Before the fall of 2016, Penn State hadn't won an outright Big Ten football title since the vaunted 1994 should've been National Championship season. And headed into last year, virtually the only ones who thought James Franklin and his group of players, the first in Happy Valley since 2012 to be unencumbered by NCAA sanctions, would even compete for a title were those involved with the PSU program.
There's a meme on the Black Shoe Diaries boards whereby every preseason, when asked for predictions on what the team's record will be before the season, some predict "15-0 or GTFO". For the first time in a really long time, an undefeated season seems well within the realm of possibility for the Nittany Lions--and for the foreseeable future, with the talent that's being stockpiled, that should be a reasonable expectation.
Prediction: Penn State will finish with a top five recruiting class - in the nation
The next five years look incredibly promising for PSU football, its players, program and staff. While the decommit of defensive end Micah Parsons has dropped the 2018 recruiting class to *only* the third best in the nation at this point, Franklin and his staff have been recruiting lights-out since setting foot on campus, with classes ranked 24th (2014), 15th (2015), 20th (2016), and 15th (2017)--and all but the most recent were under the microscope of sanctions for much of the recruiting period. Finishing strong, and locking down the commonwealth, isn’t a goal that this staff can’t meet.
Prediction: The coaching staff will lose Joe Moorhead
The Penn State coaching staff, which looks poised to add a 10th member, is arguably as good as it's ever been, with talented position coaches across the board, and each staff member pulling their weight in recruiting. Defensive line coach Sean Spencer, perhaps under the biggest microscope of any position after Franklin elected not to retain Larry Johnson, Sr., has proved to be more than a worthy successor. Brent Pry, whom some worried would be a significant downgrade to now-Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, showed this past year that he was as good as anyone at making second half adjustments.
Running back coach Charles Huff, in addition to molding Saquon Barkley into a preseason Heisman contender, has turned special teams into a strength virtually overnight; Matt Limegrover has turned the offensive line from a seive into a wall; and Josh Gattis and Terry Smith have stockpiled incredible talent and depth--and turned wide receivers and defensive backs into positions of great strength which can insert almost anyone into a starting role and succeed. Lastly, everyone's (except opposing defensive coordinators) favorite offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has proven to be nothing short of a genius, installing and perfecting the most dynamic offense in the Big Ten in Happy Valley.
Over the next five years, not all of these coaches will stay at Penn State; but that's a good thing, as it would show that these coaches have been successful, and brought PSU football success as well. It’s virtually a gimme that Moorhead in particular looks unlikely to stay wearing blue and white past this season, after multiple programs pursued him last year and he turned them down. Waiting in the wings to take over purportedly is tight end coach and passing game coordinator Ricky Rahne, who's been learning to implement the system under Moorhead.
Prediction: Moorhead won’t be the only coach to depart
Pry, too, may move on within five years, having been Franklin's assistant head coach since his Vanderbilt days, and having offers from smaller programs in the offseason. Safeties coach Tim Banks may be the next internal man up to run the defense once/if Pry moves on, having spent his first few seasons since coming from Illinois as the co-defensive coordinator alongside Pry.
Whomever departs, and for whatever reason, Franklin has proved that his binder full of coaches is stocked and ready, with talent that would fit in with his philosophy; and he's also proved that he's willing to do what's best for the program, and he has a vision of what that would be--and it's working.
Prediction: The Big Ten East will be the best division in college football
The road towards sustained greatness for Penn State football over the next five years won't be an easy one; the Big Ten East looks to be the most difficult conference division in the nation, with the most decorated coaches, as the Lions will face Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh every year - as well as Mark Dantonio, whose Michigan State Spartans took advantage of down PSU and Michigan programs over the past few years in order to establish themselves a worthy adversary. The East looks poised to continue to be the dominating division of the Big Ten conference, though Wisconsin and Nebraska, if this past few season's surprising success is any indication, will perennially be in the national discussion - as may, sporadically, Iowa, as long as (or perhaps in spite of) Kirk Ferentz's virtual lifetime contract. But with the East owning head to heads, conference championships, and recruiting prowess over the West, it looks like the East winner will be the team to beat in the foreseeable future.
Prediction: Penn State will go to the College Football Playoff
But, of course, even the winner of the Big Ten East won't have a guaranteed spot in the National Football Playoffs; this past year (and arguably 2015) showed that, that the most deserving team with the best shot wouldn't always get the call from the Playoff committee. This past season's bowl performances (that bagel that Ohio State laid in the playoffs, and the game some called "the best Rose Bowl ever" that PSU played til the last possession), though, have shown that head to head and conference titles do matter--and it would be difficult, with hindsight, for the playoff committee to make that same call. But humans are difficult to predict, and it still could happen.
Penn State will enter the 2017, and all seasons in the next five years, with loftier expectations than they've had in twenty years. They'll likely take a preseason top ten ranking into a tough road schedule, and will be in the thick of the playoff race likely til the end of the season. A playoff berth sometime in the next few seasons isn't just a dream; it's virtually an expectation at this point, and Franklin and PSU won't take any teams by surprise this next year, and years to come, as they've shown by believing in themselves, each other, their talent and coaching, that Penn State, once again, is BACK.
Let's just hope they can play with that belief in the first half. That's a change that, for fans, may be the most daunting expectation of them all.
Which prediction, aside from Joe Moorhead leaving, do you think is the most likely?
This poll is closed
Penn State finishes with a top five recruiting class
A non-Moorhead assistant coach leaves the program for a promotion
The Big Ten East will remain the cream of college football’s crop
Penn State will make the college football playoff