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Smeltzer: Rose Bowl Would be a Signature win for Penn State

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin Penn State Nittany Lions Band November 12, 2022 David Hague/NSN

Penn State ended its regular season 10-2 but didn’t have a signature win.

None of No. 11 Penn State’s 10 wins came against ranked teams, and that bothers fans.

Yes, 2022 was, to quote Frank Sinatra, “a very good year” for Penn State.

With few exceptions, going 10-2 makes for a successful season, and any reasonable Penn State fan should gladly take it after going 11-11 combined in 2020 and ‘21. But not having a signature win— a win over a big-time opponent— is something that will bug a fanbase. Once upon a time, major bowl games provided teams great opportunities for signature wins. But because of opt outs and other factors, many fans see bowl games as watered down at best, meaningless at worst. So before Penn State’s bowl game was official, nobody knew what circumstances the team would face in its season finale.

Would Penn State make it to a New Year’s Six bowl game?

If so, which one?

Who would Penn State play?

How many players would opt out of the game from both teams?

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?

We now know the answers to most of these questions. Penn State did make it to a New Year’s Six bowl game. The specific bowl game is the Rose Bowl against No. 8 Utah, and a woodchuck can (apparently) chuck 700 pounds. The only question of these that hasn’t been answered is how many players are going to opt out of the Rose Bowl game, and we have an idea of what the answer is to that, too. At a joint pre-Rose Bowl press conference Sunday hours after the matchup became official, both head coaches; Penn State’s James Franklin and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, said they expect most of their players to be available for “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

In Franklin’s case, CB Joey Porter Jr. has already opted-out and declared for the draft, and WR Parker Washington is out for the season, which presumably includes the bowl game. Nonetheless, Franklin “almost the entirety” of Penn State’s roster to be available in Pasadena. In Whittingham’s case, no Utah players opted-out of last year’s Rose Bowl against Ohio State, and Whittingham is “fully expecting” the same thing to happen this time around.

“Doesn’t mean it necessarily will,” Whittingham said, “but I’ve heard nothing of the sort to think any differently.”

If Franklin and Whittingham are right, it’s great.

Yes, it’s fully understandable for players like Porter to want to focus on the draft and limit their injury risk as much as possible. With that said, the bottom line is that every sporting event is better when the best players are playing. So it’s great for college football, and, in particular, great for Penn State because beating a full-strength Pac-12 champion would qualify as a signature win. In that sense, Penn State needs to win the Rose Bowl more than Utah does.

Both teams have pressure on them. Losing two straight Rose Bowls wouldn’t be fun for Utah, and being 0-2 in Rose Bowls wouldn’t be fun for Franklin. Utah started the season in the top 10 and with realistic College Football Playoff aspirations, so finishing the year with four losses would leave a sour taste. A big difference, though, is Utah has two signature wins plus a conference championship. Penn State lost its chance to win the former long ago, and the Rose Bowl will be its last chance for the latter.

USC was one win away from a College Football Playoff berth, and Utah took it away. Utah also beat USC in the regular season. USC is 11-0 against everybody else this year. Penn State only had two games against ranked teams in the regular season, against Michigan and Ohio State, and lost both of them. Now, contrary to what many (likely) unreasonable Penn State fans think, there’s no shame in losing to half of this season’s College Football Playoff field.

But nonetheless, not having a win over a ranked team can leave even reasonable fans feeling somewhat unfilled. A lot of this isn’t Penn State’s fault. Every game Penn State played was against either a vastly superior or vastly inferior opponent. There was no in-between. It’s not Penn State’s fault that Ohio State and Michigan are very good, that Auburn and Michigan State underachieved or that Indiana and Rutgers stink. That’s just the way things worked out.

Regardless, the biggest criticism of this year’s Penn State team was that it “didn’t beat anybody good,” and there’s some truth to that. The best team record-wise that Penn State beat was Ohio (10-3) from the MAC. That won’t impress many.

Franklin addresses the signature win topic in his Tuesday press conference ahead of the team’s Nov. 12 game against Maryland, which finished 7-5.

“There’s value in it,” Franklin said. “It’s interesting that programs that have not been consistent but have big-time wins and programs that are consistent but don’t have a signature win, and obviously, you want both. You want the consistency week in and week out, and it’s hard to do, and having signature wins is also hard to do.”

It is hard to do, and beating Utah will be hard to do.

Beating Utah wouldn’t be the same as beating Michigan or Ohio State. But the Utes are in the top 10, they are hot, and they are good. This is the first game Penn State’s played where its not drastically better or worse than its opponent, and its the last chance Penn State has for a signature win. Let’s see what happens.

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