Could Penn State Be a Contender Next Season?

Penn State coughed up a late lead in the Rose Bowl yesterday and lost to USC. So, hey, let’s look to next year!

Saquon Barkley

Saquon Barkley, a true sophomore, is not eligible for the NFL draft and will return to Penn State next season | Photo: Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports

Penn State had a weird season.

The Nittany Lions weren’t seen as one of the top teams in the country when the college football season began. They didn’t receive a single vote from the media in the preseason Associated Press poll. They struggled against Kent State in their opener, then lost to Pitt. They beat Temple by a touchdown before getting walloped by Michigan, 49-10, at the end of September.

Penn State was so lightly regarded at the end of the month that PSU athletic director Sandy Barbour had to quell rumors that head coach James Franklin could be fired at the end of the season. Fans even started a petition calling for his ouster. New offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead was similarly under fire.

The Nittany Lions then had a charmed three months — before it all came crashing down in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl on Monday evening. Penn State didn’t lose a game after September until yesterday, when it gave up 17 points in the final eight minutes to lose the Rose Bowl to USC, 52-49. It was the highest-scoring game in the 100-plus year history of the bowl game.

Penn State’s great stretch to end the regular season began with an overtime win over Minnesota, included a flukey/exciting win over Ohio State on a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, and ended with a 21-point comeback win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game.

The Rose Bowl essentially re-created Penn State’s season in one game. The Nittany Lions trailed by 13 in the first half, throwing interceptions on their first two drives. Then they scored touchdowns on seven straight possessions — including TDs on their first three offensive plays of the first half — to take a 49-35 lead. But two costly turnovers afterward, and a failure to get a first down that would have won the game on their penultimate drive, cost them the game. A late Trace McSorley pick with the game tied led to a USC field goal at the gun for the 52-49 margin.

So where do the Nittany Lions go from here? The season ended with a choke job, but it came at the end of a season where the Lions outperformed pretty much all expectations. Forbes is already pitching that USC-PSU was a 2018 National Championship Game preview, but there’s not much reasoning there besides a hunch.

But, hey, why not? It had been more than a decade since Penn State was in the national picture for football-related reasons before this season. The only major defensive players graduating are Brandon Bell — who got injured in the Rose Bowl on an interception — and Malik Golden. Center Brian Gaia graduates, but most offensive players should return next season. QB McSorley and stud running back Saquon Barkley will return. The team Franklin still hasn’t beaten, Michigan, plays in Happy Valley next season.

So, sure, pencil in Penn State as an early contender for the national title next season. Why not?