Is 9-3 a good season?

Considering key losses part of evaluating record

Penn State has made it through the gauntlet part of the schedule, and with only Rutgers and Maryland remaining, a 9-3 regular season seems to be a safe bet.

Which begs the question: Is a 9-3 season at Penn State considered a success?

Yes. Absolutely. Without question. Silly to think otherwise.

Why would I ask such a dumb question, you say?

Well, what if those three losses are to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — the three most important games on the schedule every year because they are huge division contests?

Still a successful season?

Yes. Abso …

Uh, hmmm.

Maybe.

It depends.

You see where I’m going with this.

A nine-win season should never be taken for granted in college football. Just ask Nebraska and Bo Pelini.

But as Penn State has learned this year, if you don’t win any of those three key division games, it certainly takes the luster off the season. Even if two of the losses were close (27-26 to Ohio State and 21-17 to Michigan State), the sting of a 42-7 whipping in the game at Michigan simply cannot be forgotten.

I ran a Twitter poll last week asking Penn State fans this question: The Lions can go 10-3 (with a bowl win) every year for infinity, but if it meant losses to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State every year, would you take it?

It’s hard to get 90 percent of people to agree on anything. But with 815 votes in that poll, 92 percent of fans said no, they would not take 10-3 for infinity under those circumstances.

Which makes sense. That would mean Penn State would never win another Big Ten title or appear in the College Football Playoff. Fans don’t want that type of settling without ever enjoying the occasional higher level of success.

OK, so let me ask again: If PSU finishes 9-3 this season, would it be a successful year? Remember, the team was ranked in the top 10 and had CFP hopes not too long ago?

For many of you, the bowl game probably will matter a great deal. A 9-3 Nittany Lions team should land in a very good bowl game — the most likely scenarios are the Peach, a New Year’s Six game, or the Citrus — and the opponent in either game would be a strong one, providing an opportunity for an outstanding win to end the season.

But before we can make a blanket statement on any season, calling it successful or not, we have to look at the schedule overall and see what was accomplished. Who did you beat? Who did you lose to? All of that matters, not just the record.

Mirror colleague Neil Rudel said late Saturday that the win over Pitt (51-6 back on Sept. 9) may be the best victory for PSU this season. That’s probably true, with the Panthers now 6-4 and in position to win their division in the ACC.

Yes, it’s a bad division, but Pitt still could be playing in the ACC title game in a few weeks. The Panthers have been running all over people the past few weeks and barely lost to Notre Dame (19-14).

Just for fun, I posted another Twitter poll asking fans what would happen if PSU and Pitt played again now, with the game also at Heinz Field. The results were predictable, since most of my Twitter followers are PSU fans, as 82 percent of the 689 respondents said the Lions would win again.

Most people who commented dismissed the question, believing strongly that PSU would beat Pitt again and even poking fun at the Panthers because their division is so weak.

I do believe Penn State would beat Pitt if they played again, but it would be a close game (7-10 points) and not another 51-6 fiasco.

PSU’s other good wins came against Appalachian State, Iowa and Wisconsin. The win over App State (7-2) actually may top that list, with Iowa and Wisconsin both having four losses. It was stunning that the Badgers inexplicably had to play one of the worst starting quarterbacks I’ve ever seen from a major college program, Jack Coan, who was in for the injured Alex Hornibrook.

The bottom line is, Penn State hasn’t beaten a really good opponent this year, yet the Lions still can finish 9-3 and go to an excellent bowl game.

Is that a successful season? Probably. Because again, nine wins would be nine wins, and most teams would do anything to win nine games.

Truth be told, even if you think 9-3 under these circumstances is a successful season, the bowl game still will largely determine that answer.

If the Lions beat a really good team, such as LSU or West Virginia, in a bowl game, then most everyone will feel good about this season.

If they lose to a team like that and don’t have a signature win on the resume, there’s no getting around the fact that finishing with nine wins would be somewhat disappointing.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

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