Penn State head coach James Franklin leads his team out of the tunnel prior to taking the field against Rutgers at Beaver Stadium last year. (Matthew O'Haren/USA Today)

Our 12th annual preseason Top 25: No. 4 Penn State’s Big Ten, CFP path go through the same school

With a conference-only schedule, the survivor of the Big Ten likely will also get a coveted playoff berth.

Posted July 22nd, 2020


The college football season is less than two months away. Right? As it approaches with question marks, our 12th annual countdown series of our preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff, breaks down who we think are the top teams in the country.

Last year’s eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, fourth, fifth and sixth in our 2019 poll.

No. 4 Penn State

The Nittany Lions have hopes for both a Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff berth. The Big Ten has moved to a conference-only schedule, so winning it likely means access to one of those Final Four spots. The route goes through Ohio State — again. Quarterback Sean Clifford, who averaged 254.7 yards of offense last year, is back and he’s surrounded by a capable group of running backs led by Journey Brown, who had 100-yard games in the final five games. He rushed for 202 yards in the Cotton Bowl win over Memphis. The offensive line is in great shape. Jahan Dotson, who has 40 catches over the past two years, leads an otherwise inexperienced group of receivers. But the defense is loaded and experienced, led by All-American linebacker Micah Parsons, and returning starters on the defensive line and secondary.


Penn State was ranked 14th in our preseason poll last year.


About the Nittany Lions

2019: 11-2, 7-2 in the Big Ten; beat Penn State 53-39 in the Cotton Bowl

Coach: James Franklin (80-38, including 56-23 in six years at Penn State)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense

Shoes to fill: DE Yetur Gross-Matos (2nd round, Panthers); WR KJ Hamler (led team in receiving, 2nd, Broncos); CB John Reid (4th, Texans); LB Cam Brown (6th, Giants); DT Robert Windsor (6th, Colts); G Steven Gonzalez (2nd team all-conference)

Catching up

There was turnover on Franklin’s coaching staff over the offseason, though most of them chose to leave for higher paying jobs with more responsibility, not because of a downward trajectory with the program. Kirk Ciarrocca, formerly of Big Ten rival Minnesota, takes over at offensive coordinator; Penn State averaged 35.8 points per game last year. There are new coaches for the wide receivers, offensive linemen and defensive linemen, too. Penn State’s 2020 recruiting class ranked 14th nationally and third in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions need immediate help at wide receiver and tight end; Franklin did land four-star Theo Johnson, the third-ranked tight end in the 2020 class, and four-star receiver Parker Washington also could push his way into early playing time. The conference-only schedule means Penn State won’s play Kent State, Virginia Tech or San Jose State to start the season. The season opener is Sept. 26 at home against Northwestern and Penn State hosts Ohio State on Oct. 24.


Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons was an All-American in 2019. He led the Nittany Lions in tackles and was second on the team in sacks. (Jesse Johnson/USA Today)

Returning leaders

Passing: Sean Clifford (led team), 189-319-2,654 yards, 23 TDs, 7 INTs; Will Levis (2nd), 28-47-223 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs

Rushing: Journey Brown (led team), 84-443-8; Noah Cain (2nd), 84-443-8; QB Sean Clifford (3rd), 116-402-5

Receiving: TE Pat Freiermuth (2nd), 43-507-7; Jahan Dotson (3rd), 27-488-5

Tackles: LB Micah Parsons (led team), 109; S Lamont Wade (4th), 67

Sacks: DE Shaka Toney (2nd), 6.5; LB Micah Parsons (T-2nd), 5; DE Jayson Oweh (T-2nd), 5

Interceptions: S Jaquan Brisker and CBs Tariq Castro-Fields, Marquis Wilson (tied for team lead), 2


Returning all-conference

Offense: TE Pat Freiermuth (2nd team); QB Sean Clifford (hon. mention); OL Will Fries (hon. mention); OL Michael Menet (hon. mention)

Defense: LB Micah Parsons (linebacker of the year, 1st team); DL Shaka Toney (2nd team); CB Tariq Castro-Fields (hon. mention); S Lamont Wade (hon. mention)

Special teams: K Jake Pinegar (hon. mention)



Scoreboard watching: Penn State’s offensive numbers from 2019 are misleading. Sure, the Nittany Lions averaged 35.8 points per game, but the squad failed to score 30 or more points in seven of the final 11 games of the year. Take away three games where Penn State scored more than 50 points (Idaho, Maryland and Memphs) and it’s clear that the offense must become more potent in important games against Big Ten competition.

Concerns at receiver: No team ranked this highly has a singular hole on the roster as big as Penn State does at wide receiver. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is among the nation’s best, but the team’s second leading returner in receptions at wide receiver is junior Daniel George, and he caught nine passes last season. Former blue-chip recruit Justin Shorter transferred to Florida and KJ Hamler now plays for the Denver Broncos. Penn State can’t challenge Ohio State for a conference championship without playmakers at receiver.

Cain looks able: Do Texas fans remember Noah Cain? He was a four-star running back from IMG Academy in the 2019 class who chose Penn State over Texas and numerous other programs. Cain was named to the Doak Walker Award watch list after a solid freshman season. Penn State and Iowa are the only Big Ten schools with two running backs on the list.

2019 national stat rankings

Where Penn State ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Nittany Lions ranked in 2018.

Scoring: 15th (2018 — 32nd)

Scoring defense: 8th (23rd)

Total offense: 57th (45th)

Total defense: 34th (34th)

Passing: 76th (76th)

Pass defense: 100th (15th)

Rushing: 36th (29th)

Rush defense: 5th (72nd)

Red zone offense: T-21st (16th)

Red zone defense: T-54th (T-11th)

Turnover margin: 19th (T-73rd)

Time of possession: 108th (112th)


Our Top 25 — so far

No. 25: Boise State figures to keep its perch atop the Mountain West

No. 24: Might this pandemic lead to not one, but two Iowa State-Iowa games?Inside the Cyclones

No. 23: Will Kirk Ferentz emerge from Iowa’s summer of discontent unscathed? / Inside the Hawkeyes

No. 22: Cincinnati’s picking up recruiting in 2020 where it left off in 2019 / Inside the Bearcats

No. 21: Former Gamecocks quarterback hopes to take over at Utah / Inside the Utes

No. 20: Central Florida, Darrell Wyatt are reloading with receivers / Inside the Knights

No. 19: Recruits are raving about Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck / Inside the Gophers

No. 18: A Q&A with North Carolina coach Mack Brown / Inside the Tar Heels

No. 17: Jim Harbaugh is fighting for Michigan, college football / Inside the Wolverines

No. 16: Oklahoma State’s Hubbard finds his voice / Inside the Cowboys

No. 15: USC is Zooming up the recruiting rankings / Inside the Trojans

No. 14: Is Jimbo Fisher taking Texas A&M back to the good ol’ SWC days? / Inside the Aggies

No. 13: Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst stands with his players’ new-found voices / Inside the Badgers

No. 12: Assistant coach will Auburn’s recruiting in Alabama / Inside the Tigers

No. 11: For Texas and Sam Ehlinger, it’s now or never / Inside the Longhorns

No. 10: Oregon’s Penei Sewell eyes a second straight Outland Trophy / Inside the Ducks

No. 9: Notre Dame’s AD on the Irish, this season / Inside the Irish

No. 8: LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase the latest to wear team’s beloved No. 7 / Inside the Tigers

No. 7: Florida’s AD dealing with COVID-19, too / Inside the Gators

No. 6: New Georgia quarterback JT Daniels has USC in the rear view / Inside the Bulldogs

No. 5: Oklahoma fans already love cornerback recruit from Austin / Inside the Sooners

No. 4: Penn State Nittany Lions


Coming tomorrow

Our No. 3 team. Want a hint?

This school has played in more bowl games than any other college football program.