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Can Penn State Continue its 3-Year Hot Streak or is it Time for the Cycle Theory?

by on March 31, 2019 7:20 PM

How good was Penn State football over the past three years?

Certainly, mostly nearly great. But shy of elite.

From 2016 through 2018, the Nittany Lions had a 31-9 record, tied for eighth-best in all of major college football.

And over that same time period, Penn State beat all four of the teams it faced that were ranked in the Top 12 for victories — No. 3 Ohio State (36 wins); Wisconsin and Washington, both tied for No. 5 (32 wins); and No. 11 Appalachian State (30 wins).

Of course, the Nittany Lions went 1-2 overall against the Buckeyes from 2016-18. And overall, six of PSU’s nine losses in that time came against Big Ten East division foes.

Take away Penn State’s perfunctory 2-2 start in 2016 and their Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky, and it marched off an impressive 29-6 streak. That .829 winning percentage would put the Nittany Lions in the hovering sub-territory of college football’s elite over the past three seasons.

Here is a breakdown of the top teams’ records — based on cumulative victories — for the 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons, including the postseason. (Clemson, which has two national titles to one for Alabama, is listed first.)

1. Clemson — 41-3 (.932), 2016-18: 14-1, 12-2, 15-0

2. Alabama — 41-3 (.932), 14-1, 13-1, 14-1

3. Ohio State — 36-5 (.878), 11-2, 12-2, 13-1

4. Oklahoma — 35-6 (.854), 11-2, 12-2, 12-2

5. Wisconsin — 32-9 (.780), 11-3, 13-1, 8-5

    Washington — 32-9 (.780), 12-2, 10-3, 10-4

7. Georgia — 32-10 (.762), 8-5, 13-2, 11-3

8. PENN STATE — 31-9 (.775), 11-3, 11-2, 9-4

    Boise State — 31-9 (.775), 10-3, 11-3, 10-3

10. Central Florida — 30-8 (.789) 6-7, 12-0, 12-1

11. Appalachian State — 30-9 (.769), 10-3, 9-4, 11-2

12. Army — 29-10 (.743), 8-5, 10-3, 11-2


Now, the question for Franklin’s Nittany Lions is, Can they continue that high-caliber hot streak?

The way the 2018 season ended (with PSU going 5-4) and the way the offseason unfolded (what with graduation, transfers and early declarations for the NFL) another season of double-digit wins may be a push.

The ’ole rebuild vs. reload question. If it is a rebuild of sorts, then perhaps it will signal the re-emergence of The Cycle Theory to Penn State.

Long-time Penn State fans remember The Cycle Theory. It was Joe Paterno’s long-term view — as a head coach, GM, director of player personnel and academic innovator — for building to a football crescendo.

And, maybe, it can be Franklin’s, too.

It was also one of Paterno’s greatest recruiting pitches, along with the promise of a solid education: Stick around for four or five years, and you’ll play for the national championship — unless Richard Nixon has a say — be ranked No. 1 and/or play on an undefeated team.

Franklin came close to that in 2016-17, with the high point being a Big Ten championship. Maybe that qualifies for an addendum for the modern-day Cycle.

Here’s what Paterno would do: He’d gradually accumulate all the pieces, and season it with older guys, vets who would run the team on and off the field. He’d pepper it with younger players, but make sure the squad had been through several battles before he took it to a war he planned on winning.

It worked. And, for decades it was true:

In 1968-69. In 1971, in 1973 and in 1978, in 1982 and ’85 and ’86. In 1991 and ’94 and ’99. It produced two national titles, essentially four national championship games, and was cheated out of a fifth (in 1994, when the Big Ten was not part of the bowl alliance‚ a strategical failure of the conference).

Then things went off the rails a bit. But 2005 fit the bill (thanks in a big way to MRoB and Derrick and Justin), and back-to-back 11-2’s in 2008-09 were close — especially if a Big Ten title qualifies for a high point of a cycle, as was the 8-1 start in 2011.

Look at these five-year stretches of Penn State football history under Paterno, which showing a stunning consistency decade after decade:

• From 1967 to 1971, Penn State won 48 games.

• From 1971 to 1975, Penn State won 52 games.

• From 1982 to 1986, Penn State won 48 games and two national titles.

• From 1993 to 1997, the first five years of the Big Ten, Penn State won 51 games.

• From 2005 to 2009, Penn State won 51 games.

In Franklin’s first five years, with the initial two severely hampered by sanctions, Penn State won 45 games — quite the feat. So, from 2016-21, 48 to 50 is not out of the question. In fact, it should be the goal and the expectation. At the least.


Here’s the thing about The Cycle Theory, and James — if you’re reading — you may want to take notes here:

It managed expectations, allowed for player development, and kept a bit of a longer-term view in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and calmed the nerves of the message-board warriors.

Let me repeat:

It helped manage expectations.

From Day One, that has been one of Franklin’s biggest challenges. And Franklin’s stock answer to the “expectations” question is that he welcomes them — that he, too, has high expectations as well, and that’s what makes Penn State’s vociferous fan base so intense.

Franklin is in the early stages of Year Six at Penn State, and he is already the fifth-winningest coach in Penn State’s 119-year football history. His 2016-17 seasons fit The Cycle Theory perfectly. The 2018 season was “down” — although a very solid 9-4, it did not meet many expectations, internally or externally.

A 9-4 is not enough to win the Big Ten or get CJF or PSU to their first berth in the CFP. The Nittany Lions will be a very young squad in 2019. And, if this were 20 or 30 years ago, it would be seen another piece of the overall cycle.

Penn State is a program in transition. It’s part of the good, great, elite soliloquy that Franklin delivered in a fashion that almost seemed rehearsed after the Nittany Lions’ nail-biting fourth-and-5 loss to the Buckeyes back on Sept. 29.

That was 183 days ago. A half a year ago.

Penn State is on very solid ground, that’s not what I mean. But if you’re not Alabama or Clemson, and you subscribe to The Cycle Theory, Franklin is still in the midst of a rebuild rather a reload. (At Penn State, 1982 was a reload; 1986, with a boatload of fifth-year seniors, was a reload. 2017 was reload.)

It may not be what folks expect in 2019. But, it may very likely be what they get.

That’s not a bad problem to have, a squad that could win or nine or 10 games.

But it can be a tough one to manage. 

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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