There is nothing college football fans and pundits like discussing more than whether a storied program is “back.” Sure, it’s nice when new teams arise and interesting story lines happen, but we set our watch by the same crew of blue-blood programs achieving success. When one falls out of the top tier, we speculate about its return to form, and college football’s return to normalcy.
Perhaps no school has sought that normalcy more eagerly than Penn State, which has spent the past five years chasing a world in which people associate its football team with football, and nothing more.
Back in September, head coach James Franklin was coaching for his job. The team had winning seasons in each of his first two years at Penn State, but hadn’t quite achieved the success predecessor Bill O’Brien had, despite O’Brien’s teams playing under enormous NCAA sanctions. Franklin’s staff seemed to stifle the growth of Christian Hackenberg, a once-budding QB prospect whose completion percentage and total yardage declined in every year at Penn State. The Nittany Lions started the year 2–2 with a loss to Pitt, a school Penn State fans view with such derision they sometimes get upset when you even insinuate the two are rivals, and a blowout defeat by Michigan. Franklin’s seat was officially hot.
With five straight victories, including a whiteout win over then-no. 2 Ohio State, the Nittany Lions can be considered back. They’re ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2009 — before Joe Paterno died, before the sanctions for the cover-up for Jerry Sandusky’s decades of child abuse came and went, before “Penn State football” made national news instead of just the sports pages. If the Nittany Lions win their final three games — Indiana, Rutgers, and Michigan State, all matchups they’ll be favored in — they’ll have 10 wins for the first time since the same year. And they’ll probably head to a New Year’s Six bowl, either the Cotton or the Orange.
If they do, I’d recommend watching them. I cannot emphasize enough the joy of watching Saquon Barkley, the sophomore running back who takes more pleasure than anybody in college football in embarrassing defenders in one-on-one situations. He spins, he jukes, he hurdles, and if you try to prepare for any of those three moves, he’ll hit you with one of the others. The good news for defenders is that he’s done this so many times in his two years in State College that there’s a decent chance their moment of misery might not even make it into his highlight reel.
(Those are highlights from his freshman year. He’s been even better as a sophomore.)
The Nittany Lions also have one of the top 15 defenses in the country, per S&P+. And for the neutral fan, the team as a whole seems dead set on creating drama: It’s ranked 36th on offense and 54th on defense in the first quarter, but it’s top-five in both categories in the fourth.
So yeah, Penn State is back. But even with a spectacular season to feel great about, Penn State almost certainly won’t be conference champion. The team probably won’t even be in the championship game. The Nittany Lions played great and even squeaked out a win over Meyer, riding a raucous home crowd and forcing a pair of rare special teams snafus by a typically airtight Buckeyes team. And they’ll still need miracles elsewhere — like Michigan losing to Indiana or Iowa, whom they’re 18-point road favorites against this weekend — to win the division.
These are the facts of life for a team squeezed into an unbalanced divisional scheme that pits it against Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh. Franklin is a really strong coach; he managed to make Vanderbilt a competent SEC team for multiple seasons, a feat so preposterous we might not see it again in our lifetimes. But he hasn’t out-recruited Harbaugh or Meyer, and he doesn’t seem likely to out-coach them often.
When Penn State was good under Paterno, he was the team’s coach. When Penn State was bad under Paterno, well, he was the coach. Things went that way for almost 50 years. Then, in a span of three months, Sandusky’s crimes came to light, Paterno was fired, and Paterno died.
There’s famously a tiny, but EXTREMELY LOUD subsect of Penn State fans that was driven off the edge by this — the group of truthers who have dedicated their lives to broadcasting their version of what Paterno knew and when he knew it. Their angry devotion to a dead coach’s legacy mainly serves to show the rest of us how football could allow a coach to become trusted enough that people would allow him to conceal his friend’s sexual predation for decades, but, well, truthers rarely get subtlety.
While reckoning with the moral consequences of supporting Penn State, the rational majority of fans also had to get used to a unique recalibration on the sidelines. They’d been shot out of a cannon into a college football landscape very different than the one they were used to, where coaches actually change jobs from time to time. When O’Brien left after two successful seasons, it seemed like treason. When Franklin struggled modestly off the bat, as plenty of good coaches do, it was time to talk about firing him.
Fraknlin’s abilities have been validated by the team’s current success, but the quick rush to judgment is still concerning. Paterno’s teams won two national championships in 46 seasons, and three Big Ten titles in 19 years in the league. And he was one of the greatest coaches of all time. If Penn State coaches take a year or two to turn good teams into great teams, the pitchforks shouldn’t come out. That’s just how college football works.
As long as the Nittany Lions are stuck in a sardine can with two of the top three coaches in college football, it will take something special to make the conference championship game — let alone win it. This thing happening now is really good, and there’s a chance it could stay that way and not get any better.
Penn State fans should love this team the way Barkley loves hating defenders. Smile at them the way you can tell Barkley is smiling when yet another ill-fated cornerback tries an arm tackle and gets nothing but air.