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Bamboozled: Penn State’s Disastrous Season Proves Preseason Rankings Shouldn’t Exist

This weekend, Penn State football made history by becoming the first team in program history to begin a season with five straight losses.

No matter how you dice it, the Nittany Lions’ season is easily one to forget. Honestly, it’s worth purging from your memory, should you find the technology to do so (and let us know if you do, please).

In context, though, Penn State’s disastrous season looks especially bad on paper thanks to the endless preseason hype the team received before kicking off in late October. Above all else, Penn State’s underperformance proves once and for all preseason rankings don’t mean a damn thing.

The Nittany Lions landed at No. 7 in the Associated Press’s Top 25 Poll’s first rankings in August. They were later injected back into the poll at No. 10 in late September — weeks after dozens of SEC, ACC, and Big 12 teams already started their seasons and had legitimate resumes. Before playing its first game on October 24, Penn State rose to No. 8 thanks to other top-10 teams’ losses.

As you know all too well, Penn State didn’t do too hot in that first game. A heartbreaking overtime loss to Indiana wasn’t enough to knock the Nittany Lions out of the poll (they landed at No. 18), but it did result in some growing concerns. This was a top-10 team out the gate, right? How can it bounce back?

Long story short: It didn’t. Penn State lost its next four games, including a hard-fought defeat to Ohio State and embarrassments at the hands of Maryland and Nebraska.

Penn State always says it wants to make history, and boy howdy, it did. The Nittany Lions became the first team in recorded history to begin the season as a top-10 unit and lose their first five games.

History aside, Penn State’s season would look decidedly better had it not entered the season with such lofty expectations. Would anyone be losing sleep over an 0-5 start had the Nittany Lions entered the season unranked, staring at the AP Poll from the outside looking in? Probably not, although Penn State superfans would beg to differ.

Penn State’s tumultuous season should spark an honest, nationwide conversation about the necessity of preseason rankings and the weight they hold. How reliable can the polls be if they’re largely based on conjecture before anyone’s stepped onto the gridiron?

AP Poll voters might’ve looked at Penn State’s 2019 season, an 11-2 campaign that ended with a Cotton Bowl Classic victory and a final ranking of No. 9, and thought similar success would be in store this time around. At a glance that’s understandable.

Preseason bettors didn’t help, either. Penn State received 25-1 odds to win a national title this fall, while Sean Clifford and Journey Brown received 50-1 odds to win this year’s Heisman Trophy. Fast forward nine months, Clifford is hardly a starting quarterback, while Brown retired from football due to a heart condition.

What voters got wrong, though, is just that: basing expectations on the prior season without making adjustments for the offseason. In the months leading up to its season opener, Penn State lost star players like Micah Parsons and Journey Brown and hired a new offensive coordinator, offensive line coach, and wide receivers coach, among others.

Those adjustments alone should’ve been enough to fade Penn State in the preseason rankings. Instead, the polls continued, and the Nittany Lions’ season looks decisively worse as a result.

College football bigwigs should let Penn State’s embarrassing season serve as an example of preseason rankings’ failures. The Nittany Lions were, in the ever-impactful words of Stephen A. Smith, “hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray.” Let’s never do this again, OK?

Moving forward, I’d suggest AP Poll voters hold off on ranking teams until they’ve played a game or two. Let programs show the world what they’re about before we slap arbitrary rankings on them and pretend we know what’s what.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt is a junior majoring in journalism and Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football aficionado, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza. He loves Seinfeld, is really into video games, and would wipe the floor with you in Halo. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ for bad sports takes or email him at [email protected]

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