Heading into 2016, a 10-2 regular season would have seemed like the most optimistic of all prognostications. When it came to fruition, it led to Penn State’s resurgence and a Big Ten Championship. Though the Rose Bowl defeat to USC was disappointing, a look ahead to 2017 created expectations and excitement that had been missing for some time. After dropping their second straight game this past weekend, Penn State finishing 10-2 is the best case scenario for the 2017 regular season. It could end up as the same record as last year, but these two seasons don’t feel anything like each other.
Even after the loss to Ohio State, Penn State sat at No. 7 in the College Football Playoff rankings. They needed some help, but were a Vegas favorite to win out and still had a feasible path to the Playoff. During the lengthy rain delay against Michigan State, some of the chaos that Penn State needed to happen was playing out. Clemson was losing, Georgia and Oklahoma were in battles of their own and Iowa was scoring at a clip no one outside of Baker Mayfield thought was possible against Ohio State. All Penn State needed to do was take care of business in East Lansing, with a soft finish to the schedule on deck, and they would have had a true chance at the Playoff. Then, in an instant, that chance was gone.
With some more help, Penn State could still end up tied for the division crown at the end of the year, but unless there's tons of chaos, hopes of playing in Indianapolis to defend their Big Ten title are gone. If Penn State can bounce back and win out, the bowl game is likely to be the Citrus or Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day against an SEC team. Heading into 2016, many Penn State fans would’ve signed up for that, but this year is different. It's the same feeling many Michigan fans experienced a season ago as they rose in the rankings only to drop two road games down the stretch. Coincidentally enough, Penn State's two losses are the same difference as Michigan last year when they lost by one point to Iowa and three points to Ohio State. Four points, two losses.
Upon winning the Big Ten title game in 2016, Penn State's expectations for 2017 were already set high, and that was a feeling that had been missing for years. Last year, Penn State finished just outside of the College Football Playoff. Before that, the program hadn't been in any title discussions since 2008. When you expect to win, the losses hurt that much more.
Though many people predicted a 10-2 record for Penn State, it’s much easier to predict losses than to sit through two grueling defeats in a row that could have easily been won. With three games remaining, Penn State must find a way to rebound and finish strong. I can’t bring myself to call the season a disappointment considering where Penn State was a short time ago, but I try to stay positive in my mind so it’s understandable if you feel differently.
Knowing the high I was on when Penn State was up 35-21 in the 4th quarter vs. Ohio State and knowing what I feel now, this season feels more like a missed opportunity than anything. But a disappointment? That would be unfair to the players and the coaching staff, and the work they've done to get this team to a point where a double-digit win season leads to any negative feelings.
Now we will wait for that kind of opportunity to present itself again and at the level that Penn State is recruiting, it won't be too long of a wait.