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Smeltzer: Juice Scruggs Could be Right, Penn State Could be a Playoff Team Next Season

Juice Scruggs
Penn State Nittany Lions offensive lineman Juice Scruggs (70) November 12, 2022 David Hague/NSN

LOS ANGELES, C.A.— Penn State center Juice Scruggs might look like a genius come next December, but it depends. 

Football players at Penn State and everywhere else say things that don’t make sense.

Sometimes, they make tasteless comments, such as when Miami’s Kellen Winslow Jr. referred to himself as a “soldier” in 2003.

Sometimes, players say things in good taste with obvious reasoning behind the comments, but the words still don’t make sense at the end of the day.

For instance, when Penn State players talked up a Michigan State team that finished 5-7 this past season in the weeks leading up to this year’s game, no fans believed it, and it’s doubtful the players believed it, either. Often, players will talk up the opposing team for whichever week, and they’ll talk up their own team as well. A teammate is better off making their quarterback sound like the next Johnny Unitas than downplaying his ability. It’s common sense for athletes in all sports to talk up friends and foes alike. But as reporters, there are times when you want to say, “yeah, right,” after hearing players say things that no observer believes.

But there are times when players can successfully excite their program with comments that make sense to people from the outside. Scruggs accomplished Thursday morning in California.

Scruggs, Penn State’s starting center, will be playing in his last college game Monday against Utah at the Rose Bowl. He’s a fifth-year senior with eligibility remaining that won’t be using it, instead declaring for the NFL Draft. Scruggs doesn’t have many media obligations left at Penn State, and he made a splash in what will be one of his last interviews as a Nittany Lion with this prediction;

” I’m calling it now,” Scruggs told reporters. “I think they’re going to reach the playoffs next year.”

“The playoffs,” of course, references the College Football Playoff, which has existed since 2014 and has never featured Penn State. Penn State might start making frequent Playoff trips starting in 2024 when the field expands to 12 teams. But for 2023, Penn State will have to be in the top four to make it, and Scruggs believes it can get there. It’s not a surprise at all that Scruggs said this. He loves his school and believes in his current teammates, who will soon be former teammates.

To an extent, comments like this should be taken with a grain of salt because there’s an obvious bias. When Jahan Dotson said earlier this year that Penn State would have made the Playoff in 2021 had Sean Clifford not gotten hurt against Iowa, it was hard for many people to believe. The team finished 7-6 and had a lot of problems.

Although Dotson can’t be proven wrong because we don’t know what would have happened if Penn State’s quarterback had been in good health for that whole season, odds are most people don’t believe Dotson’s claim.

Scruggs’s prediction is different for a few reasons.

For one, time will prove Scruggs right or wrong. If Penn State makes the Playoff next season, Scruggs will be right, and Penn State fans will look back fondly on his words. If Penn State doesn’t make the Playoff, Scruggs will be wrong, and most people will probably forget what Scruggs said. The exciting part about Scruggs’s prediction, for Penn State fans, is that it’s realistic.

I’m not predicting Penn State to be in the College Football Playoff next season. Finishing in the top two of the Big Ten East, let alone the top four of the nation will be difficult. Michigan and Ohio State will still be in Penn State’s division and it’s a good bet that both teams will still be good. It’s also a good bet that Penn State will have to beat at least one of those teams to have a chance at qualifying for the college football final four.

But Penn State is returning most of its key players from a team that went 10-2 this past regular season and is a Rose Bowl win away from a surefire top-10 finish. With Drew Allar presumably starting at quarterback, Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen set for super sophomore seasons in the backfield and classmate Abdul Carter continuing to get better; next season could be the best of the James Franklin era.

So, to paraphrase the great Billy Joel, Juice may be right. He may be crazy. It just may be a lunatic you’re looking for, and Penn State may be in the College Football Playoff next season.

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