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Smeltzer: For the Penn State Football Future That We Wait

Penn State Athletics

PASADENA, C.A.— Penn State football players, fans and coaches triumphantly sang the school’s alma mater, “For the Glory of Old State,” after it beat Utah 35-21 in the 109th Rose Bowl Game.

One of the lines of that song is “For the future that we wait.”

Naturally, we are always waiting for the future, but now, with the 2022 season firmly in the past, the future of Penn State football is going to be thought about a lot over the offseason.

Coach James Franklin waited six years to get back to the Rose Bowl Game and has waited more than 50 years to coach a winning team in the ‘Grandaddy of Them All.’

Well, that second part isn’t true. Franklin is 50, and he most likely didn’t come out of the womb dreaming of winning a Rose Bowl, but hopefully, you know what I’m saying. 

Anyway, Franklin and Penn State accomplished against Utah what they couldn’t against USC six years ago; it won, beating the Utes 35-21.

But in a way, Penn State accomplished the same thing it did way back when, despite a much better result. Let me explain. When Penn State lost to USC, 52-49, on the second day of 2017, people were bummed out. But a lot of good came out of that game. Saquon Barkley’s 79-yard run was the signature play of an offense that was electric throughout the Rose Bowl. For many, the main takeaway was ‘the best is yet to come.’ Penn State went into the next season with an elite running back, a beloved quarterback and many other key contributors returning. 

As Penn State begins to focus on 2023, it brings back an elite running backa beloved quarterback and many other key contributors. I’m not going to compare the projected 2023 roster with what Penn State had in ’17. That might be a story for down the road. But I will say that Drew Allar has the potential to be a much better QB than Trace McSorley and Nick Singleton could be… hang on to your hats… Saquon Barkley’s equal; if not… wait for it… better.

Penn State’s next real game isn’t for nearly eight months, so we’re nowhere close to knowing what will happen next season. But it’s a pretty good bet that going 11-2 won’t feel as good next season, and that’s what happens with raised expectations. We know this because, in 2017, Penn State went 11-2. Although that was hardly an embarrassment, it didn’t bring the jubilation that the 2016 squad did. The boys of ’16 had similarities to the most recent Penn State team. 

Like this year, Penn State came into 2016 having gone 7-6 the year before.  

Like this year, Penn State wasn’t supposed to be in the Rose Bowl that season, but it defied the odds and made it there. A big difference, of course, was that the 2016 Penn State team beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten, something this year’s squad didn’t do. But, like after 2016, fans and people within the program are expecting this past season to be a springboard for many great things ahead. Something many people are likely keeping in the back of their minds is that the 2016 season was Penn State’s peak for the next five years and is still the most successful team of the Franklin era because of that Big Ten championship. It’s not that Penn State hasn’t had good teams since 2016. The program went 11-2 in two of the following three seasons and, of course, repeated that feat this year.

But people who finished watching that Penn State-USC Rose Bowl Game expected or at least had realistic hope of Penn State becoming a bigger monster in the years ahead. That meant beating Ohio State in Columbus. That meant beating Jim Harbaugh and Michigan every year. That meant making it to the College Football Playoff. But those things have yet to come to fruition. 

Penn State is 0-3 in Columbus since 2016 and 0-6 against Ohio State overall. Its 3-3 mark against Michigan is more acceptable. But one of those wins came in the 2020 pandemic-themed season where Penn State finished with a losing record anyway, and Penn State has lost its last two to team Harbaugh, the latest a 45-17 embarrassment in Ann Arbor last October. Penn State accomplished a lot this season. But one thing it didn’t accomplish was becoming a top 2 team in the Big Ten East. 

There’s no shame in being behind Ohio State and Michigan. Both teams made the Playoff this year, and that’s hard to do in the four-team format. But Penn State has returned to a level of play where fans have a right to be disappointed and even somewhat agitated if it doesn’t overtake one of those programs at some point. 

Penn State’s win at the Rose Bowl was fantastic. One of the high points of the Franklin era. But the highest of the Franklin era is still that 2016 season and Big Ten championship. The goal of this season was to become a great football program again. Mission accomplished. Now, Penn State has the talent– particularly from its celebrated 2022 recruiting class– to get back to a Big Ten championship level, if not higher. Maybe, one day, Penn State football will, the quote the “For the Glory of Old State” again, “raise the song, raise the song” to a national championship. 

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