Preseason Top 25: No. 9 Penn State sets sights on finally joining the postseason elite

There are just six FBS programs that have won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Oklahoma, Georgia and Penn State. Five of those have appeared in the College Football Playoff during that span. Penn State has been left on the doorstep, knocking furiously in a prolonged attempt to crash the party of the sport’s elite. The Nittany Lions aren’t going away anytime soon, however, as they enter the 2020 season armed with a revamped staff and a roster loaded with promising talent.

Will it be enough to get Penn State through the door? That could be decided in October when it plays at Michigan and hosts Ohio State in what figures to be the decisive month of James Franklin’s seventh season as coach. Franklin has proven to be one of the game’s elite motivators since arriving in Happy Valley following a historic run at Vanderbilt.

Consider that Michigan and Ohio State each had 10 players drafted this year. The Nittany Lions had only five taken, but managed to beat Michigan and challenge Ohio State on the road in 2019. The program is in good hands. Now it just needs a final push to break down the door to the CFP.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 9 | Achievements: 11-2, won Cotton Bowl 53-39 vs. Memphis

The Nittany Lions breezed through a challenging October to enter a Nov. 9 showdown with Minnesota at 8-0 and No. 5 in the country. Close losses to the Golden Gophers and Ohio State derailed the program’s playoff aspirations from that point, though. Still, Penn State finished with its third 11-win season in the last four years by racing past Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. All in all, it was a nice rebound season for the program after it dipped slightly to 9-4 in 2018.

Key departures

DE Yetur Gross-Matos: After leading the team in sacks as a sophomore and junior, Gross-Matos departed and was a second-round draft pick of the Carolina Panthers. His absence leaves a big hole to fill on the defensive line.

WR K.J. Hamler: The 5-foot-9 speedster built on a breakout redshirt freshman campaign in 2018 by leading the team in receptions and yards receiving for a second straight season in 2019. The Broncos selected him in the second round of the NFL Draft.

CB John Reid: The three-time All-Big Ten honorable mention honoree had his career interrupted by a knee injury that forced him to miss the 2017 season. He returned as a consistent force in the secondary in his final two seasons and was selected by the Texans in the fourth round.

OL Steven Gonzalez: The three-year starter signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent after earning All-Big Ten second-team honors as a senior. He was arguably the Nittany Lions’ top offensive lineman last season.

Who’s back?

LB Micah Parsons: The versatile linebacker went sixth overall in the 2021 CBS Sports mock draft this week after a monster sophomore season that earned him consensus All-American honors. Parsons led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles in 2019, and has proven to be just as good as his five-star prospect rating in the 2018 recruiting class. 

DE Shaka Toney: The former three-star defensive end from Philadelphia has outplayed his billing and developed into a playmaker at defensive end. His 6.5 sacks were second on the team behind Gross-Matos last season, which helped him earn All-Big Ten second-team honors from the league’s coaches.

RB Journey Brown: Like Toney, Brown was a three-star prospect overlooked by many who Franklin plucked from within the state. After redshirting in 2017 and playing sparingly in 2018, he burst onto the scene as a redshirt sophomore last season by averaging 6.9 yards per carry and scoring 13 touchdowns.

TE Pat Freiermuth: If Freiermuth continues on the trajectory of his first two years at Penn State, he could join Parsons as a potential first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He is already ninth on the school’s all-time receiving touchdowns list with 15 and is the team’s leading returning receiver in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

QB Sean Clifford: The redshirt junior returns for his second season as the starter after a solid 2019 debut. He loses his top target in Hamler but has a veteran offensive line and enough talent around him to take a step forward this season. If he clicks with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, Clifford could easily emerge as one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Fresh faces

OC Kirk Ciarrocca: Franklin plucked Ciarrocca away from Minnesota after Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan shredded the Nittany Lions in a critical Big Ten game last season. Ciarrocca was P.J. Fleck’s offensive coordinator at both Western Michigan and Minnesota, but now he’s a Pennsylvania native who’s tasked with tapping the full potential of a promising Nittany Lions offense in 2020.

WR TJ Jones: The Nittany Lions have several talented young receivers who will be jockeying to replace Hamler’s production. Jones is a redshirt freshman who topped the spring depth chart at one of the three receiver spots, which suggests the former three-star prospect has an inside track on a starting job.

WR John Dunmore: Also a redshirt freshman, Dunmore landed second behind Jones at one of the receiver spots on the spring depth chart. The former four-star prospect has a chance to emerge and get serious playing time.

WR KeAndre Lambert: Tired of hearing about new receivers? Well, the Nittany Lions have a great stable of running backs and one of the country’s top tight ends, but Ciarrocca’s system featured two wide receivers with 60-plus catches and 1,000-plus receiving yards at Minnesota last season. Lambert was listed as third-string on the spring depth chart, but the true freshman’s four-star billing suggests he could make an early impact in the new system.

Critical games

Week 2 at Virginia Tech — Sept. 12: All three of the Big Ten’s top contenders play marquee non-conference matchups on the road in the season’s first two weeks. If Penn State looks good against Virginia Tech, the nation will notice. And if Ohio State struggles against Oregon the same day or Michigan loses to Washington the week prior, expectations for what this Nittany Lions team can accomplish will creep even higher.

Week 5 at Michigan — Oct. 3: Franklin started 0-3 against the Wolverines, but Penn State has won two of its last three against the division rival. The game is an annual headliner on the Big Ten slate, and the stakes should be high as ever this season with the winner becoming Ohio State’s top competitor for the division crown.

Week 8 vs. Ohio State — Oct. 24: Penn State’s hopes of a College Football Playoff appearance could ride on the outcome of this game, and it should be a thriller. The Nittany Lions are 1-2 at home against the Buckeyes under Franklin with the two losses coming by a combined eight points in 2014 and 2018. Only once has Penn State been blown out by its division rival under Franklin, and that was during a 7-6 season in 2015.

Week 9 at Indiana — Oct. 31: If Penn State beats Ohio State, it will have to regroup quickly with a trip to Indiana looming as a potential trap game. The Hoosiers are trending up and could theoretically be 6-1 or even 7-0 entering this game after a light beginning to their schedule.

2020 outlook

The loss of six starters from a defensive unit that ranked eighth nationally in points allowed would be a primary concern for most teams. But for Penn State, the ceiling will almost certainly be determined by whether the offense can improve. The unit is projected to return eight starters but is getting a reboot with Ciarrocca replacing Ricky Rahne as offensive coordinator.  There won’t be too many Penn State fans mourning Rahne’s departure for Old Dominion after a 2019 season that saw Penn State’s offense finish in the middle of the Big Ten in many statistical categories. For a team with College Football Playoff aspirations, middle of the road in anything won’t cut it. 

The hope is that Ciarrocca can replicate the magic he helped create at Minnesota.To do so, he’ll have to get more out of Clifford under center. The redshirt junior threw for 23 touchdowns in his first season as a starter last year, but his 59.2% completion percentage could use some work. He’s got a veteran group of blockers in front of him directed by new offensive line coach Phil Trautwein and a group of running backs as good as any in the conference.

Questions are abound at receiver after Hamler’s departure for the NFL, though. The Nittany Lions will need a few players to emerge at that position if they are going to keep opponents from loading up against the run.

Even if it takes the offense some time to get calibrated under Ciarrocca, the Penn State defense should be good enough to guide the team into an important October slate. Led by a star in Parsons, the unit returns a plethora of talent with quality experience. Yes, the Nittany Lions lost some key defensive contributors; however, the program has been one of the best in the country at developing defensive depth in the last couple of seasons, and that should pay off in 2020.

Ultimately, the floor for this team should be no lower than an eight-win regular season. The ceiling is the long-awaited College Football Playoff breakthrough that could finally come if a revamped offense finds its stride.

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