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.
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.
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)
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
|DATE||OPPONENT||LAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)|
|Sept. 14||Pittsburgh||W, 51-6|
|Sept. 27||at Maryland*||W, 38-3|
|Oct. 12||at Iowa*||W, 30-24|
|Oct. 19||Michigan*||L, 42-7|
|Oct. 26||at Michigan State*||L, 21-17|
|Nov. 9||at Minnesota*|
|Nov. 16||Indiana*||W, 33-28|
|Nov. 23||at Ohio State*||L, 27-26|
|Nov. 30||Rutgers*||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
|2014||7-6 / 2-6||— / —||Pinstripe Bowl, W|
|2015||7-6 / 4-4||— / —||TaxSlayer Bowl, L|
|2016||11-3 / 8-1||— / 7th||Rose Bowl, L|
|2017||11-2 / 7-2||6th / 8th||Fiesta Bowl, W|
|2018||9-4 / 6-3||10th / 17th||Citrus Bowl, L|
|Total||45-21 / 27-16||5 bowl games (2-3)|
Our Top 25 — so far
No. 14: Penn State
Our Top 25, by conferences
Big Ten — No. 14 Penn State, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 22 Northwestern, No. 24 Nebraska
Pac-12 — No. 15 Utah, No. 21 Washington State, No. 25 Stanford
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.