ORLANDO, FLA. — It took almost 200 fewer words for Kentucky coach Mark Stoops to say it, but both he and James Franklin agree, 10 wins in a single season isn't an accomplishment to be taken lightly.
"It's extremely important," Stoops said on Monday morning. "Obviously, competing against Penn State, the history that they have, the storied program — that's very important to us and motivating for us. Playing Penn State and competing against Penn State, playing on New Year's Day, getting a 10th victory — it's very important. It hasn't happened very many times in the history of our program to so get 10, hit that milestone, is another motivating factor."
For Kentucky, it has hit the 10-win plateau just twice before, once in 1950 and then again in 1977. So a victory on Tuesday would mean reaching rarified air for a program that has not had much in the way of modern success.
As for Penn State, the goals are slightly different, although the value of 10 wins is no less significant. The Nittany Lions have hit that mark 23 times, coming up just a game short on 12 other occasions.
This time though it would still be a bit of history, and actually a rare first for Penn State. A victory by the Nittany Lions would mean three straight seasons of 10 or more wins for the first time by Penn State since joining the Big Ten. It would also mark the first time for the program since the 1980, '81 and '82 seasons.
And of course, just in general, winning 10-games isn't a season to be disregarded.
"I think it's very important for a lot of different things," Franklin said. "I think it's a benchmark. You probably have two different benchmarks for programs across the country. Some programs are benchmarked on going to bowl games and that's kind of the first level, and then I think the next level is 10-win seasons."
In the case of Penn State, there is the obvious elephant in the room: the Nittany Lions have beaten everyone they probably should have and generally haven't done much more. Is there are marquee win? Is there a game that you really remember in a positive light for Penn State? Not really. Maybe Iowa, but the Hawkeyes have stumbled to nine wins in a similar fashion. In truth, a win over Kentucky might prove to be the best Penn State has on the resume.
It makes for a weird legacy to a season that will have its final chapter written on Tuesday. Ten wins will make for history, nine, a hodgepodge of what-ifs.
But winning is winning. Franklin and company won't want to make a habit of losing late to the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State, but if 10 wins against everyone else marks a down year, well, it's hard to really find fault in that.
“You start to get to this point in the season and you start to say, ‘I’d like to look back at some point at the end of the season and be able to kind of look at what we've been able to do this year and then what we've really been able to do over the last five years,’” said Franklin a few days before Penn State's win over Maryland. “I’ve heard people say this before: If someone would have told you seven years ago that over these five years we would have done this, this, this, and this... I think most people would have thought you were crazy.”
“There are high expectations and standards here, and there's nobody that has higher expectations and standards than we do,” he added. “But to think that this may be one of the best three-year runs in Penn State's history in the Big Ten era, and kind of where we're standing nationally, in our conference, and things like that, I'm proud. Are there some things that we would have liked to do better, some games we'd like to have back, some plays we'd like to have back? No doubt. But you look around the country, that's a similar tune all over the country."