Welcome to the most crucial season of Penn State football in more than a decade. That point is of course up for debate, but from a purely on-field perspective, it is not a hard one to make. As Penn State enters the 2016 season, more than just a New Year's Day 2017 bowl appearance is at stake. For the first time since, I would argue 2005, the successes or failures of this 2016 Nittany Lions squad will resonate far down the road.
Entering that 2005 season, the Lions were coming off of a five year run with four losing seasons, and an overall record of 26-33. The vultures were circling the program, proclaiming the end of the Paterno era. Instead, behind the legendary leadership of a senior class, and a talented group of freshmen, the Lions were but two seconds from an undefeated season, and perhaps a chance at a national title. That season bought Paterno the next six.
Fast forward to present day, and while things may not be identical in record (29-22 the previous four seasons), or in historical context, the stakes are just as high when it comes to the bigger picture of the program. Right or wrong, the book on James Franklin currently depicts a coach that is all talk, but no substance. He can bring the talent in, but he cannot win with it. He is, as it has been portrayed, Penn State's Brady Hoke.
It does not matter how ludicrous that comparison is. Franklin inherited a program short on numbers, especially in key spots, due to an historic situation. And despite a run of recruiting success unseen in Happy Valley ever, at least in modern times, those talented prospects are still, by in large, underclassmen. The story is being written that in a "win now" culture, in a division dominated by three of the best coaches of a generation, James Franklin cannot succeed, no matter how unfair that may be.
The ramifications are already being felt along the recruiting trail, the life blood of any program, but especially one in Penn State's situation. A number of 2016 prospects backed out of commitments after last season's 7-6 record, and four game losing streak to close out the year, and the usual early spring run of commitments for the 2017 class was unusually quiet. Fair or not, the whispers are out there that Franklin is on a short leash, and must win, or else.
There are early season dates with a rival to the west that is hinging its very reputation on knocking off Franklin's Lions, and a program to the east looking for history of its own against the 800 pound gorilla in Central Pennsylvania. There is a Big 10 opener with the league favorite, mid-season primetime clashes with conference giants, and a season ender against a program that has had its way with PSU.
The opportunity is there to rewrite the story. Much like in 2005, the ending can be much different than the drafts already being submitted.
Welcome to the 2016 Penn State football season.