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Penn State Football: Waiting For The Next Ride

by on February 18, 2019 3:00 PM

An offseason rumination.

James Franklin took just over 1,000 words to set the stage at his most recent press conference, his first since the conclusion of the 2018 season, and the first since a torrent of transfer news and coaching changes washed over his program.

Of all the words, Franklin's final 23 may have held the most telling.

"Obviously a lot more question marks go into this season than maybe we had in the past," Franklin said. "But excited about where we're going."

It's easy -- and not incorrect -- to broadly think of Penn State's past three seasons as a success. There's a Big Ten Title to celebrate, two 10+ win seasons and while the 2018-19 campaign may have come up short of being quite as noteworthy, it wasn't an unmitigated failure.

Even so, it's not entirely unfair to wonder what the path looks like for Penn State to get back to that point of national relevance at that level. Franklin's observation -- that there are even more questions now than before -- couldn't be more on the nose.

Just to recap: For all of their flashy moments, there is no guarantee Sean Clifford and/or Tommy Stevens will carry the same abilities or force-of-will that Trace McSorley did. There is no guarantee that a suddenly depleted receiving corps will make a 180 in terms of quality and consistency. There is no guarantee that Ricky Rahne will continue to develop as a play-caller and that Ricky Slade will make it three-straight running backs of high-end productivity.

Just 12 months ago, people made many of the same assumptions, that everything was going to be just fine, even in a post-Barkley/Hamilton/Gesicki/etc. world. Most of those assumptions, for various reasons, were proven wrong. It wasn't anyone's fault directly, but there is a reason winning at a high level every single year in college football is hard.

And that's just the offensive side of the ball. The defense loses many of the knowns while returning only a handful of them. If nothing else, Brent Pry seems more than capable of mitigating them, and he has done well at that so far.

That's not to say everything is doom and gloom, college football is sort of a high-profile guessing game. It's not as though everyone saw Saquon Barkley coming. The first game of his collegiate career, he carried the ball once. Two weeks later he was rushing for 195 yards. Unexpected things happen in both directions.

All of this circles back around to what kind of program Penn State is trying to be. James Franklin has always said he wants to compete for championships, he has rarely implied that means actually competing for them every year. It stands to reason Penn State will be competitive every week for as long as Franklin is around, and in turn will effectively be competing for them, but when is the next trip to Columbus you can feel good about Penn State's chances? Certainly not in 2019, although many aspects of the program are in the best shape they have ever been.

In turn, Franklin's best bet might not be to break the cyclical wheel of up years and down years as much as increase the frequency between the peaks.

Where is Penn State in the phase now? That's the $4 million dollar question. Although a thought: the Nittany Lions are 13-6 on the field since beating Michigan back on that late October night in 2017. A Big Ten title might have been the high point for achievements, but a ride that began with a loss to Michigan in 2016, may very well have ended with a win against those same Wolverines, the program flexed its muscle that night.

Which isn't to say that the park has closed, but there is always a walk between each ride.

Franklin's job is to find the quickest route to the next one, and if you put much stock in those 23 words and the lessons of 2018, it might be a minute or two until Penn State is back in the queue again.

But there are worse things than waiting for something, because the alternative is waiting for nothing.

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