When Penn State has a wildly successful season — winning a conference title, going undefeated, that sort of thing — the year ends up on the facade of Beaver Stadium.
The program added 2012 to the group of honored teams for slightly different criteria: that year represented the successful tradition of the Penn State program. The honor will be bestowed on the 2016 team — the one that finished 11-3, won a Big Ten title and played in the Rose Bowl — before a Week 2 game against Pitt.
One of the biggest challenges for James Franklin and his coaching staff will be trying to replicate that success in 2017.
“We’re going to practice and have meetings like they’ve never won a game before,” Franklin said. “None of those wins translate over. None of those points translate over.”
Players received their 2016 Big Ten championship and 2017 Rose Bowl rings during a team picnic after the Blue-White spring game. Franklin already has said repeatedly that “we aren’t going to talk about that team ever again.”
While that should make for some interesting media availabilities leading into the Pitt game, he’s clearly trying to focus his players on a new season and new work to be done.
If Franklin needs data to show his players about handling success, all he needs to do is point to that list of honored years. Since back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1968 and 1969, there have been no consecutive honored seasons.
Penn State has honored seven teams since 1969 — with at least three seasons between them. Given the talent and experience the Nittany Lions have returning, it seems plausible the 2017 club could end the streak of year-after disappointments. The expectations have risen to the point where waiting until at least 2019 for another “stadium season” would be a major disappointment.
Here’s how the most recent “year after” seasons have gone:
Fresh off an undefeated season and John Cappelletti’s Heisman Trophy, Penn State began the year ranked No. 8 in the country. The Nittany Lions knocked off No. 20 Stanford to open the season, but dropped the second game, 7-6 to Navy, at Beaver Stadium.
The Midshipmen went on to finish 4-7 in George Welsh’s second season at Navy. Penn State recovered and finished the year 10-2 with a decisive Cotton Bowl win against Baylor. The only other loss was a 12-7 defeat to N.C. State, which finished the season No. 11 in the AP Poll.
Penn State finished No. 7 in the final poll, only two spots behind the undefeated team from the year before. It was a “what might have been” kind of year, though, with an offense that disappeared in two games and a loss to a sub-par Navy team.
The Nittany Lions finally broke through with a national championship in 1982. Curt Warner and Todd Blackledge were gone, but star receiver Kenny Jackson was back.
It didn’t take long to find out that this team was not of the same caliber. Penn State began the year at No. 4 in the preseason poll, but a 44-6 rout by No. 1 Nebraska was the first of three straight losses to open the season.
The Nittany Lions finished 8-4-1 and did knock off two teams that were ranked in the top 5 at the time in Alabama and West Virginia.
After a second national title in 1986, expectations were not as high for the Nittany Lions the following season. Penn State had 13 players selected in the 1987 NFL Draft; linebacker Shane Conlan and running back D.J. Dozier were among the first 14 picks.
The Nittany Lions won the opener against Bowling Green, but an upset by No. 19 Alabama at Beaver Stadium was the first of four losses and left Penn State outside the top 25 by season’s end. There was a late upset win against No. 7 Notre Dame, but it was otherwise a forgettable campaign.
The 1994 team had arguably the most explosive offense in program history and one of the best in the history of the Big Ten. Three players were among the top nine picks in the 1995 NFL Draft.
A lot of talent returned the following season, and nine more offensive players were chosen in the 1996 draft. But not having Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins was a problem.
After starting the season 3-0 but dropping two spots to No. 6 in the rankings, Penn State lost to Wisconsin and Ohio State and fell out of the Big Ten race. The Nittany Lions finished 9-3. They beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl and ended the season as No. 13 in the final AP poll.
The 2005 season was a return to national relevance. Penn State went 12-1 and finished No. 3 in the final rankings. There was lots of young talent coming back to be excited about.
It didn’t materialize into anything special in 2006. There were sound defeats by two top-5 teams (Notre Dame and Ohio State) before the end of September. Penn State went 0-4 against ranked teams during the regular season before knocking off No. 17 Tennessee in the Outback Bowl.
The Nittany Lions finished 9-4 and were ranked No. 24 in the final AP poll. It was a pretty good team. Just not a great one.
After another co-Big Ten championship in 2008 and the first trip to the Rose Bowl in 14 years, expectations were high entering the 2009 season. After three wins to open the season, Penn state stood at No. 4 in the nation.
Then came a 21-10 loss to unranked Iowa at Beaver Stadium. Later in the season, there was a 24-7 home loss to Ohio State. This wasn’t a great year for the Big Ten, and Penn State’s offense failed in its only two games against eventual top-10 teams.
It still was a good season, including a win against LSU on a soggy field at the Capital One Bowl. Like 1974, there was potential for it be even better if not for two offensive power outages.
It was remarkable that Penn State finished 8-4 in 2012, the first season after news of the Jerry Sandusky scandal led to sweeping changes for the program and severe NCAA sanctions. To ask more of the 2013 team seemed farfetched, especially after losing three key members of the defense and quarterback Matt McGloin to the NFL.
The 2013 team struggled with inconsistency, but freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg offered hope for the future with memorable wins against ranked Michigan and Wisconsin teams. The Nittany Lions finished 7-5, and Penn State went 15-9 in those first two seasons after the scandal when losing twice that many games seemed plausible during the darkest days for the program.
Expectations have changed in State College. Penn State likely will begin next season in the top 10 of every preseason poll and will be a contender to repeat as Big Ten champions.
Maybe this group of players will be the first to produce back-to-back special seasons in nearly 50 years.
“Our biggest challenge that we have this year is how do we learn from our experiences last year?” Franklin said. “Going to the Big Ten championship, winning the Big Ten championship, going to the Rose Bowl. How do we learn from those experiences and grow from them but not change who we are? How do we keep that blue-collar, hard-nosed, attention-to-detail [identity] and grow from it now that we’re walking around campus and everyone is patting us on the back and telling us how wonderful we are?
“I’d make the argument that a lot of times when you’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-old males, it is easier to handle adversity than it is to handle success.”