It sure was quite the roller coaster ride for Penn State Football: Two seasons ago, a promising 5-0 and Top 10 ranking collapsed in epic fashion following a painfully close loss to a fellow Top 10 opponent, culminating in a seven-win season with a listless New Year’s Day bowl loss.
The following year saw PSU bounce back with a double-digit winning season, replete with a New Year’s Day bowl win over a quality opponent, and their only losses being to Michigan and Ohio State. Naturally, this bounce-back season plus the return of numerous key players, led to a lot of offseason hype, including not-so-quiet whispers of a Big Ten championship. However, living up to said offseason hype would involve having to beat at least one of Ohio State or Michigan, something which hadn’t been done over the last couple of years...
I’m talking of course, about the 1994 offseason that saw the Nittany Lions football program at crossroads. The team bounced back nicely in 1993, going 10-2 with a Citrus Bowl win over Tennessee, after a bitterly disappointing 1992 that saw them reach as high as No. 7 in the rankings after a 5-0 start, only to lose a tight one against No. 2 Miami (FL) and tailspin into a 7-5 final record.
The Nittany Lions were also coming off their first season of Big Ten football in 1993, and while it was successful overall, a 21-13 home defeat to Michigan (featuring an agonizing goal line stand by Michigan), and a 24-6 shellacking at Ohio State left them humbled and realizing they weren’t exactly at the top of the pecking order in their new digs.
Nonetheless, there was plenty of reason for optimism going into the 1994 season, particularly given all the key players returning on offense including Kerry Collins at quarterback, Ki-Jana Carter toting the rock at running back, Bobby Engram and Kyle Brady at receiver and tight end catching everything slightly within their grasp, and an offensive line chock full of future NFL draft picks.
It’s difficult to find any ‘94 season preview archives on the Internet, but I’d be willing to bet that nobody in their right minds was projecting an undefeated and Rose Bowl-bound season which included revenge wins over both Michigan and Ohio State, and an offense that would end up being one that the fan base still holds to this day as the gold standard for what a dominant PSU offense looks like.
This brings us to our current offseason, much like the one nearly three full decades ago, where the Nittany Lion program feels like it’s at a crossroads. In an eerily similar pattern to 1992-1993, PSU is coming off a better-than-anticipated 2022 season that helped relieve the bitter taste of a 2021 season that also nosedived following a 5-0 start. Not only that, but they enter 2023 with a massive amount of hype, given the impressive Rose Bowl win over Utah, plus the fact they return nearly all key players on both sides of the ball.
If Drew Allar lives up to his five-star billing and adapts to being the full-time starter at QB quickly enough, the sky’s the limit for the offense, as all the other skill positions are seemingly in a great spot and for once, there’s a solid offensive line to protect them. Despite losing Ji’Ayir Brown and PJ Mustipher, the defense actually looks poised to be better than last year’s edition, thanks to significant depth along the secondary and the defensive line, plus the continuity with having Manny Diaz return for another year as defensive coordinator.
Will Penn State Football party like it’s 1994 (except this time with an actual shot at winning a national title on the field instead of getting shafted by the polls)? An undefeated regular season seems like quite the reach, given how loaded Michigan and Ohio State appear to be, and there’s always the possibility of them losing a game they otherwise shouldn’t. Then again, I’m sure most of us said the same thing 29 years ago...remind me again, how that turned out?