how the team was largely written-off following the crushing sanctions prior to the 2012 season, and the fact that to this day still regularly remain associated with one of the most disheartening scandals the sports world has ever seen.

But while Penn State has had to fight tooth and nail just to tread water, their regular foes have taken major strides. In the pre-scandal/post-Dark years era (2005-2011), Penn State basically needed to field a better team than Ohio State to claim the Big Ten crown and enter the conversation for the national title. And if they couldn’t, they could still count on winning the overwhelming majority of games to at least sniff the top 10.

Now, they find themselves looking up at three giants in their own division. Regardless of your feelings, Urban Meyer is one of the best coaches in the history of college football. Leading an elite program in a talent-rich state now makes him nearly unstoppable. He can sit back and garner four and five-star recruits to simply reload, even when losing a bevy of NFL talent on a near annual basis. Case in point- with just six returning starters this fall, many are still counting on Ohio State to take home the Big Ten title while being a strong candidate for the playoffs. Outside of Alabama’s current dynasty, it’s nearly unheard of to find a situation like this in the world of college football filled with constant turnover.

While Michigan may be a bit overhyped heading into 2016, it’s clear they are heading in the right direction under Jim Harbaugh. Coach Khaki's antics may regularly raise eyebrows or seem downright laughable at times, but the man knows how to win. As long as he’s the leader at Michigan, the Wolverines are likely to find their way to double-digit wins on an annual basis.

At one point, you could expect Penn State to cruise to victory against Michigan State in the final week of the season as their annual collapse came to a merciful end. That just won’t be happening again with Mark Dantonio at the helm. While he may not be pulling in the prized recruits like Meyer or Harbaugh, he knows how to get the most out of his players who buy into system of hard-nosed, old-school football. On a down year the Spartans are hard to beat thanks to their play in the trenches, tough defense and powerful, clock-controlling running game. When they have an experienced team, they’re nearly impossible to overcome.

And it’s not just Penn State’s Big Ten rivals who have made significant improvements since 2011- their once-dormant in-state foes are on the rise as well. Temple stunned Penn State 27-10 on its way to a 10-win season in 2015- something that seemed unimaginable after several decades of being every program’s preferred homecoming/non-conference cupcake. The fact that their match-up with Notre Dame on Halloween was the ABC prime-time game just goes to show far they’ve come is such a short time under former Penn Stater Matt Rhule. And to think- if not for some late Notre Dame magic, the Owls would have owned the college football headlines for at least one glorious week. While they may not sustain their current success, the program clearly has the potential to build into something even better.

Even Pitt found its way into the rankings quickly under Pat Narduzzi, who seems to be in the process of building a Michigan State East-type program after several years of learning under Dantonio. Maryland could also be on the rise thanks to Under Armor CEO Kevin Plank pumping money into the program. While the Terps have a long road ahead, it’s not out of the realm of possibility they could follow a similar path as Oregon. When Penn State took on the Ducks in the Rose Bowl following the 1994 season, it almost seemed as though they made it on a fluke. Thanks to Phil Knight’s generosity towards the program during the last two decades, they have become one of the most feared teams in college football.

But before they can make it back to the top, and worry about who they must overcome to do so, they must first become relevant again. The last time Penn State had a spot in the rankings was Christmas Eve of 2011- far too long for any program to be able to count itself among the elite in the nation. The Nittany Lions must fight and claw their way to get the number next to their name on the ticker for others to take notice once again. They need to have the type of team that gradually builds buzz around the program. They need to find their way back to the spot where they are playing in the marquee game that has an audience well outside of Big Ten country- the type of games that bring College Gameday to Beaver Stadium to serve as a day-long commercial for a national audience.

This isn’t likely to all fall into place immediately now that the team has its scholarships back. But what is paramount for the 2016 season is that we know witness progress. While the last two years have seen no uptick throughout the season, it’s now completely reasonable to expect that a young team grows immensely between Saturday’s game against Kent State and the regular season finale against Land Grant foe Michigan State. At the beginning of the season, we should see a team that is finding its way, with players developing into future stars. By the time the season ends, we should see a team that we can reasonably expect to compete for the Big Ten title in 2017.

While Penn State will need to battle just to be a top five team in its own conference in 2016, the time has come for major progress. The team may not even improve from its 7-5 regular season in 2015, but it can start showing major progress. No more failing to punch it in from the three-yard line more often than not. No more seasons where the offensive line seems lost week after week. No more special teams blunders that forever handicap the team in the field position battle. No more being dismantled by the top teams on their schedule.

To avoid hitting the reset button and to continue having recruits buy into the process, Penn State needs to send a clear sign that they are a program on the rise in 2016. They have the talent, the success on the recruiting trail and a dedicated coach who would love to call State College home long into the future. But if not, there are plenty of others who are more than prepared to dominate the state, region and conference.