They were Big Ten champions not long ago. Should’ve advanced to the Playoff, too. 

Now here we are, 5 years later, and what are we to make of Penn State? 

How to analyze a storied program that has won 42 games since that championship season in 2016 — yet now clearly sits as the No. 4 team in its own division? 

“We know what it looks like,” Penn State coach James Franklin says. “We have a model that has worked a long time.”

While it’s hard to argue that point, there’s also an uncomfortable truth that can’t be denied and isn’t unique to Penn State. The Lions have struggled at times since winning the Big Ten in 2016 because of uneven quarterback play. 

Just like college football blue-bloods Florida and Texas. And Florida State. And Nebraska. Just like Michigan — until last season.

There’s a reason Penn State has gone from Big Ten champions, to winning 11 games (twice), to winning 11 games over the past 2 seasons and losing at home to an Illinois team that couldn’t throw the ball. 

It’s not all on Sean Clifford, who has had 3 offensive coordinators at Penn State and will have the same coordinator (and quarterbacks coach) this season for the first time in his career. But the value of quarterback play was never more obvious than during the turning point of last season. 

The Lions began 2021 with 5 straight wins, and rolled into unbeaten Iowa and led 17-10 in the third quarter (and were driving to score again) before everything was knocked sideways with an upper body injury to Clifford. They were outscored 13-3 the rest of the game, and Clifford and his backup, Ta’Quan Roberson, threw 4 interceptions.

A week later, Clifford averaged 4.8 yards per attempt against rebuilding Illinois. Penn State lost in 9 OTs and hit rock bottom. The loss dropped Penn State to 9-7 since the beginning of the COVID season, and the Lions then lost 4 of their final 6 — all 4 losses to ranked teams Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Arkansas. 

From winning the Big Ten, to being good enough to win it in 2017 and 2019 — to an 11-11 record over the past 2 seasons, and a whole lot of questions. 

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re holding everybody up to those standards and holding everyone accountable,” Franklin said. “Including myself.”

That means finding a way to get better at the most important position on the field. 

It means Clifford spending months this offseason on self-evaluation. He watched every throw he made last season and realized that he wasn’t as accurate on deep right throws as he was on deep left. Or that he had to get more efficient with intermediate throws. 

It means pushing offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, whose offense was 118th in the nation and had 28 percent of its runs go for no gain or a loss, to find a way to run the ball and help Clifford. 

It means pushing Clifford — who returned for his Super Senior sixth season instead of entering the transfer portal — to be more consistent in his approach and preparation, and Yurcich finding ways to conceptually help him by scheming receivers open and finding easier throws. 

Everyone is culpable for an offense that went four quarters and an NCAA record 9 OTs and had all of 227 yards against Illinois. Everyone is culpable for an offense that finished 90th in the nation in scoring and 82nd in total offense, and couldn’t move opponents at the point of attack or consistently protect the quarterback.

It may not be all Clifford, but things change quickly when you have a quarterback who throws accurately, on time and can extend plays and run for first downs or throw accurately on the run. Clifford did that often in 2019 but hasn’t been the same player since. 

Some of that is tied directly to turnover at the coordinator position, and some is on Clifford. Yurcich is back for Year 2, and says Clifford is confident and ready for a big season. 

“Every spring, you go into it as a learning period or a mastering period,” Clifford told reporters. “I’ve finally been blessed to be in the same system, and be able to master the offense the way I haven’t been able to in the past. I’m looking forward to being able to take all of those banked reps, and being able to light it up.”

He better be, because there’s nothing but inexperience behind him. If Penn State is playing 1 of 2 former elite high school recruits (Christian Veilleux and Drew Allar) at some point this season, something more than likely has gone terribly wrong. 

And that means a third straight year of looking up at Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten East Division. 

“We’ve had great discussions in the offseason in terms of our personnel and how to play to our strengths,” Franklin said. “Everybody is taking responsibility.”

Because the uncomfortable truth can no longer be denied.