Penn State is playing for a Big Ten championship.
If it hasn’t sunk in yet, it will by the time kickoff rolls around Saturday night in Indianapolis.
The Big Ten title game doesn’t feature Ohio State or Michigan or Michigan State. It instead features a program that has come back from the dead to somehow edge the college football behemoths around it and have a chance to crash the College Football Playoff.
Now, this all isn’t to pretend that Penn State is Indiana or Maryland. The Nittany Lions spent decades at the top of the college football heap.
But think about how kind of amazing it is that Penn State has made it this far this fast under James Franklin, the head coach who still rattles off his limited scholarship counts and complained about negative recruiting during the preseason. Whether his complaints are valid is for others to worry about, but there’s no doubt that the climb in Happy Valley has been steeper than almost anywhere else.
Yet here his team is a win away from a conference title.
“We have the academics, we have the history and traditions, we have the facilities,” Franklin said Sunday. “And now we have recent success that allows people to talk now — instead of talking about what Penn State was, people are now starting to talk about what Penn State is. And that’s exciting.”
What people were talking about was the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which completely derailed the program. Aside from connotations that still accompany any mention of Penn State football on social media or in barroom conversations, there were severe scholarship limitations and a multi-season bowl ban. All that made seven-win seasons and trips to low-level Big Ten bowl games legitimate accomplishments in a place where winning and winning big was the norm for so many years.
Fans there have always been reluctant to give up their connection to the so-called glory days under Joe Paterno, a figure that still elicits such an emotional reaction that a former Wisconsin player recently said the best thing he did during his college career was accidentally break Paterno’s leg.
That has nothing to do with these Lions being in the Big Ten title game, of course, but it shows how much Franklin has been fighting against, both internally and externally.
His oft-repeated talk of scholarship limits has plenty of merit. Penn State hasn’t been able to achieve the kind of depth Urban Meyer stacks up year after year at Ohio State or Mark Dantonio has built at Michigan State. During the preseason, Franklin pointed to costly decisions from his first two seasons with the Lions, when he and his staff opted to redshirt guys when they could have helped the team win. He said those decisions would start to pay dividends during this season, the first in which Penn State has been returned to a full 85 scholarships.
Looks like he was right.
“People make light of this, but we had 65 scholarships two years ago, we had 75 scholarships last year. We’re one of the youngest teams in the country (during our) first year at 85 scholarships,” Franklin said. “I think these guys always believed in them, but we had dips and valleys the last two years in the program in terms of depth at some positions, things like that.
“Now we’re in a position where we’re more competitive at every position in terms of a two-deep and sometimes a three-deep. We’re able to challenge one another in practice, and I think the more success you have in practice going against good people, it builds competition, it builds confidence. And then you’re able to translate that onto the field.”
Not many bought Penn State as a legitimate preseason threat. After all, even with a full allotment of scholarships, would Franklin have been able to compete with the likes of Meyer, Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh? The Buckeyes, Spartans and Wolverines have established themselves among college football’s finest programs in recent seasons, and that didn’t look like it was going to change anytime soon, especially in favor of the Lions, who hadn’t won more than nine games in a season since 2009, before the scandal. Franklin went 7-6 in each of his first two seasons.
Franklin's limited success in wins and losses even had some of the Penn State faithful clamoring for instant change. Athletics director Sandy Barbour needed to provide a statement of confidence to a reporter earlier this season.
But make no mistake, this trip to Indy isn’t only because of some flukey win over Ohio State. Penn State has earned this spot with an explosive offense and a great defense. The former has been the most eye-catching change, with that unit transformed from an ineffective mess under quarterback Christian Hackenberg in Franklin’s first two seasons to a big-play machine behind quarterback Trace McSorley, running back Saquon Barkley and — most importantly — offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Lions won 10 of their 12 games this season and scored 33 or more points in nine of their 12 games this season, scoring 29 in one of those other three.
Certainly no one would’ve predicted that in the preseason.
And there can’t be many who expected Franklin to be in this position in just his third season. Even the most optimistic of Penn State fans had to scratch their heads when trying to figure out their team would get past Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.
But with another win over a top-10 team Saturday night, the Nittany Lions could not only win a conference championship but also punch a ticket to the Playoff.
Coaches and players always say “one game at a time,” but maybe there were some folks in the Penn State locker room who thought all this was possible.
“I was comfortable this year starting to talk about those things, but I think we may have talked about it once at the beginning of the year and then we never have talked about it again,” Franklin said. “I was comfortable saying, ‘This is a goal of ours, there’s nothing wrong with having this goal, this is something that’s important to you. But I’m going to go back to this: These goals are wonderful to have, and I think they’re realistic and attainable, but on the same hand, all those things are wonderful but you better have a plan and better have an approach of how you’re going to get there. And this is our plan, and this is our approach about maximizing each day, maximizing each meeting, believing in each other and using our four core values of positive attitude, great work ethic, compete in everything you do and sacrifice.’
“And our guys have done a really good job of those things. I think it was good that we had that conversation. I was glad that the guys brought it up and thought it was important to them. And I think guys have done a good job of saying, ‘This is great. This is how we’re going to get there.’”