STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - At the start of the 2016 season, the realistic goal for Penn State football, at least in the opinion of many outside the program, was to finish fourth in the Big Ten East because the division's "Big Three" looked to be formidable again.
Ohio State lost more than a dozen players to the NFL but would use its depth to reload. Michigan possessed an outstanding defense and the offensive wizardry of coach Jim Harbaugh. Michigan State was the defending conference champion and a 2015 College Football Playoff participant that lost some important players but had key pieces returning.
So the race was on for first place in the B flight among Penn State, Maryland, Indiana, and Rutgers. Surely the Nittany Lions could beat out those other three teams for a spot in the middle of the pack.
How the situation has flipped. When the Lions (9-2, 7-1) take on Michigan State (3-8, 1-7) in their regular-season finale Saturday at Beaver Stadium, they will be striving for an eighth consecutive victory and a 10-win season. Even more amazing, they could earn a berth in the Big Ten championship game with a victory, depending on the result of Michigan-Ohio State earlier in the day.
A Michigan loss and a Penn State win would get the Lions to Indianapolis for a shot at the conference title. In that scenario, they would be 8-1 and tied with Ohio State, but their Oct. 22 victory over the Buckeyes would be the deciding factor.
It's a big moment, and the Nittany Lions appear to be ready on their senior day.
"I think you have to embrace it, at least a little bit," quarterback Trace McSorley said, "just to kind of use that to motivate guys or motivate yourself, trying to be able to understand the proportion of everything with it being senior day and things like that. So you kind of have to embrace it and run with it as much as you can."
Saturday's matchup is quite different from last year's, when the host Spartans rolled to a 55-16 victory to clinch the Big Ten East. They went on to defeat Iowa for the Big Ten title before being routed, 38-0, by Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
Now it's Penn State that has something to play for. The Lions have gone through October and November without a loss and enter Saturday with a 6-0 mark at Beaver Stadium. Their offense has averaged 46.8 points and 517 total yards in the last four games. Their defense recovered from a hiccup at Indiana to limit Rutgers to 87 yards last week.
As is his custom, however, coach James Franklin wants to keep his focus on Saturday. Michigan State also routed Rutgers and came within a missed two-point conversion late in the game of upsetting Ohio State.
"Obviously how they were playing in the beginning of the season compared to how they're playing now is different," he said. "Last week they took the No. 2 team in the country to the wire and lost by one. We know what to expect. We're going to have a team coming in here that's going to play with a tremendous amount of pride, passion."
Whatever happens Saturday, it's been quite a journey for Penn State, especially its rebound from scholarship restrictions and other penalties contained in the 2012 NCAA sanctions. In their first year of the maximum 85 scholarships since then, the Lions have surprised everyone and contended for a title.
Which is a lot better than fourth place.