Think back to where you were on July 23, 2012. I remember where I was, working the old summer job I had in college, sneaking off to hide from my boss while checking my phone to see what Mark Emmert’s announcement pertaining to Penn State would be.
I remember looking on in shock and disgust as he levied the stiffest sanctions, sans SMU receiving the death penalty, in the history of college football. These emotions quickly turned to dread as I began to think about the future of Penn State football and how it may be 10-plus years until the Nittany Lions were even competitive on a yearly basis again.
Now, let’s fast forward to December 3, 2016. After rallying to overcome a 28-7 first half deficit, the Nittany Lions got a big defensive stop from Grant Haley and Marcus Allen on their way to a 38-31 victory over Wisconsin and their first Big Ten Championship since 2008.
Less than 53 months after the NCAA seemingly crippled Penn State with sanctions, the Nittany Lions were Big Ten Champions, Rose Bowl bound, and on their way to being among college football’s elite once again.
The biggest reason Penn State was able to orchestrate such a quick turnaround was due to what happened on January 11, 2014, when James Franklin was announced as the team’s new head coach. Under Franklin’s leadership, the Nittany Lions appeared to be in the hands of a coach that could turn the mess he inherited around. However, he did this quicker than anyone could have ever hoped for.
Due to a depleted roster, scholarship restrictions, and a postseason ban, the Nittany Lions appeared to be at least 4-5 years away from competing for any sort of championship when Franklin took over. Well, in year 3 he was leading the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten Championship.
Entering this 2018 campaign Franklin had guided the Nittany Lions to a 22-5 record, a Big Ten Championship, a Rose Bowl trip, and a Fiesta Bowl championship if the team’s previous two seasons. This combined with redshirt senior Trace McSorley returning at quarterback, expectations were high entering the 2018 season. However, were they too high?
The answer is likely yes.
While Penn State returned McSorley and four starters on the offensive line, there is youth and inexperience all over the field. The team lost nine starters on defense, and are relying heavily upon players such as Antonio Shelton, Cam Brown, Donovan Johnson, Fred Hansard (prior to his season ending injury), Garrett Taylor, Micah Parsons, and Yetur Gross-Matos that, while talented, are either freshmen or seeing their first significant amount of playing time.
Offensively, the team lost three of the best skilled players in program history in Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton, and Mike Gesicki. While Miles Sanders and Pat Freiermuth have been excellent at running back and tight end, the team misses Hamilton dearly. Outside of KJ Hamler, the team’s wide receivers have struggled leading to drops, wrong routes, and a frustrated McSorley.
All of this set Penn State up to be victims of their own success, and that may be exactly what is happening.
Now, that is not to say there have not been any coaching miscues. The fourth down call against Ohio State was atrocious and the overly conservative offensive game plan against Michigan State was even worse. Brent Pry also rotated too many players on defense during the month of September. However, the 2018 edition of the Nittany Lions is not a legitimate contender for the College Football Playoff and that is showing. But, due to the success of 2016 and 2017, many fans expected them to be a playoff contender.
When Franklin’s rebuild began, 2019 was always shaping up to be the year for Penn State. The Nittany Lions netted a top-20 recruiting class in 2016, a top-15 recruit class in 2017, top-5 in 2018, and 2019 is shaping up to be a top-10 class once again. This sets up for 2019 to be the year that Penn State’s roster is littered with blue chip recruits from top to bottom, depth included.
Additionally, the 2019 team could have as many as ten starters back on offense and nine on defense. Assuming Tommy Stevens performs as many expect him to at quarterback, and 2019 could be a very special season for the Nittany Lions.
While 2018 has had plenty of growing pains, and there are undoubtedly more to come, remember that what awaits on the horizon for the Nittany Lions can be something special. And part of getting to that is taking some lumps this season, while falling victim to their own success.