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Making Sense of Penn State’s 2017 Season

Penn State might be ahead of schedule when it comes to contending for championships, but that doesn’t make the last two weeks any less disappointing.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As Matthew Coghlin’s kick sailed through the uprights, Penn State watched on as its College Football Playoff hopes disappeared. With two losses and an unlikely chance to win the Big Ten East, the Nittany Lions’ season is effectively over.

If most Penn State fans are like me, they’re certainly feeling a wide range of emotions. First and foremost, disappointment. This season started with so much promise. The Nittany Lions returned a myriad of experience, and were just starting to see James Franklin’s highly-touted recruiting classes make their mark. While the Nittany Lions didn’t have the talent-level of other contenders around the country, there seemed to be a perfect blend of experience and youth that other teams couldn’t match. And whatever talent the Lions were missing, they made up for in having the most dangerous weapon in the country — Saquon Barkley.

For most of the 2017 season, things were mostly falling into place. The Nittany Lions were far from perfect in their first six games, never quite clicking on cylinders, but when push came to shove, they knew how to win. Whether it was against Pitt, Iowa, Indiana, or Northwestern, they were able to win with offense, defense, or special teams, looking like one of the few complete teams in the country.

Finally, though, it all began to click. With College GameDay in town and the entire nation watching the Nittany Lions, Penn State dominated a then-ranked Michigan squad, winning 42-13. Moving to the next week, the Nittany Lions led 35-20 heading into the fourth quarter against Ohio State. Things were falling perfectly into place, not just for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but for an undefeated season. As we say here at BSD, “15-0 or GTFO” wasn’t just a possibility, but seemed like an eventual reality.

Unfortunately, that reality crashed and burned over the next five quarters. The Nittany Lions collapsed in the fourth quarter against the Buckeyes, and fell to Michigan State 27-24, a loss Penn State most certainly deserved. Just like that, the dream was over, the magic was gone, and the season was finished.

So, again, I come back to what Penn State fans should be feeling. Did Penn State fail to live up to its potential, wasting away what should have been a championship season? Or did Penn State fans get caught up in the magic of the previous 17 games when, in reality, this was a team that was punching above its weight class?

Middle-man Patrick here, but it’s probably somewhere in the middle.

The Nittany Lions don’t have the talent of normal national title contenders. Bud Elliot of SBNation writes every year about how important the Blue-Chip Ratio (BCR) (number of four-star and four-star players a program signs in the previous four recruiting classes) is. Looking at the previous champions — Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State, and Clemson — and they were all over the 50% threshold needed to be a true title contender.

Penn State is closing in on the 50% mark, currently claiming a 41% BCR, but isn’t quite there yet. And honestly, a large majority of that talent is still waiting in the wings. The Nittany Lions 2014 class (now seniors and redshirt juniors) only had a BCR of 20%, while the 2015 (52%), 2016 (40%), and 2017 (50%) classes are where the real talent lies. Fortunately for Penn State, that number will only keep jumping, as the Nittany Lions will welcome another championship-caliber class in 2018.

Still, if you don’t want to compare Penn State to an Alabama or Clemson, compare them to last year’s Nittany Lions. If the 2016 team was on the precipice of a Playoff birth, what could the 2017 squad accomplish? And that’s where so much of the frustration and disappointment comes from, because it doesn’t feel like this team took the next step everyone thought it was capable of taking.

Look at the offensive line, a unit that not only didn’t improve but regressed. Saquon Barkley, a generational player, was held under 100 yards against teams like Georgia State, Indiana, and Northwestern, all teams that have far less talent than Penn State. Yes, the offensive line is still young, but to lack any semblance of a running game over the last two weeks; it’s a problem that goes beyond recruiting rankings.

Here’s the thing though: the College Football Playoff birth was still right there. Even with the flaws offensively and the defense getting exposed, Penn State led in the fourth quarter in both games. For all the negatives that jump out in losses, the Nittany Lions were only five points away from being 9-0. Five freaking points. Such a minuscule amount, but yet enough to drastically change the complexion of an entire season. Being that close and not finishing — that’s what makes this sting. Penn State had what it coveted most in its grasp, but somehow, it slipped away.

Sure, big picture, this isn’t the end of the road for Penn State. This is a program that’s on the up-and-up; a program that will find itself back in the CFP conversation for years to come. James Franklin will continue to bring in more and more talent, so please, continue to trust the process. But, right now, that doesn’t mitigate the sting because championships are hard to come by, and as promising as things may look, you never know when another opportunity will come knocking again.

Let’s hope when it does, Penn State is ready to answer the door.