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Penn State Football: In 2019 the Nittany Lions May Be a Rorschach Test

by on August 01, 2019 2:45 PM

Penn State might be the best Rorschach test in college football.

As of Thursday afternoon the Nittany Lions have been ranked in the Top 25 for 41 consecutive (ranking) weeks. It's a mark that only Oklahoma, Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama can better. Whatever its faults, Penn State football has become a model of relative consistency over the past several seasons. It could be better, but it could be a whole lot worse.

Of course on the other side of that coin are all the differences between Penn State and those other four programs: Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama all have recent national titles while Oklahoma is looking to win its fifth-straight Big 12 title this season.

Penn State has a Big Ten championship and three seasons of nine or more wins. Those are commendable achievements, but they are a bridge farther from the true goals the program has set.

The test is really what to make of this. On the one hand Penn State is nationally relevant, winning games at a higher rate than most everyone else and doing it all in the shadow of the worst non-death penalty sanctions the NCAA has handed down. The refrain "Could you have imagined this five years ago?" has become so commonplace that everyone forgets that the answer was always "No."

It's part of the reason why I cringe when people dig up old tweets from national writers who thought Penn State was going to struggle to win for the next decade. Everyone thought that, fans talked about it, Bill O'Brien worried about it, and to a certain extent James Franklin even misjudged how hard the rebuild would be.

And even so, here things stand, Penn State entering the 2019 season looking to win nine or more games for the fourth-straight year, never dropping out of the Top 20, never falling far down the hill it climbed in 2016.

On the other hand, despite the remarkable turnaround, the shortcomings are hard to ignore. Penn State pretty much only has itself to blame for a two-game losing streak against Ohio State, one that ought to be a three-game winning streak. It also ought to have a better record against Michigan State and, if nothing else, should have showed better at Michigan last season in Ann Arbor.

The 2016 and 2017 teams on the a whole were among the best the program has ever fielded and the latter felt like a missed opportunity, the former a conference title won, albeit not without some help, and a playoff invite missed.

All of this brings us to 2019, a season where the questions are not lacking, nor the potential pitfalls difficult to find. The Nittany Lions have to travel to face Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa. None of those games would have been easy for great teams, let alone a team otherwise unproven offensively and still maturing defensively. Add in a home meeting against Michigan and the general ups and downs of a Big Ten schedule and the traps have been set everywhere.

The question is one each fan, player and coach will have to answer on their own: What does acceptable "failure" look like?

In 2019, the answer ought to be simple: a bowl win, a growing offense under a new quarterback, a stout defense and everything gearing up for a much more favorable run in 2020. You can get there in nine wins. You might even get there in eight.

Of course as 2016 proved to everyone, it's dangerous to assume anything before the season begins. But pragmatically Penn State's season ought to be judged by the failures it avoids as much as its achievements. The Nittany Lions' time spent in the Top 25 has not been short on missed opportunities, but missing out on them has not resulted in abject failure. There are worse things than being stuck at nine or 10 wins every year.

If Penn State can navigate its own development, a difficult schedule and come out the other end looking the part for a run in 2020, the results in 2019 may have just been the first step in that process.

Will fans lament another loss against a Big Ten East foe or two? Sure, but if 2019 serves as the developmental stage for the Nittany Lions next real run at things in 2020, then it may have been worth it.

The point here isn't to sell the Nittany Lions short in 2019 or to preemptively excuse self-inflicted wounds. It's simply to judge them against what they are and the progress they make toward what they can be. That means looking at this team through the lens of what it is, not what you wanted 2017 to be or wished 2018 was.

If Penn State blows another fourth-quarter lead against Ohio State then sure, point all the fingers you want, but in a sport where most everyone fails, sometimes success is how much failure you avoid and how much you turn that failure into success the next time around.

Then again, it depends on what you see.

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