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The Ebbs and Flows of Program Building in College Football

As frustrating as this season has been, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Penn State’s immediate future can’t still be bright.

Penn State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Following back-to-back 11-win seasons, Penn State was tasked with replacing 13 starters, six of which were three-year senior starters. Notable names like DaeSean Hamilton, Jason Cabinda, and Marcus Allen were gone, but yet, Penn State was expected to still contend for a Big Ten championship — and for sound reason. The Nittany Lions had roster turnover for sure, but there was still a lot to like about Penn State. From an all-conference quarterback in Trace McSorley, to four-of-five starters on the offense live returning, to just an overall bump in talent across the roster, it was not unrealistic to envision a trip to Indianapolis for the first Saturday of December.

But for all those who predicted 11-1 and the possibility of another Big Ten title for James Franklin, there was just as many who predicted a step back. John McGonigal of the CDT predicted 9-3 saying:

“By no means is 10-2 or even 11-1 out of the realm of possibility. Neither is a Big Ten title. But you don’t lose Saquon Barkley, offensive genius Joe Moorhead and more than half your defense and face four top-15 teams without taking a step back.”

Greg Pickel of PennLive also predicted 9-3:

“I think this group is talented enough to perform better, but some inexperience at a few key spots will cost them a game here or there, and the road trip to Michigan should pose a stiff challenge. A good building year setting up Franklin’s best Penn State team for a big run in 2019.”

While not predicting 9-3 (he predicted 10-2), here is what Jared Slanina said prior to the year:

“I keep thinking this is the season they take a small step back and finish out of the top 10, before becoming playoff contenders on an annual basis. But maybe they don’t need another season to get there. Only time will tell.”

Why do I bring these up? As a reminder of where many thought Penn State would be heading into the season: a team that was good enough to win the Big Ten, but one that had flaws it needed to figure out to do so. Whether that be a lack of depth at defensive tackle, shoddy linebacker play, having to replace three career leaders at wide receiver, tight end, and running back, or the staff turnover from Joe Moorhead to Ricky Rahne — this Penn State team had significant question marks, and as we found out again on Saturday, it didn’t have the answers for them in 2018.

That’s frustrating, and it falls on both the coaching staff and the players. Whether it was Rahne’s handling of the offense, the regression of the upperclassmen wide receivers, the lack of development of the backup defensive tackles — I mean, there is blame to go around. But it’s important to remember that a transition year — even if it was a more substantial one than originally anticipated — isn’t all that uncommon in college football. Perhaps just as importantly, it doesn’t mean that high hopes for the years that follow have to be lessened. Want proof? Look no further than the Revenge Tour crew themselves: the Michigan Wolverines.

After losing numerous starters from its 2016 team, Michigan went through a transition season in 2017. It came into the year with top ten hype, but didn’t come close to living up to lofty expectations. Instead, the Wolverines finished 8-5, capped off with an uninspiring loss to South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.

But yet, as Penn State saw up close and personal, Michigan’s program wasn’t doomed. The players improved! The coaches improved! Plays that didn’t work last year worked now! Crazy enough, one step back season didn’t prevent the Wolverines from being where they are now — that is, on the precipice of their first top-two finish in the Big Ten East.

Am I saying that Penn State probably wins the Big Ten next year? Well, yes I would say that. I’ve been saying that since like July, but that’s a discussion that Insufferable Patrick will tackle from January-August 2019.

But right now, I am saying this — there are ebbs and flows in building college football programs. Just because Penn State was a “great” program in 2016 and 2017, does not mean that the floor in 2018 was “great” or that the next step was going to be up. Unfortunately, the path to success isn’t always linear. Sometimes, the next step is a step down.

That’s okay though, because even if it might feel so right now, it’s not necessarily permanent. Things can change rapidly in college football, and with the foundation the Nittany Lions have in place, there’s plenty of reasons to think that Penn State’s step back won’t be prolonged.