HEISER: Penn State makes remarkable turnaround since humbling 2016 loss to Michigan

Steve Heiser
York Dispatch
  • Penn State suffered a 49-10 loss to Michigan in 2016.
  • Since that humbling defeat, the Nittany Lions have gone 15-1.
  • The Lions and the Wolverines will meet again this Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Did you see this coming?

Penn State head coach James Franklin, center, looks up at the scoreboard in the fourth quarter during a 49-10 loss at Michigan during the 2016 season. The Nittany Lions have gone 15-1 since that humbling defeat.

Just more than a year ago, after Penn State’s humiliating 49-10 loss to Michigan, did you really believe that the Nittany Lions would win 15 out of their next 16 games?

Were you really convinced that James Franklin was the right man to resurrect a floundering PSU football program, still struggling to emerge from the sanctions of the Sandusky scandal?

Did you really think that the Lions would win a Big Ten title and earn a Rose Bowl berth last season and climb to No. 2 in The Associated Press college football poll this season?

If you did … well you are either massaging the truth or you are, without a doubt, the brightest mind in the college football universe. As such, you should immediately catch the next flight to Vegas and wager your entire life savings on your next hunch. You’ll never have to work again.

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As for the rest of us, we’ll need to keep our day jobs and reflect on one of the most unlikely turnarounds in gridiron history.

Michigan mauling: It’s the perfect time to do that, with the second-ranked and unbeaten Lions (6-0) taking on Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 21, for the first time since that embarrassing afternoon at the Big House in Ann Arbor.

Last year’s distressing defeat to the Wolverines now seems like ages ago. The Lions entered that Michigan game at 2-1, but the one loss was a 42-39 setback against hated in-state rival Pitt. The Lions had also struggled mightily to beat another in-state foe, Temple, 34-27. That’s the same Owls program that PSU had mostly handled with ease over the decades.

That made Franklin’s boast when arriving at PSU to “dominate” the state ring hollow.

Not surprisingly, PSU entered the 2016 Michigan game as an 18½-point underdog. As it turns out, the game would not be nearly that close. The Wolverines crushed the Lions in every imaginable way.

Bottomless abyss: At that point, the gap between PSU and the elite in the Big Ten East — namely Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — seemed more like a bottomless abyss.

Franklin’s job, meanwhile, seemed very much in jeopardy. After the Michigan loss, his overall career record in Happy Valley stood at just 16-14, and he had an 0-7 mark vs. the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Spartans. Most of those defeats were not close.

It looked as if the Lions were years away from becoming a serious Big Ten contender.

Instead, they were mere weeks away from becoming Big Ten champions.

It was a legendary reversal of fortune.

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Coming a long way: To get an idea of how far the PSU program has come, you only need to look at the line for this weekend’s game vs. the Wolverines. The Lions are now a double-digit favorite for the prime-time Whiteout affair at Beaver Stadium against a top-20 foe with a rock-star coach (Jim Harbaugh) and a 5-1 record.

ESPN’s College Gameday will be there, and the Worldwide Leader in Sports will undoubtedly heap praise on Franklin, his coaches and his players for accomplishing an improbable, if not unbelievable, U-turn.

The Lions will be deserving of all the accolades they will receive. What they’ve accomplished over the last 13 months is truly remarkable.

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Three-week gauntlet: Now, however, PSU is about to embark on a three-week gauntlet that will determine just how far they can take this turnaround. After the Michigan game, the Lions go on the road to face No. 6 Ohio State (6-1) and No. 18 Michigan State (5-1).

Both the Buckeyes and Spartans will be hungry for payback. The Lions stunned Ohio State last season, 24-21, with an astonishing fourth-quarter rally that ruined the Buckeyes’ hopes for a Big Ten title. The Lions followed that by trampling a reeling Michigan State side 45-12 in the regular-season finale, punching their ticket to the Big Ten title game.

If the Lions can survive those three tough tests, there’s no telling where this season can take them.

Going 3-0 over that stretch seems unlikely, especially with a mega-talented Ohio State team seeming to gain momentum with each passing week. Beating the revenge-minded Buckeyes in the Horseshoe will require an epic effort.

Of course, going 15-1 over the last 13 months was even more implausible.

Actually, it was unimaginable, unless you happen to be the brightest mind in the college football universe.

In that case, you should already be reaping your rewards in Vegas.

Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.