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Penn State football might actually be good

Don’t take this game lightly.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Friends, I have a potentially controversial opinion that I’d like to get off my chest. I figured this would be a safe enough place to do it.

I think Penn State football is kinda good. Like, this year. Right now.

The opinion is buttressed somewhat by the advanced stats, at least. Penn State sits 18th right now in S&P+, ahead of undefeated West Virginia, Nebraska, Boise State and Western Michigan. Thanks to an explosive running game paced by Saquon Barkley, and a banged up defense that has done just enough to keep them in most games, S&P+ likes them to finish the season strong as well. Penn State is given a 80% chance of winning at least eight games. Going 8-4 seems pretty good! 9-3, I’m told, is even better.

Of course, that’s just what the spreadsheet says. But maybe the tape tells you a different story. After all, Penn State has played just one game against a very strong team so far, against Michigan, and they were summarily dismissed, 49-10, in a game that probably wasn’t even that close. Their defense was physically pummeled in an early season 42-39 loss at Pitt, and their biggest wins this year were over decidedly average Temple and Maryland squads.

There might not be a resume-based argument for the concept that Penn State is good, which may be why they haven’t garnered a single AP Poll vote. Troy has.

The #narrative has not been kind to Penn State, and especially to head coach James Franklin. After consecutive seasons with pedestrian results, he’s been tagged with the “recruiter” label, with the pejorative insinuation that he isn’t great at anything else.

And it’s true, Franklin’s struggles have been well documented, from his questionable clock-management, to the public feud and failure to develop Christian Hackenberg, to Penn State’s struggles against the elite programs of the Big Ten, like the Michigans, and Ohio State. He’s not going to get the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not here to write a stirring defense of James Franklin, playcaller, or James Franklin, clock manager. I don’t think all of those critiques are without merit.

But that doesn’t mean that this Penn State team isn’t good.

The biggest potential concern for Ohio State? Barkley, who jumped onto the national stage last year after absolutely carving up an experienced Ohio State defense. Now, a substantially less-experienced squad faces a running back averaging nearly 100 yards a game (97.0), while working with a dramatically less talented and successful offensive line, compared to programs like Ohio State, and with defenses scheming specifically to slow him down.

Barkley is fast, deceptively strong, and explosive in the open field. After a few weeks of more pedestrian performances, he dropped 202 yards rushing on Maryland. After a bye week, and against an Ohio State defense that may be emotionally and physically tired from battling Wisconsin, there’s plenty of reason to think Barkley may be successful again.

Paired with Trace McSorley at quarterback, and skill position talent far above nearly everybody else in the Big Ten, Penn State’s offense is clearly dangerous, even if it hasn’t been very efficient. And after Ohio State, there may not be another team on Penn State’s schedule that can attack them effectively.

Penn State’s defense was projected to take a step back after losing defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and a slew of talented defensive linemen, and injuries, especially at linebacker, have taken a substantial toll. But even so, the unit has been reasonably effective, especially as the game goes along (Penn State’s defense is 12th in the country in fourth quarter S&P+).

The math, and the vision test, doesn’t suggest that Penn State’s defense will necessarily be able to win the game for the Nittany Lions, but it could certainly keep them in the game.

Earlier this season, especially after the emphatic defeat by Michigan, the college football world was ready to write off Franklin, and Penn State. The outcry was loud enough that Penn State AD Sandy Barbour even had to give Franklin the proverbial vote of confidence.

But I don’t think a change is very likely, and honestly, wouldn’t even be justified this season. Penn State is still rebuilding a roster ravaged by years of depth problems thanks to sanctions, (and a few recruiting misfires). They’re still trying to build that depth now.

But they’ve already built a new offense that’s been successful on standard downs. They probably have the best running back in the Big Ten right now, and one of the best receiving corps. They have some sneaky good players in their secondary.

And it’s going to be another wild, crazy White Out, at night, on the road. Weird things happen in Happy Valley at night.

Ohio State might not get very much credit for beating Penn State this weekend. The Nittany Lions are probably going to remain outside of the national limelight for the rest of this season, unless they totally fall apart.

But I don’t think they will. Maybe I’m wrong, but I still think this team is kinda good right now. And they might finish the season even better.

If Ohio State’s going to come away with their second huge road win in a row, they’ll need to play an excellent game. I think this one will be a war.