Penn State was No. 7 in the preseason AP college football poll. That is not where the Nittany Lions will finish the year.
Because of the Big Ten’s delayed start to the season, when the Nittany Lions finally got on the field for their opener on October 24 at Indiana, they were down to No. 8. A 36-35 overtime loss dropped Penn State to No. 18, and Ohio State knocked its fellow “The” university out of the rankings entirely with a 38-25 verdict in Happy Valley on Halloween.
That was all understandable. Indiana looked to be frisky, and has turned out to be legitimately good, a Top-10 team that moved to 4-0 on Saturday with a 24-0 thrashing of Michigan State. Ohio State, of course, is Ohio State, 3-0, and contending for the College Football Playoff.
But then last week, Penn State hosted Maryland, and took a 35-19 loss that wasn’t even as close as the score looked. It would be unfair to say that Penn State hit rock bottom on Saturday, because rock bottom for this program is sexual abuse of children, but the Nittany Lions are now 0-4 after going to Nebraska, falling behind by three touchdowns, and coming back to fail on goal-to-go opportunities on the last two drives of a 30-23 loss to a previously winless Cornhuskers team.
Congratulations to Nebraska, perhaps, for getting “the payoff” on its asinine push to have this Big Ten football season happen. But this is really about Penn State, which is plumbing historic depths. In fact, this is now officially a bigger letdown for Penn State than 1983, when they started off ranked No. 4 in the country, lost 44-6 to top-ranked Nebraska at Giants Stadium, then lost at home to Cincinnati and No. 13 Iowa before finally beating Temple at Veterans Stadium.
There is recent precedent for a team with a lofty ranking getting off to a rough start. In 2017, Florida State was the preseason No. 3 team in the country, and lost three of its first four games. Of course, two of those games were against No. 1 Alabama and No. 13 Miami, with a loss to N.C. State and a win at Wake Forest between, so you could understand what happened.
In 2007, preseason No. 5 Michigan lost its opener to Appalachian State, then got blown out at home by Oregon, but responded in its third game with a 38-0 thrashing of Notre Dame, starting an eight-game winning streak that included beating No. 10… Penn State.
There’s also Auburn, which in 2003 opened the season at No. 6 under civics failure Tommy Tuberville, and promptly got shut out at home by No. 6 USC, then went to Georgia Tech and lost, 17-3. But those Tigers got back on track thanks to a schedule that then gave them Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky.
Those are the worst starts to the season this century for teams ranked as highly at the start of the year as Penn State was in 2020. What the Nittany Lions don’t have is a comfortable cupcake to get them out of this hole, as LSU did in 1989 when the Tigers opened the season ranked seventh, and lost six of their first seven games, avoiding going winless into November only because they were fortunate enough to have Ohio — not Ohio State, but Ohio — on the schedule for a 57-6 thrashing in the third game of the year.
To find a team in the depths that Penn State is in now, you have to go all the way back to 1984, when Pitt was No. 3 in the country, with two first-place votes in the preseason poll, then went out and lost at home to BYU and Oklahoma, at Temple, and at West Virginia, before finally cracking the win column against East Carolina. The Panthers won only three games in 1984, but they did close out strong, with back-to-back wins over Tulane… and at Penn State.
Arizona State, ranked No. 3 to start 1976, also started 0-4 before getting into the win column at UTEP. Illinois was No. 6 at the start of 1954 and went 0-4 to start, with losses to ranked Ohio State and Minnesota. After beating Syracuse, Illinois lost its last four games, too, finishing at 1-8.
So that’s on Penn State’s radar, as is becoming the first team ever to be in the preseason top 7 and start 0-5, because the preseason poll only goes back to 1950, so before that, any teams that were ranked highly in the first poll already had a couple of wins under their belt.
The Nittany Lions host Iowa next Saturday. Perhaps they can do an anti-Nebraska and ask for the Big Ten season to stop, saving both public health and their own embarrassment.