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Neither Up Nor Down

The Nittany Lions are stuck, with no clear answers how to reach the next level.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Do you ever get something that just sticks in your head forever, without any understanding why it lives in your memory? You probably have some jingle for a cereal or line from a movie you have’t seen in decades that randomly pops in your head. For me, it’s one of the first songs we learned in elementary school music, The Grand Old Duke of York:

Oh, the grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men;

He marched them up to the top of the hill, And he marched them down again.

When they were up, they were up,

And when they were down, they were down,

And when they were only halfway up,

They were neither up nor down.

Those lyrics that midlessly entered my head on thousands of occasions had a lot of truth to them as I walked my dog following the Penn State-Michigan game to take a much-needed break from my college football marathon. Penn State has certainly had their share of uplifting highs and downtrodden lows during recent years. Right now though, they’re stuck somewhere between up and down.

This isn’t meant to be doom and gloom. In fact, Penn State’s football program is in tremendous shape. James Franklin is an outstanding coach to get them here, especially considering the overall turmoil and reduced roster he inherited in 2014. About 90% of programs would love to be where Penn State stands right now — double-digit win totals, regular NY6 bowl apperances (and victories!), a packed 100,000+ stadium, high-end recruiting classes and droves of former players succeeding in the NFL.

While the grass is always greener, there’s no way of getting around the fact that Penn State is stuck. Winning games is never easy, despite the fact that the Nittany Lions make it look that way 10 Saturdays of the year. They are a reliably motivated and well-coached team with the athletes to put it all together and beat the pants off nearly everyone on the schedule — except for Ohio State, and currently, Michigan.

This season has firmly demonstrated Penn State’s place in the current college football structure — a team that belongs in the top 10, but has too much distance from the true contenders who are still in the hunt for a national title.

The Nittany Lions had two opportunities against contenders this season, and both went exactly the same. The defense fought to keep games with Ohio State and Michigan within striking distance. However, the offense was struck in neutral against two of the best defenses in the nation. The difference is that the Buckeyes and Wolverines were able to scheme something up to get the ball in the hands of their best players. Penn State seemed to have no way of doing so, which was especially clear in the second half of both games.

While the season started with legitimate Big Ten title and playoff hopes, we now know exactly where this team stands. Every program gets better or worse over time. Which direction are the Nittany Lions headed?

I wish I could confidently state that the Nittany Lions are ever-so-close and will eventually burst through. It just seems like they’ve been at the same point for so long, there’s no longer a magic bullet we can point to that will assuredly transform Penn State into a national title contender.

Maybe the new offensive coordinator is able to scheme up a winning formula against championship-level opponents. Maybe the next Marvin Harrison Jr. heads to Happy Valley and becomes the true difference-maker in those games. I certainly don’t have any different answers than I have for the last few years, where it seemed inevitable Penn State was just one or two missing pieces from being a true contender. For now, at least we get to enjoy those 10 Saturdays a year.