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Penn State vs. Kentucky: With Citrus Bowl win, Nittany Lions make history with third-straight 10-win season

In 1982, “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” was the No. 1 movie in America, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year was the computer, James Franklin was 10 years old, and Penn State finished out a historic stretch. One that these 2018 Nittany Lions have a chance to match.

If Penn State defeats Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, Franklin’s squad will get to 10 wins for the third straight season. It would be the first time that’s happened in Happy Valley since Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions did so in 1980, ‘81 and ‘82, when Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner and company led Penn State to 31 wins and a national title.

Franklin is aware of his team’s opportunity to make history. Perhaps, more importantly, so are his players.

“That’s our goal,” fifth-year senior quarterback Trace McSorley said at Friday’s Citrus Bowl media day at Beaver Stadium. “It’s hard to win 10 games two years in a row, but it’s even harder to do it three years in a row. You look at the teams able to do that, it’s Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson. Those programs that are always at the top. If we’re able to do that, it puts us in a really good spot for the future and something that would be a testament to all the hard work we put in this year.”

As McSorley mentioned, the list of teams to accomplish such a feat is slim. If Penn State can close 2018 raising a trophy in Orlando, it would be one of six Power 5 programs to win at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons. The Buckeyes, Crimson Tide and Tigers are in that group, as are Washington and Oklahoma. In that stretch, all five of those programs have reached the College Football Playoff at least once.

Of course, the Nittany Lions never got there during this three-year run. They came close in 2016, ranking No. 5 in the country after a thrilling Big Ten title win. In 2017, the Nittany Lions were in the thick of the final four race until a weird November loss at Michigan State knocked them out. And this year, well, Penn State’s CFP hopes ended in Week 7.

With high — maybe too high — expectations coming in, 9-3 is a fair middle ground for this year’s Nittany Lions. But whether 2018 is a boom or a bust is somewhat dependent on the Citrus Bowl outcome. Despite a loss in the Rose Bowl two years ago, Penn State carried momentum into 2017 because of a conference crown. And its Fiesta Bowl win last year was described by players and coaches as a springboard into 2018.

Should Penn State take advantage of its postseason opportunity again and handle the Wildcats, it would, as Franklin noted Friday, send the seniors off on the right note. It would provide a boost to a crop of contributing freshmen, such as Micah Parsons, Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson. And it would be useful in recruiting, too.

Michigan, Notre Dame and other programs competing with Penn State for prospects couldn’t say they’ve had the same level of consistency as the Nittany Lions. “It’s all about building a culture,” offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne said when asked about possibly getting to 10 wins. “Hey, this is what Coach Franklin has built here. You can help take it to another level.”

But what if the Nittany Lions lose to Kentucky? What if Penn State doesn’t get to 10 wins? How might that sour an otherwise remarkable stretch of football just a few years removed from NCAA sanctions? Penn State’s upperclassmen don’t plan on finding out.

“We want everyone to know the significance of what we’re going out there to play for,” redshirt junior safety Garrett Taylor said. “Everyone understands that we have a chance to do something special.”

Franklin made sure to drill that in his players’ heads. Taylor said after Penn State’s bowl fate was announced, the head coach addressed the team and brought up the double-digit win statistic. He told the Nittany Lions that they had a chance to be a part of history.

In Penn State’s Big Ten era, the Nittany Lions have had breathtaking seasons. Think 1994, 2005 and 2008. Those teams were close to being a part of joining the 1980-82 club. Paterno’s 1995 team needed one more win to complete the streak. Meanwhile, Penn State’s nine-win squad in 2007 lost three games by one score.

It isn’t unprecedented for Penn State runs since ‘82 to come close, but none have finished the job. Now, in a season described by some fans as lost, these Nittany Lions have found a silver lining.

“I wanted to come here to be a part of a growing process. That’s what we did. I think we put Penn State back where it should be,” fifth-year senior Nick Scott said. “And now we’re trying to get some more out of that with championships and things like that. Any opportunity to make history as a team, it’s extremely special, and I take a lot of pride in that.”

Added Taylor: “It shows where this group of guys has taken this program. I think it sets up for the future. What we want to do, and where we want to go.”

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