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Ben State Football: The Pressure Of Knowing

by on June 26, 2017 2:00 PM

I've spent a good portion of my summer volunteering at PAWS, the local dog shelter here in State College.

My motivation, the repetitive nature of the offseason, because frankly nothing is really happening. Beat writers wake up every morning and pray for a schedule update simply so they can put off writing position previews for another day. It isn't glorious work in June and July, but something has to pay the bills.

Perhaps more to the point, I like dogs.

Fortunately for those of us working there we've seen plenty of dogs come through the doors and find a happy family willing to take them home. In many cases they already have their own name, in others they're given one.

That was when I met a dog named Saquon. And then a dog named Urschel, and dogs named Tamba, Franklin, Trace and Barkley. All of them coming to the shelter, and so far, all of them going to nice new homes, a tentative hope for a better life than dog treats and long walks with a different set of strangers every day.

In the brief moments of calm, volunteers gather in the kitchen area before heading back out to work with the dogs.

And without fail, Penn State football comes up almost every time.

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It's an interesting setting for someone like myself. Not that I have the illusion that everyone in State College knows who I am, far from it, but I've had enough interactions with strangers across town who know me as "the guy from Twitter" to know that it's certainly not unreasonable someone might recognize me.

In either case my time at PAWS has been for the most part, a fly on the wall opportunity to listen to fans. Much like our collective hope for the dogs, there is a tentative hope for Penn State's season. And also a bit of terror in the eyes, knowing being average is far less stressful than being good.

And it's an interesting thing to think about. Penn State hasn't really had a season with great expectations since 2008. The O'Brien years were full of something like a defiant optimism. Franklin's first two years were largely the excitement of something new. Even in the final 2011 season as everything hit, that team was somehow in the Top 20 but seemingly always primed to get in its own way.

That was probably one of the more bizarre dynamics about Penn State's season in 2016. After the upset win over Ohio State the Nittany Lions only played twice more at home, both hindered by holidays and cold weather. When Penn State lost in the start of the season to Pitt nobody was expecting too much, when Penn State lost to Michigan that was a fairly easy game to explain away. By the time fans figured out how good their favorite team was, it was almost too late.

But now everyone knows what to expect, or in the very least everyone knows what they're expecting.

And that's an entertaining thing to watch as the season draws closer. There is going to be an immense amount of pressure on this team to do well. Saquon Barkley, for all of his admirable character traits, would be simply insane to return for his senior season. Joe Moorhead might be convinced to stick around a bit longer, but hardly anyone can see him staying on as an assistant if his product continues to perform like it did in 2016.

So the window, it appears, is very small. Which in turn will only ratchet up that pressure.

You get that sense already around State College, even if it's somewhat unspoken, short of a few volunteers washing their hands over a glass of water and dog hair. Penn State could very well turn into the kind of program that can sustain success, a place like Alabama where a season that doesn't end with a national title is unfortunate, but next year will be just as good.

But Penn State has yet to confirm it has reached that point, and in truth won't be able to for at least another year. And so the only certainty has become that Penn State should be good this season, and that nobody knows how long the iron will be this hot.

Which is probably why James Franklin and company have started back at square one this offseason working on all of the little things. The team is better prepared, but it isn't going to take a shortcut to picking up where it left off. If anything the little things are what make the difference between great teams and elite ones.

Whatever the case might be, just like the dogs, everyone is waiting.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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