CHICAGO — The 2016 season was special for Penn State, historic even, given all that had happened to the program four years earlier.
But the opening message Tuesday morning at the Big Ten media day scrum from fourth-year coach James Franklin was simple: Last year is last year. It’s time to start thinking only about the Sept. 2 opener against Akron in State College. That means he won’t start talking about Pitt until Sept. 3. Or, as Franklin emphasized when pressed, “It’s Akron, Akron, Akron, Akron, Akron.”
Last year at this time, there weren’t many expectations. Then the Nittany Lions split their first four games, which included a 39-point loss at Michigan, and faced a life-or-death game against Minnesota the next week at home. They survived in overtime. Then they took off, becoming one of the more interesting story lines in the country. They beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten title, and should have beaten Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl. They scored a bunch of points behind quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley and finished 11-3 overall, 9-1 in the Big Ten. Now, they have 19 starters back, including nine on offense. So …
“There’s still a few question marks out there,” Franklin said. “But we probably have less question marks than most.”
Top-10 ranking: The Lions will be in the top 10 of the first national polls. maybe fairly high but not as high as Ohio State. Of course, those are merely projections. It only matters where you finish.
“Last year, we took a step in the right direction,” Franklin said. “But it was really just that. I think we’ve made significant strides in a relatively short period of time [since he took over]. Now it’s important to continue growing and evolving.
“There’s a buzz and an excitement in our community that we haven’t seen in a while. I think we have a lot of pieces in place. I think the expectations are always pretty big at Penn State. Where it’s probably changed is nationally. There’s more talk about us than in years past. That’s one reason why you come to a place like Penn State. You love that. I think we all embrace it. You want the opportunity to be part of the playoff conversation.”
Last team left out: The Lions were the last team left out last year, while Ohio State — which had one fewer loss — got in and got routed by eventual champion Clemson in the semifinals. That created some controversy. The teams will meet this year in Columbus in late October in a matchup that could decide the East Division. Of course, first they have to get to that point. Hence, the repeated Akron references.
“Obviously, it didn’t end the way we wanted to,” said Franklin, referring to the fourth-quarter meltdown in Pasadena against USC. “It ended in a way that left a lot of our guys wanting more. Playing in the Big Ten championship was very important. … Our guys are aware of the [added] outside noise. But it’s not like we spend a lot of time talking about it.
“None of the wins transfer over. We have to start from the ground up, using all those experiences from last year. That’s what we’ll take with us. Whether we’re ahead of schedule or behind schedule, we don’t look at it like that. Internally we’re not very different. But it helps to have so many players who had success coming back. That will get people talking about you.”
And that’s a good thing?
“Very much so,” Franklin said.
Enjoying expectations: That’s why the Bucks County native went to Happy Valley. This is what Penn State is supposed to be about. They have expectations at Ohio State and Michigan, too.
“I don’t want to be one of those programs where the wins are expected and the losses destroy you,” Franklin said. “I want to enjoy the wins.”
In that case, it should be another enjoyable ride for Penn State fans. It just won’t be nearly as surprising. How enjoyable is the only unknown at this point. In the meantime, keep thinking Akron. And in the weak moments, feel free to sneak a few peeks beyond.