Penn State Football: The Future Will Tell Everyone What To Think Of The 2018 Season
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Recently I ran into Penn State historian Lou Prato both of us sitting deep inside the Bryce Jordan Center.
He -- unsurprisingly -- has boxes full of Penn State football history. Programs, yearbooks, photos, videos both digital and physical. Things you never even knew existed, things you wished you owned. It's all there, the history of one of the most beloved college football program in America.
So it's safe to say, though this was not in need of confirmation, Lou knows his stuff.
We started talking about Trace McSorley, as one does before Penn State basketball media day, his place in the history of Penn State football and where he might rank among the greats.
"Hard to say," Lou noted. "Most historians think you have to be years removed from something to truly judge it."
It's a conversation that came to mind as I walked across the field from Penn State's postgame press conference following a 33-28 win over Indiana. A game that toyed with the idea of becoming a third-straight heartbreaker for the Nittany Lions.
What is this team? What does it mean in the microcosm of Penn State football? Will anyone really know before this season ends?
Seven games into the season you can pretty well get at least a general read on this group. There is talent, but it's inconsistent. There is potential, but it's sporadic. There is youth but it inherently lacks experience. The coaching staff shows moments of collective brilliance and moments that make you scratch your head and fans throw the remote. It's a hodgepodge of good and bad, concern and reassurance.
In the end that probably won't change over the next few weeks. Penn State's next three games are all against ranked teams that have been playing better football than the Nittany Lions. Three teams that are probably more physical, and more sure of what they can do. Sitting at 5-2 Penn State has to lose every game the rest of the season to miss a bowl, and with Rutgers and Maryland both on the schedule, that seems unlikely. And even in spite of the previous two games, Beaver Stadium will be kind to Penn State again.
It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that they will not win all five remaining game, leaving fans to contemplate a very realistic path to both seven wins and nine. Neither impossible, neither a shocking result if you came out of a time machine two months from now.
So what would that mean?
What Penn State can be:
Penn State can be the program it has been working towards over the past few years. The idea that Penn State football was going to go from crippling sanctions to suddenly becoming Alabama over the span of a few years was never realistic. It was never going to happen, the 2016 and 2017 runs are a showcase of what the program can do, but less what it can currently sustain. There is work left to be done before those seasons are truly a reasonable standard on an annual basis.
So if you believe that James Franklin can continue to develop and recruit top tier talent, then perhaps the 2018 season has been a lesson in the fact the Nittany Lions aren't quite where they need to be yet. You can see glimpses, but maybe it just needs more time. You might not not like the pace at which it happens, but this season has not be an issue of talent or ability. And in truth injuries and retirements prior to the season did little to help a defense that was always going to need help.
If Penn State is still in a cycle where it takes 2-3 season to develop a Big Ten title caliber team, the program has been doing something similar for decades. As the talent, depth and development improves, the cycle becomes less and less. Eventually you reach something that approximates so-called elite. Add in the fact Penn State's coaching staff is in its first year in this configuration, and even they are finding themselves again.
That doesn't mean Penn State's staff is free of blame or criticism in the present, far from it, but clear and obvious title aspirations were never in the cards. This isn't a miscarriage of potential.
What Penn State can also be:
Sanctions or not, real tangible reasons or not, it must be said that Penn State has looked "elite" for 1.5 seasons of James Franklin's tenure. Saturday night's win over Indiana has been more the norm than the exception. It has been grind it out and occasionally ugly football for more time than it has been 45-points-and-garbage-time-for-Tommy-Stevens.
Equally true, there is an argument to be made that Phil Galiano has not been an improvement over Charles Huff. That David Corley has not been an improvement over Josh Gattis. An argument that aside from Matt Limegrover and Joe Moorhead, that James Franklin has not hired coaches equal-to-or-better-than the coaches they are replacing. Ricky Rahne has not been Moorhead, but he was a logical hire in the moment in time in which he was promoted.
In turn Franklin must carry a burden to not only develop his team but his staff as well. A coach that prides himself in putting the right people around him, Franklin must assure they are at their best, and in turn, that Penn State is able to locate, target and acquire desired assistants on the market.
All of this is to say that the run of 2016 and 2017 was certainly a product of a collective recruiting, coaching and development effort, it remains to be seen how frequently this particular staff can replicate a team among the best in Penn State's long history.
And there's no guarantee that they can.
So what is next?
In reality Penn State's road will not get any easier. The departure of Trace McSorley will leave the Nittany Lions without its biggest supporting beam and with no assurances that his replacement will be able to take over seamlessly. Recruiting continues to maintain at a high level, but ideally incoming freshman will make up only a piece of the pie each year. If Penn State is going to make major strides in 2019, most all of the players that will do so are already on the roster. Perhaps a Saquon Barkley is lying in wait again, but until that becomes apparent, there is no obvious answer to the void McSorley will leave behind.
And so it all comes back to Lou, looking backwards so many years later. Because what 2018 really is, a season that seems destined for more hiccups than triumphs, may not become apparent for a year or two more.
It could be a sign of things to come, that Penn State's window has closed for the moment, that the Nittany Lions are very good, but still a lot of work from elite.
Or it could be the start of a cycle that will sync with improved coaching, best-practices and program depth, leading the Nittany Lions to the places they want to go.
It could be either, much like the rest of the season, it could go in two very different directions.
And only time will tell us all the answer.
Plus who knows, maybe they will win their next five games.