Things are going well for Penn State. But could things be going better? Should they be going better? What is this program’s realistic upside? Can Penn State win a national championship and what should fans expect year after year?
The Light Blues
These are the tough questions that fans of light-blueblood schools need to ask themselves. Penn State is in this weird tier of college football programs that spend money, recruit some of the best prospects in the country, put players into the NFL and have fan bases that expect a high level of success. Yet, they aren’t quite the best.
Think of programs like Washington, Auburn, and LSU. All these schools compete at a high level, have brands with instant credibility and recognition, heck you can even win a national title if everything falls into place, but they’ll never be the program in their conference or geographic area.
For Washington that would be USC; they’ll always be the prestige Pac-12 program. LSU and Auburn have had moments, but Alabama is the flag bearer in the SEC. In Penn State’s case their slightly richer frenemy is Ohio State.
The Nits can hang with Ohio State on the field (3 point win, 1 point loss, 1 point loss in their past 3 meetings), almost keep up in recruiting, and have as rabid (and generous) a fanbase as the Buckeye faithful. However, they will never be mistaken as the best program in the Big 10, it simply always has been and probably always be Ohio State (that was depressing to write).
This is a long winded way of saying on a macro-scale Penn State is the 2nd (or 3rd) best program in the Big 10. Sure, James Franklin and crew can win the conference, make the College Football Playoff, and possibly win a national title! Just not every year. Last season, Penn State was 9-4 and that is perfectly okay. Even true-bluebloods don’t win 10 games every season.
Now that the 10,000 ft view of the program is out of the way, let’s zoom in a little more.
Previously On Penn State Football
We are now entering year 6 of the James Franklin regime. Penn State is shockingly well past any type of hangover from the NCAA sanctions handed down in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. After three mediocre seasons from 2013-15 (during the peak of said NCAA sanctions), Penn State has been one of college football’s best programs. Their 31 wins since 2016 is seventh most amongst Power 5 schools, and the Nittany Lions have played in a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2 of the last 3 seasons.
Penn State had dreams of the Playoff heading into last season but fell short of those expectations with a wonky 9-4 season. It included taking both Ohio State (L) and Appalachian State (W) down to the wire, and a somewhat disappointing swan song season from the greatest (and grittiest) quarterback in Penn State history, Trace McSorley. Basically the 2018 Nittany Lions season was the equivalent of a “move the chess pieces around” episode of Game Of Thrones, ultimately forgotten in the grand scheme of things.
James Franklin was hired at Penn State with a reputation as an ace recruiter, and he has done nothing but live up to that moniker. Penn State has had a top 15 recruiting class each of the past 3 seasons, something they had only done twice from 2005-2016 (via 247 Sports). The Nittany Lions current roster features the top rated linebackers from the 2018 & 2019 class (Micah Parsons & Brandon Smith), the top receiver from the 2018 class (Justin Shorter), and the top all-purpose back from 2018 (Ricky Slade). Penn State shouldn’t be at a talent disadvantage with any team they face in 2019.
Unlike Temple, Penn State does not have to deal with a new coach every election cycle. Penn State had a bit of brain drain in 2018 when then OC Joe Moorhead left for the head coaching job (and better food) at Mississippi State and receivers coach Josh Gattis left for the same position at Alabama (you don’t say no to Lord Saban). This past offseason, the only coaching staff changes were made due to performance as special teams coach Phil Gailano and receivers coach David Corley were not retained. Joe Loring replaces Gailano as the special teams coach and Gerad Parker becomes the third receivers coach in three years in State College. As a reasonable college football fan, I will shape my entire opinion about the two after the first mistake both units make.
On offense, Penn State lost some huge pieces. As stated earlier, Trace McSorley, the best quarterback (and possibly player) in program history, will take his grit and work ethic to the Baltimore Ravens. The offense also lost yet another star running back to the NFL, this time in Miles Sanders. The former 5-star running back rushed for over 1200 yards last season. Replacing Sanders shouldn’t be that difficult as Penn State has recruited a plethora of talented backs headlined by rising sophomore Ricky Slade.
The heir apparent to McSorley is obvious now in Sean Clifford. However he was not the QB who was promised. Tommy Stevens was seen as the heir to McSorley’s QB Room Throne, but injuries derailed most of his 2018 regular season and all of this past Spring. This was enough time for Clifford, the most efficient QB in history through 7 passes, to take the control of the offense and send Stevens to the transfer portal.
The Penn State defense lost much less, the biggest departures being All-Big 10 cornerback Amani Oruwariye, the very-solid but never-great DE Shareef Miller, and veteran safety Nick Scott.
What To Get Excited About in 2019
The Penn State defense should be BACK. While very good over the past 2-3 years, this side of the ball never seemed to be dominant. This year’s crop is arguably the most talented of the entire decade. DE Yetur Gross Matos will be a preseason All-American and most likely a first round pick. Micah Parsons is the closest thing to Lavar Arrington since Lavar Arrington. I’m probably overrating him just a tad, but #11 just looks dope on a Penn State linebacker.
What To Get Worried About in 2019
While Sean Clifford may be very good, he is still unproven. He only has thrown 7 career passes (albeit for 30 yards per attempt), and they were all in garbage time. The electric KJ Hamler and Freshman All-American TE Pat Freiermuth will serve as the primary weapons for Clifford, but the remaining pieces he will have at his disposal are not set in stone.
Another thing that worries me is the coaching of the offense. Trace McSorley took a huge step back in 2018, a go-to guy who could get the Nittany Lions 7 yards on a 3rd and Five never emerged, and the playcalling has see-sawed from annoying to baffling in Franklin’s five years at the helm.
Being the guy that followed Joe Moorhead and running an offense without the luxury of Saquon Barkley, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne came into 2018 fighting an uphill battle. Now Rahne (who is on a lukewarm seat, I’d say) has a new quarterback, an unproven but talented stable of backs, and at least two new wide receivers to implement into his offense.
Where The Experts Have Them
2019 & Beyond
Without even really breaking down the schedule, Penn State looks to be exactly what they have been the past three years, a contender in one of the best divisions in college football. Beaver Stadium will host the Wolverines, and the Nittany Lions will travel to the Shoe in Columbus. These games will probably determine who plays for the Big 10 Title and if the season was a success or failure (as Penn State has done the past two years, I will again overlook Michigan State).
When looking forward past this season and zooming out again, Penn State’s ceiling is higher than it was 5 or 10 years ago, but I’d say it’s about the same as it was in 2016 (we just didn’t know it). The 2016 team had a few bounces go their way, and they won the Big 10. However with two losses, they were left out of the College Football Playoff. The 2017 team was probably more talented than their predecessor but didn’t have the bounce or two go their way, and again the Nittany Lions were left out of the Playoff. My point is if everything is clicking at Penn State, they can make the CFP and have a baseline of talent to not get their doors blown off once they arrive, a la Notre Dame last year.
Penn State is a light-blueblood, a few bounces and some recruiting hits from National Title contention but also not AMAZING enough to be immune to a few 9-4 seasons.