Gazing into the (shattered) crystal ball
This is supposed to be the most special time of the year.
The calendar flips to September, summer vacation is in the rear-view mirror, the kids are back in school, the cooler fall air begins to replace the August heat.
And you pack the car, hopefully with Gameday in tow for a relaxing tailgate, and you resume your tradition of attending or watching Penn State football.
Of course, we know that wasn’t the case this past weekend as the last six months have painfully taught us what’s not going to be in 2020.
But what was going to be?
In the early days of spring preparation, before this dreaded coronavirus turned our lives upside down, James Franklin looked out over his squad and had the distinct feeling it could be the best in his seven years at Penn State.
“We were standing out there those first couple days of practice and I’m looking around, and we’ve got a good-looking team,” he said. “We’re big, we’re long, we’re lean. We’ve got a bunch of guys that are over 300 pounds that look like they’re 270, 260. We’re fast, we’re athletic. And then we have difference-makers on both sides of the ball.”
His assessment was universal. The Associated Press rated the Nittany Lions No. 7 in the preseason — highest under Franklin except for 2017 when they were No. 6 coming off the Big Title — and almost everyone had them as possibilities for the Bowl Championship Series conversation.
It’s one of the reasons Franklin was devastated by the Big Ten’s decision on Aug. 11 to postpone all fall sports, namely football. While other high-profile conference coaches either held press conferences or issued statements to express disappointment within a day or two, Franklin waited more than a week.
“You felt like this season had the chance to be special,” he said. “That’s part of the frustration.”
Had the Lions played their original schedule, they would have opened two days ago with Kent State, visited Virginia Tech next week and completed their non-conference portion with San Jose State.
Once the schedule was redone, the non-con was bagged, and a 10th conference game was added (Illinois).
On either schedule, landmines loomed.
Ohio State, which is 5-1 against Franklin with the lone exception the Marcus Allen-Grant Haley blocked field goal return/miracle, may well have been one.
The remaining home games — Northwestern, Michigan State, Iowa and Maryland — seemed negotiable, although you shouldn’t discount Kirk Ferentz, even if his program appears to be trending down.
The road is where this season was going to get dicey.
Even without Virginia Tech, the Lions were scheduled to play at Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska and Rutgers.
The Michigan series has swung heavily in favor of the home team. Indiana hasn’t beaten the Lions often but they’ve been the most pesky of the second-tier teams. And heading to Nebraska in November is a problem spot.
Despite solid leadership, a generational talent in linebacker Micah Parsons and plenty of experienced offensive players, including quarterback Sean Clifford, it added up to a couple of losses, maybe even three with Virginia Tech.
And while 9-3 or even 10-2 would have resulted in CFP exclusion, at least the Lions would have had a chance to find out how good they were on the field.
It’s better to play and lose than not to play at all. (You can ask the 1969 team, which lost its chance to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl for No. 1 after settling for the Orange Bowl.)
Meanwhile, this entire year is now TBA. Usually that designation is reserved for kickoff times.
Franklin has been pushing for more of a winter than a spring model with the goal of least intrusion on the 2021 season.
There are daily rumors and unconfirmed reports of an earlier start, like Thanksgiving or even October.
With virus protocols already precluding fans and speculation that the games in the winter could be played in domes (Indianapolis, Detroit, Minnesota), the idea of getting on with it — considering high school and the NFL open next weekend — is reasonable.
The longer the Big Ten waits, the more players it’s going to lose players who have an eye on the NFL Draft. Parsons bailed right away and so have dozens of others. Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman — with the SEC playing opted out the other day.
If the season doesn’t start until January, or even if it kicks off after Thanksgiving, you have to wonder if Penn State players with established NFL stock — specifically tight end Pat Freiermuth and center Michal Menet — will risk themselves that close to the draft for Dear Old State. Or whether they should.
Alabama coach Nick Saban suggested spring football would have an entirely different feel and would be “kind of like jayvee.”
Franklin is all too aware.
“How many guys are going to end up playing? How many guys aren’t going to end up playing based on opting out?” he wondered. “Is the NFL going to move back the combine and the draft? All these things have got to be tied together to make it work effectively and efficiently for as many (players) as possible.”
Which is why the best approach to the season — whether it’s eight games, 10 games, off-campus, with or without a championship game — is to complete it as quickly as possible and return to a level playing field.
If it’s played, I would foresee about 8-2, but regardless of the record for Penn State or any team, just getting it in will make everybody feel like they’re undefeated.
Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at 814-946-7527 or by email at email@example.com.