Two years after sanctions threatened to cripple the program, Penn State has an eye on a spot in the polls.
The Nittany Lions as one of the top 25 teams in the country?
Just the thought of a ranked Penn State team seemed improbable in 2012 when the NCAA levied the type of punishments against the program that should have been a virtual death sentence. Among the big hits in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal were scholarship reductions and bowl game banishments.
But no one told the Nittany Lions they weren't allowed to win games.
Coming off a win against Central Florida, Penn State received enough votes in the AP Top 25 to finish in a three-way tie for 29th. With bowl game scenarios and Big Ten championship game bids nothing but a distant dream at this point, a national ranking might have to satisfy the diehards in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions last finished a season ranked in 2009 under the late Joe Paterno and haven't been ranked overall since they were No. 24 in the Dec. 24, 2011 poll. The Nittany Lions did receive votes in 2012 under former coach Bill O'Brien. With another win or two — and some timely losses at the bottom of the top 25 — Christian Hackenberg, Sam Ficken and crew can turn that "No" bowl negative into "No." worthy of a national ranking.
"Those things are outside of our control," coach James Franklin said Tuesday, "and, to be honest, outside of our concern."
Penn State does have some control. All the Nittany Lions have to do is keep winning.
Up next, Akron on Saturday in the home opener at Beaver Stadium.
OK, a win against the mighty Zips might not impress too many poll voters. But a loss can all but rule out the Nittany Lions will get to the brink of the top 25 much like they are now. No. 25 Louisville earned 141 points; Penn State, Mississippi St. and Florida all received 49.
"Rankings and those other things like that, that's great for the media and that's great for the fans," Franklin said, "but that's outside of our control. We don't spend any time talking about it or discussing it or studying it. All our attention, all our energy is spent on, how do we create the best Penn State team that we possibly can."
The Nittany Lions opened with a nice blueprint against UCF in Dublin. Hackenberg — capping a 32-for-47, 454-yard performance — coolly directed a seven-play drive to set up Sam Ficken's fourth successful field goal as time expired in Penn State's 26-24 win on Saturday.
"It wasn't a perfect kick, but it went through," Ficken said Tuesday.
Ficken earned Big Ten special teams player of the week for the third time in his career. His 34 career field goals put him 11th in school history, trailing only Chris Barr's 35 field goals from 1973-75.
Penn State had a reason why it broke out the passports to throw and catch passes in Ireland. The Nittany Lions were seeking an overseas trip and a bowl-like experience for a squad that is barred by NCAA sanctions from postseason contention until 2016.
While the Nittany Lions had fun — and received the Dan Rooney Trophy, a football made of ancient Irish bog wood that was specially commissioned for the game — Franklin has no desire to pack up the plane and morph into the coaching version of Clark Griswald. It was the first international game in Penn State's 128-year program history and marked the first Big Ten game outside of the U.S. border since Michigan State and Wisconsin played in Tokyo in 1993.
"I think it was a great experience and I'm glad we did it," he said, "but at this point, I'm not searching out other opportunities at this stage."
Maybe the next notable trip is the one to the Top 25.