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Penn State Football: Season Not Short On Questions, But Finding Answers Is The Fun Part

by on August 27, 2018 12:55 PM

I'm drinking coffee in downtown State College trying not to think about the fact half the people around me are talking about going out when they turn 21 while I consider what it will mean to turn 30 in a few months.

I probably should have just stayed home.

But I like being in the middle of things the week leading up to Penn State's home opener because there is a sense of something on the horizon. Students have been around for a week or two, but now football is here, now there is a purpose. It's a marker of time as the games go by; you might have until the Ohio State game to finish a project, or up until Rutgers to declare your major. It drives so much of the energy in town, as if State College is a pilot light and football is the propane igniting the whole apparatus.

Perhaps I'm seeing what I want to see, but the mood as it relates to football is tentative. There is an almost obligatory excitement as posters, flags and decorations plaster storefronts. People are excited because clinging to preseason optimism is what drives everyone to the stadium, but this year nobody really knows how excited to be.

And that's really the story of Penn State's season. It could be anything.

It isn't unreasonable to picture a team replacing household names across the roster, taking on a tough schedule and coming out with eight wins. It's also just as easy to picture Trace McSorley and a team full of talented new faces winning 11 games yet again, three-straight seasons of undefeated play at home.

You just don't know. If 2017 was easy to predict, 2018 is easy to guess. Sportswriters get paid to have strong opinions, but anyone who pretends to know how this particular team is going to play is simply throwing something at the wall and hoping they're right. Welcome to my life.

So I'm not going to guess in an authoritative way, not because I don't want to be wrong, but simply because I'm not any different than the rest of them. Generally speaking I think Penn State has a lot of questions it will need to answer quickly, I think the schedule is tough, and I think it's reasonable to assume Penn State won't spend the rest of its existence under James Franklin scoring 35 points like it's nothing.

It's not that I think Penn State will be bad, because it won't, I just don't know how good it will be either.

What I do know; this team has a lot of talent, some of it raw, but talent nevertheless. Up and down the roster former bluechip prospects all eager for a shot of their own. Penn State has options everywhere, competition everywhere, a genuine championship atmosphere that was not there just a few years ago.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with Dallas Stars' coach and then Denver coach Jim Montgomery following their win over Penn State in the NCAA Hockey Tournament. What made the defending national champions so good? Is it scheme or is it players? What does it all come down to?

"Players win championships. I mean, it's that simple," Montgomery said. "If you don't have the horses you don't win. Your schemes, your coaches prepare and your players buy in and that's where you get championship teams. But they're the ones that are going to go out and make plays. I can't go out and make the plays that you saw."

And Penn State has players this year, and assuming Ricky Rahne calls the next 12-13 games with the same competency he did in the Fiesta Bowl, the scheme has proved itself more than viable.

So will it be enough to take that next step? Is 2018 the year the Nittany Lions get over that playoff hump? Is 2018 the year Penn State proves it can sustain success even as the roster changes?

I don't think James Franklin even knows.

"At this level it's very very difficult," Franklin acknowledged prior to the Fiesta Bowl. "It's very very challenging. We just have to keep scraping and clawing and scratching for every little inch. Because to be honest with you for where we need to go, it's still going to need to be a slow, steady, crawl to get to where we want to go. I'd make the argument that it's going to be harder these next steps than what we've already done."

That to me is what makes this season so exciting. It will inform everyone about where this program is right now. If it is in a place where it can replace Saquon Barkley and an entire defense and still compete at a high level. If Trace is as good as everyone thinks he is, if Joe Moorhead can't be cloned, if Saquon just being on the field made such a difference that his absence is felt in more ways than one. If offseason hires can make up for offseason departures.

The questions are everywhere, the answers spread out over the next few months.

For fans and the people sitting around me, it's understandable why that can lead to a tentative optimism, a brief few days of still enjoying the idea that Penn State football is one of the best programs in the nation, not knowing how long that will still be true.

As for myself, I haven't been more excited, albeit for very different reasons. It's fun covering a good team in the national spotlight, but it's predictable at times. But a team looking to prove that it hasn't lost a step, looking to find itself in the face of immense pressure and not knowing what will happen?

That's thrilling to me. And now I'm excited too, or maybe it's the coffee.



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