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The Last Chance For Penn State To Be “Elite”

Remember that speech?

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin walks off the field following the competition of the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The date was September 29th. The year 2018. The Penn State Nittany Lions had just finished losing to Ohio State by a single point, just as they had the season before. James Franklin gave an impassioned speech about what it would take to go from great (where he assessed his team was) to elite. In short, it would take as much work to get from great to elite as it did to get from average, to good, to great.

Almost five years later, Franklin and his squad is still looking for that elusive “elite” marker. Michigan, who found themselves in a position not too dissimilar to the Nittany Lions, finally broke through the past two seasons. Penn State, in the past four seasons, has showed the signs of exactly what they have been. Two New Year’s Six wins bookend two mediocre seasons, a sign of a program who can do great things, but cannot get over the hump.

As the College Football Playoff expands, Penn State has one more shot at doing what only 14 other programs have done: Make the four-team playoff. Winning a championship will be nonetheless difficult in a 12-team format, but there’s something about being one of the only four who could even make it that gives off an air of, well, eliteness. Being in the company of only 14 other teams means doing something the majority of college football can only dream of accomplishing.

Penn State will have plenty of opportunity for years to come. Were the 12-team format available from the get go, the Nittany Lions would have been included several times. Not only that, but playoff expansion coincides with the end of divisions in the Big Ten. No longer will the Lions need beat both Michigan and Ohio State in a single season for the mere shot at winning the conference. Nonetheless, this is their last chance to actually do that.

The fact that this is even a point of conversation is amazing in its own right. Penn State, after all, was not supposed to compete until right around this time. Back when Franklin took over the program, many predicted the Lions would be unable to get back to full strength for another 10 years. But Franklin, maybe to his own detriment, won, and won pretty quickly. Winning the Big Ten in year 3, then returning a team that was this close to winning the conference again the next season, it was mostly forgotten the work that still needed to be done to get to “elite.” Three years removed from converting defensive linemen to offense for lack of depth, and two removed from the infamous “two man rush” debacle, the Lions were punching far above their weight. But that context didn’t matter then, and, for better or worse, it matters even less now.

Fortunately for Franklin and Penn State, that 10-year timeline is complete. Through dedicated recruiting efforts, the Lions have amassed enough talent to not only bring things back to balance to the roster, but to actually compete with the big dogs of the conference (and maybe even the country). And, in a season where the expectation is a clear third in the division, there’s no time like now to see the process come to fruition.

If you want to be considered elite, you have to beat the teams that earned that moniker. Michigan and Ohio State are as good as they’ve been in recent memory. Penn State, however, is as talented as they have been since 2017. If they want to join the 14 others who are considered elite, this year is their last shot to do it.