Penn State's drastic turnaround shows it is the best team not named Alabama

One of the intrinsic allures of college football is the volatility of the sport’s landscape. Programs mired in mediocrity can be resurrected and dynasties can fade into distant memories. Fates can turn with a coaching hire, recruiting coup or singular game that triggers a seismic momentum shifts. The inherent unpredictability of when these coaches, players and moments may arrive delivers a unique drama to every weekend.

On Sept. 29 of 2016, Penn State’s program looked destined for another mediocre season. Shrouded by the stigmas and sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Nittany Lions looked lost after getting pummeled at Michigan by 39 points. Grumbles about coach James Franklin’s job status intensified, as questions about fit, his game management and ability to resuscitate the Nittany Lions back to relevancy echoed from Pittsburgh to Philly.

Thirteen months since that dark day in Ann Arbor, Penn State has emerged as one of the most dominant programs in all of college football. The Nittany Lions eviscerated No. 19 Michigan, 42-13, to solidify their No. 2 ranking and status as the best team in the country not named Alabama. It was a whiteout in front of 110,823 at Beaver Stadium, and whitewash on the field. Nothing epitomizes the drastically shifting direction of these two programs than the 68-point differential in two games one year apart, as Penn State went from a 39-point loss to a 29-point victory.

And the blowout makes Penn State’s trip to No. 6 Ohio State (6-1) next week one of the biggest regular season games of this season. Penn State’s upset of Ohio State last season began swinging the program’s fortune, and a victory in Columbus would solidify them as the Big Ten’s leading contender for the College Football Playoff. (Don’t forget that No. 5 Wisconsin is quietly lurking in the Big Ten West).

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (26) makes a move on Michigan’s Khaleke Hudson (7) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)

Star junior tailback Saquon Barkley affirmed his status as the leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy, running for 108 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 carries and hauling in a juggling 42-yard touchdown catch on a double move that will certainly resonate in highlights well into December.

What may be most surprising about the tenor of the result on Saturday night was that it wasn’t particular surprising. Penn State is 16-1 since that blowout in Ann Arbor, and in that sun-kissed 17-game run the entire paradigm of the Penn State program has changed. Franklin signed a lengthy and lucrative contract extension, and Barkley has emerged as the face of the program and a top-five NFL draft pick. The combination of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s run-pass-option-based offense and cunning quarterback Trace McSorley have transformed the Nittany Lion offense from a liability to an archetype. Penn State’s defense is allowing less points than any unit in the country, giving the Nittany Lions a complete team.

How drastically have things changed? Michigan spent most of the week as a double-digit underdog, and the pre-game hit by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi mentioned the Michigan narrative revolved around how everyone was acting like they were 1-5 heading into the game instead of 5-1. Harbaugh apparently tried to play the age-old, “No one believes in us,” angle. It was Michigan acting like Akron, and what unfolded was a result that looked similar to when Penn State played Akron.

Penn State leapt out to a 14-0 lead on Barkley touchdowns on the opening two drives. Michigan entered the with the country’s top defense in total yards allowed, the third consecutive season that coordinator Don Brown had a team No. 1 in the country in total defense. But Barkley scored on a 69-yard touchdown run on a Wildcat snap that completely fooled the Michigan defense, the type of big-game wrinkle that’s a hallmark for an elite coordinator like Moorhead.

The early success portended an offensive onslaught, as Michigan looked like a team that is replacing 10 defensive starters. Penn State finished with 506 total yards, nearly double the 223.8 Michigan allowed heading into the game. Michigan had no answers for the slippery DaeSean Hamilton (six catches for 115 yards) or Mike Geskicki (2 for 52) yards, the towering 6-foot-5 tight end who celebrated a McSorley touchdown late in the second quarterback by leapfrogging over him. It was perhaps the most athletic touchdown celebration in Penn State’s storied history, and provided a fitting metaphor for a program that’s leapt ahead of the field in the Big Ten since that awful day in Ann Arbor.

The victory keeps Penn State in first place in the rugged Big Ten East, as they are locked at 4-0 with both the Buckeyes and Michigan State. Michigan falls back to 2-2 in conference play, making it difficult for the Wolverines to finish higher than fourth in the division. For all of Harbaugh’s noise and theatrics since joining the Big Ten, he’s heading for a third consecutive season of finishing no higher than third in his own division. After back-to-back third-place finishes, it’s difficult to imagine him finishing higher than fourth this season. Michigan is tied for fourth with Rutgers after its washout in Happy Valley after another night when glaring issues continued to play out like a broken record.

Michigan entered the day ranked No. 94 in passing offense (194.1), No. 82 in scoring offense (27.2) and with a muddled quarterback situation. They didn’t come close to matching either of those modest totals on Saturday night, as John O’Korn finished the night 16-for-28 for 166 yards and Michigan went scoreless in the second half.

Passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton, who was regraded as poor at his job in NFL circles, has been a predictable flop. Last season, Michigan ranked No. 11 in scoring offense with 40.3 points per game. Harbaugh’s unit is averaging nearly two touchdowns less per game, as the local media has been questioning Harbaugh’s offensive acumen and ability to tutor quarterbacks.

It’s worth noting that in his third season, Harbaugh is 1-4 against rivals Michigan State and Ohio State, with the Wolverines playing the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor on Nov. 25.

In Meyer’s third season in Columbus, he won the national title. In Franklin’s third season in State College, after taking over a program saddled with sanctions, he won the Big Ten. Harbaugh’s third season has been one hallmarked by regression, as it’s impossible to ignore that a program which beat Penn State 49-10 last season entered the game as a 9.5-point underdog. Michigan’s regression in the past year has become that obvious and predictable. And then there’s this discomforting sidenote pointed out by the Twitter feed of Eleven Warriors, the popular Ohio State blog: Harbaugh has the same record as former Michigan coach Brady Hoke, 25-8, through 33 games.

In 13 months, the narratives of Penn State and Michigan have flipped so drastically that the differences seem surreal. Penn State has the right hire at coach and offensive coordinator and brightest star in all of college football. And amid the deafening din of a whiteout, they teased all of college football with a glimpse of just what they could become by the end of the 2017 season.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley (26) celebrates with Mike Gesicki (88) after scoring a touchdown against Michigan during the second half of an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Penn State won 42-13. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)
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