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Smeltzer: Penn State can do Many Great Things in 2023. Here’s one you Might not be Thinking Of

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

Penn State fans, think about the five most satisfying seasons of your lifetime. 

While you’re doing that, here are mine. 

  1. 2005
  2. 2016
  3. 2008
  4. 2022 
  5. 2019

Now, think of the five least satisfying seasons of your lifetime. Mine are as follows.

  1. 1999
  2. 2009
  3. 2017
  4. 2021
  5. 2020

There’s a common theme between my best and worst seasons. 

One of the beauties in life is that great things tend to happen when we don’t expect them to. That’s been the case multiple times with Penn State since it started playing in the Big Ten in 1993. Few expected last year’s team to win 11 games and the Rose Bowl. 

It did. 

Fewer expected the 2005 team to go 11-1 and finish No. 3 in the country, coming off a 7-16 record over the previous two seasons. 

That’s what happened.

The remaining three of my most satisfying seasons all told a similar tale. 

If you’re a Penn State fan 40 or younger, chances are your favorite memory took place during a season where not a lot was expected. 

On the flip side, whenever Penn State comes into a season surrounded by talks of a Big Ten or national championship, it never works out that way. 

The 2017 team was expected by many to repeat as Big Ten champs and change the previous season’s script by making the College Football Playoff.

That’s not quite what happened. 

Many thought the 1999 team would give Joe Paterno his third national title. 

Instead, the team played in the Alamo Bowl.

Alright, enough about the past for now. Penn State’s season opener is in five days. This year’s squad comes in with possibly the highest expectations since James Franklin became the boss in 2014. Penn State returns most of the key pieces from last year’s Rose Bowl team and begins the year ranked No. 7 in the AP Poll as a result. 

For many, Penn State has to make it to the College Football Playoff for this season to be considered a success, and to do that would require multiple moments of glory. Sure, making the Playoff itself would be great for Penn State fans, and to make it even better, it would almost certainly require one of beating Ohio State in the shoe or beating Jim Harbaugh before 100,000+ ecstatic hometown fans in Beaver Stadium.

It would also mean that Penn State’s done something it hasn’t done in almost 30 years; come into a season with sky-high expectations and either meet or exceed that hype. 

Now, let’s talk about the past again, to paraphrase Mark McGwire. For my money, the only time Penn State’s lived up to big-time hype since joining the Big Ten was in 1994. That year, Penn State came into the year ranked ninth– two spots below this year’s ranking– and ended up blowing those expectations out of the water, going 12-0, winning the Rose Bowl and finishing No. 2 in the nation with a team that fans still talk about almost 30 years later and still believe were robbed of a national championship. 

The most recent example of Penn State being thought to be a serious national title contender was 2017. That ended up being a good year for the program. The team finished 11-2, won the Fiesta Bowl and finished No. 8. But those two losses were by a combined four points– one of which was a game at Ohio State where Penn State coughed up a 15-point third-quarter lead and lost a game that I’d argue the program still hasn’t fully recovered from. So, 2017 left the pessimists in Penn State’s fan base furious and even the optimists with an “Is that all?” feeling.

At worst, the 2023 team is just as hyped coming into the season as that ’17 team was, and it could be easily argued that this year’s hype exceeds that. 

Preseason rankings aside, national college football experts are buying into Penn State. 

“They have it all, seemingly, on paper, to make a run,” ESPN’s Pat McAfee said on College Gameday Saturday. “It’s not just an Ohio State, Michigan conversation in the Big Ten.”

McAfee’s colleague, Kirk Herbstreit, concurred. 

“There’s (QB Drew) Allar,” he said. “Everyone’s excited about what he can do. Highly recruited, actually out of Ohio. There’s (running back) Nicholas Singleton. They’re loaded. I mean, they’re just loaded, and I think their defense is going to get back to being nasty. They have guys that can rush the quarterback, so I’m with you.”

The best sports stories often happen when the team that isn’t expected to achieve greatness does. The Miracle on Ice, the Miracle at the Meadowlands and the Music City Miracle are all examples of this. 

But there’s something to be said for a team that comes into a year with the weight of the world seemingly on its shoulders becoming what people think it can be. 

That’s what Penn State has a chance to do in 2023. 

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