Penn State head coach James Franklin pats quarterback Trace McSorley (9) on the back as they walk off the field after 21-17 loss to Michigan State at Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

Our 11th annual Top 25 countdown: As always, No. 14 Penn State will be judged against Buckeyes, Wolverines, Spartans

Posted July 14th, 2019

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We’re 46 days away from the 2019 season opener, but it’s never too early to talk college football. We continue with our 11th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25 as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists ranked first, second, eighth and 13th in our 2018 poll.

Our No. 14 team: Penn State

The Nittany Lions’ best-case scenario: Penn State coach James Franklin wants his program to be included in the yearly conversations for Big Ten contenders. He enters his seventh season rehabilitating the Penn State program with mixed results. It’s a hard ask when the East Division is shared with conference powers Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. A successful season is beating two of those three teams and competing for a berth in the conference title game behind a stout defense.

And their worst-case scenario: Worst case? Despite 12 returning starters, Penn State is a young team at key positions. Five players left early for the NFL draft. Another 11 entered the transfer portal. Franklin signed three consecutive top-15 recruiting classes, but that’s a lot of talent to replace with inexperience. A tough division in an improving conference could prove too much for a team replacing a three-year starter at quarterback and high-end talent on offense.

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Last year, Penn State was 10th in our preseason poll. The Nittany Lions very nearly stumbled in their first game, surviving Appalachian State in overtime, 45-38.

Inside the Nittany Lions

Coach: James Franklin (6th year, 45-21; 69-36 overall, 9 years at Vanderbilt and Penn State)

2018:  9-4, 6-3 in the Big Ten (lost to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl). Penn State has lost bowl games in three of the last four years.

Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense

Shoes to fill: QB Trace McSorley (3-year starter, went 31-9); RB Miles Sanders (2nd round, Eagles); DE Shareef Miller (100 career tackles, 14.5 sacks in 3 years); DB Amani Oruwariye (1st-team all-conference)

Spring cleaning: A mass exodus occurred in Happy Valley following the 2018 season with five players leaving early for the NFL draft and 11 entering the transfer portal. Most of the transfers weren’t expected to contribute, but that wasn’t true for quarterback Tommy Stevens, who left after spring practice. … Sophomore Sean Clifford is expected to start, tasked with replacing three-year starter Trace McSorely. Clifford attempted seven passes last season.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a pass during the Blue-White spring scrimmage on Saturday, April 13, 2019, in University Park, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Sean Clifford (2nd on team), 5-7-195 yards, 2 TDs

RUSHING: Ricky Slade (3rd), 45-257-6

RECEIVING: KJ Hamler (1st), 42-754-5; TE Pat Freiermuth (2nd), 26-368-8

TACKLES: LB Micah Parsons (1st), 83; LB Jan Johnson (2nd), 72; S Garrett Taylor, 71

SACKS: DE Yetur Gross-Matos (1st), 8.0; DT Robert Windsor (T-2nd), 7.5

INTERCEPTIONS: S Garrett Taylor (T-1st), 3; CB John Reid (4th), 2

Returning All-Big Ten (7)

Offense: WR KJ Hamler (hon. mention), TE Pat Freiermuth (hon. mention), OL Steven Gonzalez (hon. mention)

Defense: DE Yetur Gross-Matos (3rd team), S Garrett Taylor (hon. mention), CB John Reid (hon. mention), DT Robert Windsor (hon. mention)

Penn State running back Noah Cain is swarmed by a pack of defenders, including Yetur Gross-Matos, Jan Johnson and Micah Parsons, during the Blue-White spring scrimmage on Saturday, April 13, 2019, in University Park, Pa. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)

FYI

Facing the Big Three: Penn State is attempting to re-establish itself into the national landscape. Franklin did that on the recruiting trail. Now his program must do it on the field against its main rivals. Penn State went 0-3 against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State last season. Franklin can’t expect his program to take the next step until it beats the real powers of the East Division.

Is there a running game?: The best way to ease into a new chapter at quarterback is with a strong running game. McSorley provided that option, while leading rusher Miles Sanders is now gone at running back. Three starters do return along the offensive line. It’ll be up to Ricky Slade and freshman Noah Cain to provide balance for the offense.

Linebacker University: Penn State was once a factory for talented linebackers. Micah Parsons is reviving that legacy for the Nittany Lions. He led the team with 83 tackles last season, adding two forced fumbles. He’s flanked by a talented pair — Cam Brown and Jan Johnson.

2018 national stat rankings

Scoring: 32nd (33.8 ppg)

Total offense: 45th (423.0 ypg)

Passing: 76th (218.1 ypg)

Rushing: 29th (204.9 ypg)

Red zone offense: 16th

Time of possession: 112th (27:41)

Scoring defense: 23rd (20.5 ppg)

Total defense: 34th (350.5 ypg)

Pass defense: 15th (181.5 ypg)

Rush defense: 72nd (169.0 ypg)

Red zone defense: T-11th

Turnover margin: T-73rd

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Aug. 31Idaho
Sept. 7Buffalo
Sept. 14PittsburghW, 51-6
Sept. 27at Maryland*W, 38-3
Oct. 5Purdue*
Oct. 12at Iowa*W, 30-24
Oct. 19Michigan*L, 42-7
Oct. 26at Michigan State*L, 21-17
Nov. 9at Minnesota*
Nov. 16Indiana*W, 33-28
Nov. 23at Ohio State*L, 27-26
Nov. 30Rutgers*W, 20-7
* Big Ten game

The key game? Oct. 19, Michigan. Penn State should enter this contest at 6-0 and building momentum thanks to a soft early schedule. Michigan is the first true test. A home game gives Penn State a chance as this group grows up in the first half of the season. A win propels Penn State into conference title discussions. A loss could start an avalanche with MIchigan State and Ohio State waiting over the next month..

The last 5 years

YearW-L/Conf.RankBowl
20147-6 / 2-6— / —Pinstripe Bowl, W
20157-6 / 4-4— / —TaxSlayer Bowl, L
201611-3 / 8-1— / 7thRose Bowl, L
201711-2 / 7-26th / 8thFiesta Bowl, W
20189-4 / 6-310th / 17thCitrus Bowl, L
Total45-21 / 27-165 bowl games (2-3)
Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking.

Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Stanford will need its experienced defense to lead the way early

No. 24: Can Nebraska carry its end-of-2018 momentum into 2019?

No. 23: Was 2018 a one-time thing, or is Syracuse back as a program?

No. 22: A run to last year’s Big Ten title game has Northwestern wanting more

No. 21: Mike Leach hopes Clemson’s quarterback loss is Washington State’s gain

No. 20: With no proven quarterback, Wisconsin will ride the legs of Jonathan Taylor

No. 19: With Jarret Stidham in the NFL, Auburn must choose a freshman quarterback

No. 18: Army might end up throwing a real wrench into the CFP’s plans this year

No. 17: Iowa State hopes to keep its recent rise moving full steam ahead

No. 16: Central Florida is trying to overcome a pair of serious quarterback injuries

No. 15: Utah casts its eyes on winning the Pac-12 title this year

No. 14: Penn State

Our Top 25, by conferences

4 schools:

Big Ten — No. 14 Penn State, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska

3 schools:

Pac-12 — No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford

1 school:

AAC — No. 16 Central Florida

Big 12 — No. 17 Iowa State

Independents — No. 18 Army

SEC — No. 19 Auburn

ACC — No. 23 Syracuse

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 13 team

Want a hint?

This school has won the Pac-12 in two of the last three years.

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