Penn State has an incredibly bright future even with the Rose Bowl loss

USA TODAY Sports/Gary A. Vasquez

The 2017 Rose Bowl was an instant classic, the kind of game that sends Twitter ablaze for four hours and makes fans all over the country question whether the playoff committee got the final four teams right. It’s also the kind of game that will be remembered for a long time by anyone who watched it, either in person at the Rose Bowl or on TV.

And like any instant classic, the focus following the game is on USC after kicker Matt Boermeester’s field goal as time expired gave the Trojans a wild, 52-49, last-second win. With the win, everything is about the “big picture” at USC. The conversations will now center on the Trojans being “back” and their place as a potential preseason Top 5 team in 2017. They will also focus on quarterback Sam Darnold, who will likely enter next season as a prime Heisman contender alongside Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.

But while the spotlight is currently on USC, Monday’s final result shouldn’t take away from everything Penn State accomplished both in the Rose Bowl and the season as a whole. The Nittany Lions also overcame long odds just to get to Pasadena (even if they didn’t win it), and they also had a couple breakout stars Monday night in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley.

(Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

And with a big chunk of its roster returning, it’s also safe to say that Penn State is “back.” This team isn’t a one-year wonder, but is built for the long haul and could very well be competing for a national championship in January 2018. Granted, it might not be what Penn State fans want to hear this moment. But when they wake up Tuesday and shake off the Rose Bowl loss, they’ll realize what a special season this team had.

And frankly, that’s probably how Penn State should be viewed right now: not through the prism of one game, but the season as a whole. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Nittany Lions were sitting at 2-2, fresh off a horrid 39-point loss at Michigan. And it was at that time that some were stupidly calling for James Franklin to be fired, and wondering aloud if he could possibly compete with Urban Meyer and Jim Harbaugh over the long term in the Big Ten.

Obviously, those questions are no longer in play, as over the final two months of the season, there wasn’t a single team (outside of Alabama) that was hotter than Penn State. The Nittany Lions won nine in a row to close the year, most emphatically with a stunning victory over then-No. 2 Ohio State that was followed several weeks later by a Big Ten title game win over Wisconsin. Following that victory over the Badgers, some (myself included) thought the Nittany Lions should have been in the College Football Playoff, and if they had gotten there would have been the proverbial “team no one wanted to face.”

Instead, the Nittany Lions ended up in the Rose Bowl – and while the rest of the Big Ten had a bowl season to forget, they proved they could play with college football’s best teams. Against USC, the Nittany Lions finished the game with 465 total yards (over 100 yards more than the Trojans gave up on average this season), and tallied 49 points against a team that hadn’t given up even 30 since September. Like Darnold, McSorley and Barkley proved that they will enter the 2017 season as Heisman candidates. Had it not been for a few dumb mistakes down the stretch, the Lions would have won Monday’s game.

(Richard Mackson/USA TODAY Sports)

And speaking of McSorley and Barkley, they’re the main reasons why there will be so much optimism around Penn State entering 2017. McSorley is coming off a season in which he threw for 29 touchdown passes, including four apiece in the Nittany Lions’ final three games, and proved to be a dynamic, dual-threat monster against the Trojans. Barkley, meanwhile, had a second-straight 1,000-yard season in 2016 on his way to All-Big Ten first team honors. Top receiver Chris Godwin could return, too, along with a big chunk of the defense, led by Garrett Sickels and linebackers Manny Bowen and Jason Cabinda.

Add it up and there’s every reason to believe that the Nittany Lions will enter 2017 in the preseason Top 5. The usual landmines await, but with Michigan losing a big chunk of its roster to graduation and Ohio State also losing a handful of guys (including All-American safety Malik Hooker, who declared for the NFL Draft on Monday), the Nittany Lions might be even better equipped to handle them next year than they were in 2016.

So, yeah, the future is bright for Penn State.

While the Rose Bowl loss may sting, this program is built for the long haul.