During the Rose Bowl broadcast when the game was down-to-the-wire, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit made an astute observation: as the camera jumped from Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold to Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, the color commentator and respected pundit said both players would be faces of the 2017 college football season.
Penn State and USC fans were well aware of what Barkley and Darnold could do before Monday night, but the nation was getting a preview of two once-every-decade talents, guys that could shape the game’s landscape next go-around.
But maybe we were all getting a preview of more than just Barkley and Darnold.
Perhaps “The Granddaddy of Them All” offered an appetizer to a future College Football Playoff matchup.
Without question, the Nittany Lions and Trojans could meet again in the 2018 Rose Bowl, with a spot in the national championship on the line.
Or maybe they’ll save the rematch intrigue for the title game itself.
Both teams figure to be at least in the preseason top10, possibly the top five, and while polls that come out in August rarely hold up, they’re still indicative of talent and expected performance.
The Nittany Lions and Trojans both possess the unique combination of youth with pressure-situation experience. They were the two hottest teams in college football to finish 2016, and many argued, especially after Ohio State’s 31-0 disaster defeat to Clemson, that one, if not both, of them should’ve been in this year’s College Football Playoff.
Penn State and USC will have to wait another season to prove that they belong in the top four, but the pieces are there.
Let’s start with the Nittany Lions.
On offense, Penn State loses two starters: senior center Brian Gaia and junior wide receiver Chris Godwin, who is leaving for the NFL Draft. Barkley will be in the Heisman conversation; Trace McSorley, who accounted for 36 touchdowns in his first year as a starting quarterback, will grow significantly from his late-game Rose Bowl breakdown; and tight end Mike Gesicki (48 receptions for 679 yards, five touchdowns) announced he’ll be back for his senior season.
As for the offensive line, the Nittany Lions could have their best unit upfront since 2012. Redshirt freshman guard-turned-tackle Ryan Bates showed his versatility, true freshman guard Connor McGovern improved game after game and Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon will return from injury to lead the line.
For an offense that averaged 37.6 points per game, Penn State can do even better in Joe Moorhead’s second season as its coordinator.
Defensively, Penn State has some guys to replace. Three seniors — linebacker Brandon Bell, defensive end Evan Schwan and safety Malik Golden — are moving on. So is redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Sickels, who declared for the NFL Draft. Junior safety Marcus Allen could also be skipping his final year of eligibility for the next level, but that decision is up in the air.
Still, the heartbeat of the defense, junior middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, returns, as well as underrated tackles in redshirt freshman Kevin Givens, Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren.
Add in Grant Haley, John Reid and Christian Campbell coming back at corner and the incoming talent of Lamont Wade, and the Penn State secondary could be in good shape.
As far as special teams go, freshman Blake Gillikin (42.8 yards per punt) will be back after an impressive true freshman campaign, and so will placekicker Tyler Davis (22 of 24 field goals made).
In all, that gives credence to the already-mounting 2017 hype.
Trojan fans are feeling the same way, too. Darnold, like Barkley, will be in the preseason Heisman conversation, while running back Ronald Jones II (1,082 rushing yards, 12 touchdowns) and wide receiver Deontay Burnett (13 catches, 164 yards, 3 touchdowns in Rose Bowl) are set to feature in a high-octane offense.
USC will have to fill the shoes of several contributors. Nose tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, offensive tackles Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler and wide receiver Darreus Rogers are out of eligibility and heading to the NFL. They could be joined by juniors Adoree’ Jackson and Juju Smith-Schuster.
But if Darnold plays even fractionally as well as he did against Penn State, en route to dropping 52 points and Rose Bowl records, USC will have a chance to win every single game it plays next year.
And in most, the Trojans will be favored. They host Texas, travel to Notre Dame and don’t have to face Washington until a potential Pac-12 Championship game.
Looking at Penn State’s path, it’s a tougher schedule than 2016. The Nittany Lions have road games at Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State, while hosting Michigan, Nebraska and Pittsburgh. Still, the only games Penn State might be an underdog will be against the Buckeyes and Wolverines.
The Rose Bowl loss is still fresh for players and fans alike, but the season Penn State just put together was an exhilarating one.
The Nittany Lions came so close to a 12-win season and top-five finish in the polls, and while that might be disheartening for some, it shouldn’t be.
It gave a glimpse into what next season could bring.
The 2017 Rose Bowl was a classic and will be remembered forever. But it’s lasting legacy could be the most exciting sneak-peek of all-time.
It’s entirely possible that “The Granddaddy of Them All” was a prequel to the main saga.
Get your popcorn ready, because the 2017 season will be a wild one — and it could end in a Penn State-USC national title game.