Penn State 2016 Football Season Pre-Observations
The season is only a month away and your turkey is gearing up for it. Hell, given my travel schedule in August and the impending 2016 Greater Orlando Heart Walk (have you made your donation?), I figure it is now or never!
80 Years of AP Polls
My first irrelevant observation concerns yesterday morning’s revelation by the AP that PSU is #12th best team all-time, by whatever criteria they use. The all-time AP poll was published on the 80th anniversary of the inception of the poll. Ohio State won the top slot. I think poll appearances, times picked as #1, etc., weigh on their ranking. (Of course they do! They’re the only facts that don’t involve complex interpretation, even though the polls are largely based on sportswriters’ opinions, which, like assholes, we all have to have. But I digress.)
In looking at the listing for Penn State, it hit me between the eyes that we’re looking to the increasingly distant past for the Nittany Lions’ claim to fame. Whether or not you regard AP as a credible source, you media-haters, here are some interesting facts:
589, 53.40% of all polls
Two (last 1986)
1990s appeared in 95.27% of polls.
1950s appeared in 20.69% of polls.
The Nittany Lions have not been ranked at any point during the last four seasons (2011-15). Since making their poll debut in 1940, Penn State had never gone more than three seasons without being ranked at least once.
This pretty much tells us what we already knew, if we weren’t afraid to admit it. Penn State football came of age in the 1960s, peaked in the 1990s, and died in the 2010s, with the Sandusky Sanctions (SS) being the torpedo that punctuated the program’s decline with a great, big, final exclamation point!!
Days of Our Lives
Whoa! What do we have here? As I consider the time line, what strikes me is that the fortunes of PSU football parallel the fortunes of many of our lives. We start out with little, we bust our asses to get on top of our game, then we start losing it as we age and others take over for us while we struggle to remain relevant, then we retire into relative obscurity, and then we die. For many of us, our personal time line is contemporaneous with that of Penn State football. Is it any wonder that we take it so seriously, so personally?
In my working career I reached my personal peak of productivity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Perhaps “The Dark Years” (cue cello) of Penn State football of the early 2000s accelerated my personal decline. Penn State had what is known on Wall Street as a “dead cat bounce” in the mid-2000s, while I had a last gasp of a consulting gig ending in 2008. I formally retired in 2011, just as the Sandusky scandal was breaking. That year was a low ebb for me, but watching the drama of the sanctions unfold, it got worse.
Having lived through a lifetime of Penn State football, now that the sanctions have run their course, it is my hope that I’ll be able to observe at least the beginnings of the upswing of the program as I did when I was a fresh, young whippersnapper in the 1960s. I might not live long enough to see the Nittany Lions become a dominant team again, but I’m thinking that last year and this year will have been the bottom. The only way to go is up! Penn State football will be reborn. It is a pity that those of us whose lives have been intertwined with the program cannot be granted eternal life so as to enjoy another full cycle.
Who were the top ten teams in that AP fantasia poll? Here you go: tOSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Alabama, USC, Nebraska, Michigan, Texas, FSU, and Florida. LSU was right above Penn State at #11.
The Season Ahead
I’ll cut the melancholy, nostalgic musing and get right into my straight out of the ass look at the season ahead. This will be a tough one, given that there are nine Big Ten conference games this year, and that means fewer pussies. In fact, only one of the out-of-conference games can be regarded as super-pussified. What we’re faced with this year is unlike anything we’ve seen recently — a tough September schedule. Given that Penn State will have new offensive and defensive coordinators, and will be trying to replace some key positions, not the least of which is quarterback, September could set an ominous tone for the rest of the season if it doesn’t come together quickly. But the Turkey is sanguine. Uncharacteristically so.
The quarterback situation hasn’t yet been resolved. Trace McSorley or Tommy Stevens? James Franklin won’t say yet; however, he better sure as hell make up his mind before let’s say the second week of the season. Both quarterbacks looked good in the spring game, but spring scrummages don’t put rugby wins in the record books.
Next, we have a big question mark relating to the defensive line. Having lost three potentially NFL-caliber linemen as well as a highly regarded defensive coordinator, can this year’s Penn State team put together a defense that we old-timers think we always have to have? (We identify with that Penn State defense thing, you know.) This turkey’s feeling is that the linebackers and the secondary might have to be making a lot of tackles, and I think this year’s team will be giving up more points than last year’s. That leads us right into…
…the offense. Joe Moorhead (often brain-farted by this turkey into variants such as Morehouse and Moorhen, but I digress), the new offensive coordinator, had a great track record at Fordham. Oy, vey, in da Bronx, already. His great claim to fame was beating Army, which was unexpected, already. OK, OK, I’ll shitcan the cynicism. We can look forward to seeing a quick paced spread offense. Let’s face it — after the John Donovan fiasco, the only way to go is up. And it’ll have to go up, because as I mentioned before, the defense is going to be allowing more points than last year. Let us hope that Mr. Moorhead does not revive the Jay Paterno Spread HD.
Whatever he does, he’ll need tight ends, and what he’s got there is Mike Gesicki, who can’t catch. And as for the rest of the O-Line, I recently heard Brian Gaia described as the leader of this unit, so I thought a picture was essential. He has moved to center this year, and I don’t mean politically. Also returning from last year’s unit, such as it was, are Andrew Nelson, Paris Palmer, Brendan Mahon, and Derek Dowrey. Nelson will probably start at left tackle, a position originally held by Palmer, who will anchor the right end. Mahon and Dowrey will battle for right guard. These guys are the heart of a unit that allowed Christian Hackenberg a lot of turf time during the 2015 season, including ten sacks in the Temple game, which predictably wound up being an embarrassing 27-10 loss. You can’t say they don’t have a lot of experience.
A couple of freshmen will vie for the left guard reps, Ryan Bates and Steve Gonzalez. Redshirt sophomore Noah Beh may challenge The Colossus of Rhodes (aka Paris Palmer) at right tackle if the latter continues to be a statue.
What can I say about the offensive line that I haven’t been saying for the past few years? It is being described by the media as “an experienced unit”, but alas, what kind of experience are we talking about here? Can these guys get better? They have to. We’re looking at an offense that stunk up the place on third-down conversions last year. I’m too damn lazy to look up this stat of futility, but I think that in the final tabulation, only Kent State was worse in that category last season. That blows, and it has to improve!
The bright spots on offense are a serviceable collection of wide receivers including Chris Godwin and Saeeeeed Blacknall, and of course, former freshman speedster running back sensation Saquon Barkley (no relation to Charles). But everything on offense comes back to that crazy offensive line.
Special teams need to improve, without a doubt. The likes of Chris Gulla, Dan Pasquariello, and Joey “Big Toe” Julius need to be sent to the scrap heap and retooled. Their supporting cast needs to be more than a metaphorical athletic supporter (that was a euphemism for jock strap in the good olde days).
September, as I said is almost a make or break month. Hellfire, it damn well is a make or break month. Going into the Minnesota game on October 1, the Nittany Lions could well find themselves either 1-3 or 3-1. Yeah, it’s all plausible. As my six readers often remind me, they’re 12-0 now as I write this. So, who knows? Least of all, me! But I’ll pull out some wacko predictions anyhow, because that’s what I do.
First up is Kent State at St. Joe Memorial Stadium (which it will be named sometime in 2066). The Golden Flashes are looking very good on defense, but offensively, they bite the big one. With Penn State and Alabama both in their September schedule, they’re lucky to have two pussies in between. This one is a win for good guys any way I look at it. (1-0)
Then, the resurgence of the Pitt rivalry being a noon game at Ketchup Field means that I have to finish up with the Heart Walk pretty early. Pat Narduzzi is in his second year there in the city of my nativity, but can he fill up the Heinzatorium with Pitt fans for this clash? Methinks the blue and gold will be outnumbered by the blue and white. Though they might lack home team advantage, they have lots of returning starters and Narduzzi might well know how to use them. Defense isn’t his only game. I’ll give Pitt a slight edge in this one due to the many question marks that will remain about Penn State. Nevertheless, win or lose, a strong performance in this game will be a foundation on which the season can be built. (1-1)
Next, Temple. Oy, vey. This one is at the Big Beave. The Owls will be right up in the top tier of the AAC this year once again. They’ve lost a lot of defensive starters from last year (thank God — 10 sacks), but their offense is solid. One dubious advantage of the 27-10 Penn State loss last year is that the Nittany Lions won’t be taken by surprise this year. First of all, it won’t be the first game of the season, and second, they’ll be coming off an intense battle with Pitt, so their heads won’t be so big. This year, the Lions put the Owls in their proper perches. (2-1)
The Nittany Lions then travel to the Big House — no, not Rockview — where the Michigan Wolverines will be salivating, looking for fresh meat. The Fighting Harbaughs, as Beth Mowins called them, are on the upswing, to put it mildly. After the failed Brady Hoke experiment, Michigan Man Jim Harbaugh came onstream with a bang last year, winding up 10-3, including a blowout win over Florida on January 1. Look for nothing less this year, and I’m obviously giving this one to Big Blue. (2-2)
Back to Paterno Field for a clash with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, beginning a three game home stand. What ho, Gopheroos? A new coach, and another mediocre performance, methinks, for Minnesota. They had a 6-7 finish last year. They’re bringing back a decent defensive secondary, so the Lions will need to soften them up with a lot of Barkley. I will be optimistic and put this one in the win column for the Kitties. (3-2)
Oh, Maryland, my Maryland, Oy Vey, Maryland. Another new coach after some serious scandleography, and where are the Terrapins this year? Back in their turtle holes, where they should be. Having finished 3-9 in 2015, I doubt they’ll even break even on wins this year, even if they get rid of those god-awful shitty uniforms. They could have a limited amount of success with their running game against a relatively inexperienced Penn State D-Line, but their passing game suuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks. The mighty PSU secondary could have a field day. Maryland goes down the turtle hole. (4-2)
Following a blessed bye week and with a 4-2 record under the generously sized belts of the Nittany Lions, the Ohio State Buckeyes come to town. The Bucks are loaded with talent, but won’t reach the pinnacle of 2016. Still, they have more than enough, and a big advantage in having kissed Cardale “I don’t come to play classes” Jones goodbye. Alas, Zeke is gone, too, as well as Braxton. The bloom is off the rose and Urbz is worried about his collection of champeens getting big heads and blowing some close ones. They’ll start the season with Bowling Green and Tulsa on their plate, which won’t help abate the ego trip; however, the Ohio State season could well hinge on the third game, at Oklahoma. They’ll be playing at Wisconsin the week before the Penn State game, and I’m hoping the Badgers beat the living crap and the cockiness out of them, softening them up for this one, in which I’ll give well rested Penn State a crack of a chance. No, wait. What the hell, it’s only my reputation at stake. Big headline: Penn State Wins! Do you believe in miracles? I don’t, but I believe in “that dullard look.” (5-2)
With that one in the bag (can you believe it), a bye week of a different sort ensues. PSU travels to Ross-Ade Stadium to take on the Ross-Ade-ettes. Will Purdue suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck again this year? YES!!! WINNNINGGGGGGGGGG! (6-2)
Back to JPMS for a home game with the Iowa Hackeyes, I mean Hawkeyes. Kirk Ferentz might actually earn his lofty salary if he can win this one. The Hawkeyes had a helluva year in 2015, a dream year, even. They won’t repeat that, not by a longshot. Like tOSU, they’ll be playing a hard game with the Badgers before coming to the Beave, butbutbut this one will go the other way. Hawkeyes win, 6-4. (6-3)
Could there be more of a gift after a tough loss than playing the Indiana Hoosiers in a half-empty stadium? Yeah, dass wha jou seenk! But I don’t. They actually went to a bowl for the first time in 25 years and they’ve actually got an offense. But they’ll probably finish with a marginally bowl eligible record in 2016, at best. The Penn State loss won’t help them any. (7-3)
And then there’s the Rutgers Scarlet Drugthugs in Piscataway. Universally picked to suck again this year, the Scarletina Nights will not disappoint Nittany Lions fans. (8-3)
We wrap up the regular season with Moo U., as usual. (Or at least as was and will be usual except when Big Ten divisions are realigned and then, who knows.) Mark D’Antonio has proven himself to be a coach for the ages at Michigan State. They’ve won three in a row against Penn State. Last year, after a rough battle in Columbus in which the Spartans emerged victorious, they kicked the living shit out of the Nittany Lions 55-16. The following week, they beat Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. Although they ultimately lost big to Alabama in the playoffs, it cannot be said that D’Antonio doesn’t know how to not lose. (I though’t I would throw in a triple negative just to see if you’re still paying attention). In spite of Penn State having home field advantage this year, I’m going to say it will be four in a row for Dantoni-O. That rhymes. (You spell it Dantonio; I spell it D’Antonio. Who knew?) And the great benefit of this loss is that the Land Grant Trophy stays in East Lansing for another year! (8-4)
Now, wait. Did THE Nittany Turkey just pick Penn State to go 8-4, with a win over Ohio State, to boot? Say I’m not dreaming! Is the Turkey smoking what Phil Grosz smokes? Aw, what the hell. I decided to be an optimist for a change. I had been running around predicting 6-6, but djou no somezeeng? The Turkey declares 8-4 as plausible. So it must be.
Now, I’ll ask you what you think. I know, I know, it’s too soon to tell. But that’s the fun of projections. They can be as wild-ass as you want; at this juncture they’re all still plausible.
So, there you have it. Now, I can get on with my onerous August schedule and the stresses related thereto, but with the warm, fuzzy feeling that September 3 will be here before I can say Jimminy Cricket. I look forward to yet another fun and challenging season of Penn State football and to all of your excellent comments. See you soon!