This is the moment that James Franklin, Penn State and the Big Ten have been waiting for
It’s kind of ironic how everything is lining up perfectly for Penn State.
If last year’s start — the All-America linebacker opting out, the top 2 running backs getting hurt and the controversial ending in the season opener—was the worst-case scenario, the 2021 season is the best-case scenario. Literally everything that could’ve went wrong in that pandemic-ridden season, did. And now, everything that could go right, is.
The No. 10 Nittany Lions (2-0) couldn’t have asked for much more heading into their showdown with No. 22 Auburn (2-0). They won a game against No. 12 Wisconsin while having the ball for only 17 minutes, they destroyed the defending MAC champions and now an Auburn team that looked to be in a transition year under a first-year head coach has creeped into the Top 25, giving them even more credibility with a win. Oh, and it’s under the lights, with the White Out, with College GameDay on campus, on national TV.
I don’t think Penn State could’ve drawn it up any better.
This is a program that has seemingly been the cusp since 2016, James Franklin’s 3rd season as head coach. The Nittany Lions started out 2-2, but then ran the table to win the Big Ten and reach the Rose Bowl. From 2016-19, they had the 6th-most victories among Power 5 programs. The only Power 5 teams with more wins in that span are the regular CFP contenders (Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Georgia).
Penn State has been knocking on the door, but it just hasn’t quite been able to bust it down. Last year was supposed to be the year, but the Nittany Lions fell on their face.
That brings us to Saturday.
This is probably the best game of the week (unless you think Florida can hang with Alabama). And it has the added intrigue of one of the SEC’s best programs stepping into the home stadium of one of the B1G’s best programs.
While the B1G and SEC meet 3-4 times per year in bowl games, it’s rare for them to square off in the regular season (it happens about once per year, compared with 3-4 times per year for the B1G vs. the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12). If those games are on campus, they typically involve lower-tier programs like Purdue, Vanderbilt and Missouri (with all due respect). If they are marquee programs, it’s at a neutral site, like Florida/Michigan in 2017 and Wisconsin/LSU in 2016 and Wisconsin/Alabama in 2015. It’s probably the biggest on-campus meeting between these conferences since Alabama played at Penn State in 2011.
So this, my friends, is a treat. And obviously, it’s a huge game for the perception of the Big Ten. Auburn isn’t supposed to challenge in the SEC West this year, and Penn State is one of the best teams in the Big Ten. A loss at home to Auburn would really hurt the credibility of the Big Ten.
Looking at the larger picture of the Big Ten and the rest of the college football landscape, Penn State is one of the few top teams that has made it through 2 weeks unscathed. In fact, it looks stronger. That win at Wisconsin will age very well. So will the one against Ball State.
But look around the country. Ohio State really struggled defensively against Oregon (and only managed 28 points against a defense playing without 5 starters). Clemson, Iowa State and North Carolina all started the season in the top 10 and have a loss, as do 9 others that started in the preseason Top 25. Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Notre Dame all have wins by 3 points against unranked opponents. Outside of Alabama, is there a team you really feel great about? This season feels as wide open as ever, just waiting for a talented team like Penn State to put it all together and catch fire.
The Nittany Lions simply have to win on Saturday. No, it won’t destroy their hopes at a Big Ten title or even necessarily knock them out of CFP contention. But with so much attention on this game, against a first-year head coach and a QB in Box Nix who has struggled on the road, it would be a massive letdown for the Nittany Lions to lose in front of over 100,000 fans.
This program has experienced quite a few big-game disappointments under Franklin. Ranked 2nd in 2017, they lost to No. 6 Ohio State by a point. Ranked No. 9 in 2018, they lost to No. 4 Ohio State by a point again. Ranked 5th in 2019, they lost at No. 13 Minnesota by 5. Ranked No. 8 to open last year, they lost to Indiana by a point on that diving 2-point conversion.
It’s been heartache, after heartache, after heartache for Penn State.
But the time has come for Franklin and the Nittany Lions to take that next step. They always seem to be right there, and this year is no different.
The fanbase has to be thinking: If not now, when?