The year was 1997, and a once-promising season was torpedoed by a November swoon, which was followed by the suspension of a couple key players for various indiscretions.
Suffice to say the Penn State camp was none too pleased, even though the Nittany Lions still landed in the Citrus Bowl for a matchup with Florida featuring name-brand coaches Joe Paterno and Steve Spurrier.
Nonetheless, when he grabbed a flip card in the media lounge a couple hours before the game, Budd Thalman, the Lions’ sports information director, summed it up by quipping, “Let’s see who’s on our team.”
That’s about the feeling Penn State followers should have as the Nittany Lions line up against Arkansas in today’s Outback Bowl (noon, ESPN2).
These are different circumstances than 1997 when Curtis Enis broke NCAA rules by accepting gifts and Joe Jurevicius was ruled academically ineligible, unfortunate endings for two outstanding players.
These times are different as the roster turnover is now focused on those who have decided to forego another year of eligibility and the bowl game as well.
Change in college sports has become rapid. Keep in mind Saquon Barkley, who ended up as the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, played in the 2017 Fiesta Bowl against Washington. He carried 18 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns.
Even three years ago, against Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl, several PSU underclassmen were thinking about coming out early and did but still played in the game.
Part of the narrative on bowl games over the years has been: Is it the last game of 2021 or the first game of 2022?
James Franklin was asked as much during the preparation for the Razorbacks.
“I think it’s a combination of both,” he said. “It’s the end of the season and still an opportunity for us to go out and play the way we want to play, and still an opportunity for players to show on a national stage what they’re capable of doing, not only for Penn State, but also for their futures. And also some young players getting more significant opportunities to give some momentum going into the off-season.”
With so many of the Nits’ key players missing this game – six starters have opted out, including star receiver Jahan Dotson — and the way the season crashed from 5-0 to 7-5, it’s hard to believe they can win a tough game against a team that only lost by a touchdown to Alabama in November.
Not without Dotson and five defensive starters – standout safety Jaquan Brisker, defensive linemen Arnold Ebiketie and Derrick Tangelo and linebackers Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith.
They’ll be lucky to hold Arkansas to 30 points, right?
With all the things that went wrong this past season — the debacle at Iowa, the lack of a backup quarterback until Christian Veilleux, the 2-point nightmare vs. Illinois, the fake field goal with a chance to go up 10-0 against Michigan, the frozen strategy at Michigan State — there is no bow that can be put on 2021 that’s going to make it feel much better.
With Sean Clifford returning for a sixth season, it’s time to get started on 2022.
And if you haven’t taken a peek at next year’s schedule, proceed with caution. Four of the Lions’ toughest games — the opener at Purdue, a trip to Auburn two weeks later along with Ohio State and a visit to Michigan — land in the first six weeks.
Should Penn State be fortunate enough to beat Arkansas, being 1-0 — a Franklin manta — would be a much better way to start 2022 than 8-5 would be to cap 2021, definitely a year to forget.
Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.