Our 13th annual preseason Top 25: No. 22 Penn State wants to keep the momentum going
For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.
No. 22 Penn State
There might not have been a more enigmatic team in 2020 than the Nittany Lions. Robbed of All-American linebacker Micah Parsons (opted out because of the pandemic) and starting running back Noah Cain (severe ankle injury in the first game), Penn State stumbled to an 0-5 start before rallying to win its last four, finishing with strong momentum. The team had big losses in its front seven and at tight end, but the return of third-year starter Sean Clifford at quarterback with three promising first-team linemen should jump-start an offense that ranked second in the Big Ten with 430 yards a game. P.J. Mustipher is a budding star at defensive tackle, and the Nittany Lions are poised for a strong comeback season.
Penn State was ranked No. 4 in our preseason poll last year but wasn't ranked at the end of the season.
About the Nittany Lions
2020: 4-5 overall — all in the Big Ten. They finished third in the East Division behind Ohio State and Indiana. No bowl game.
Coach: James Franklin (84-43, including 60-28 in seven seasons at Penn State). He also coached at Vanderbilt.
Returning starters: 16 (9 offense, 7 defense)
Shoes to fill: Pat Freiermuth (Steelers, 1st round) was a three-year starter and Penn State's best tight end since Mike Gesicki. The Nittany Lions also lost Parsons (Cowboys, 12th overall pick), edge rusher Jayson Oweh (Ravens, 1st round) along with three seventh-rounders — DE Shaka Toney (Washington), C Michael Menet (Cardinals) and G Will Fries (Colts) — who were taken with consecutive picks.
Franklin had to replace two coaches, adding Ty Howle — a former Nittany Lions offensive lineman — to coach tight ends and offensive coordinator: Mike Yurcich, who was Tom Herman's OC at Texas before that staff was let go. Yurcich is Franklin's fifth OC in eight years and has helped mold QBs Justin Fields, Sam Ehlinger, Mason Rudolph and even Zach Zuli, who was Division II's top player during Yurcich's stop at Shippensburg. ... Penn State was more than a little active in the transfer portal with no fewer than seven transfers set to make an instant impact. Among them are former Baylor running back John Lovett, a graduate transfer who could press sophomore Noah Cain for carries; widely pursued Harvard guard Eric Wilson; Temple defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, who was highly productive in six games with 42 tackles and four sacks; and Duke grad transfer defensive tackle Derrick Tangelo.
Passing: Sean Clifford 152-251-1,883, 16/9 (led team)
Rushing: Keyvon Lee 89-438-4 (led team); QB Sean Clifford 99-335-3 (2nd); Devyn Ford 67-274-3 (3rd)
Receiving: Jahan Dotson 52-884-8 (led team); Parker Washington 36-489-6 (2nd)
Tackles: LB Ellis Brooks 60 (led team); LB Jesse Luketa 59 (2nd); S Jaquan Brisker 57 (3rd)
Sacks: LB Brandon Smith 2 (4th)
Interceptions: LB Brandon Smith, S Jaquan Brisker and CB Keaton Ellis 1 (T-1st)
Offense: G Mike Miranda (2nd team), WR Jahan Dotson (3rd), OL Rasheed Walker (hon. mention)
Defense: S Jaquan Brisker (3rd), DT PJ Mustipher (hon. mention), LB Brandon Smith (hon. mention), CB Tariq Castro-Fields (hon. mention), CB Joey Porter Jr. (hon. mention)
How the pandemic affected the Nittany Lions: All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the season because of the pandemic. But Penn State was among the Big Ten's best at dealing with COVID-19 in terms of mitigating spread; an early December report stated that Penn State had two positive tests for the week of Nov. 21-27 out of more than 1,100 tests administered, and in the week before that, there were four.
Loving Lovett: Penn State fell in love with Baylor's Lovett because he has much experience, good speed and terrific vision in the open field and can spell Cain, who is coming off a serious ankle injury. Behind them is Keyvone Lee, who became the primary ball carrier in the second half of the year, broke for 134 yards against Michigan and 95 against Rutgers, and brings a lot of toughness to the position.
Tight End U? Freiermuth and his 16 touchdowns over three years might be gone, but the position is still in good hands with the tandem of third-year sophomore Brenton Strange — a terrific target on third downs and in the red zone — and sophomore Theo Johnson, a 6-foot-6 target and a premier blocker.
2020 national stat rankings
Where Penn State ranked nationally in various statistical categories last season — and how the Nittany Lions ranked in 2019.
Scoring: 54th (2019 — 15th, -39 spots)
Scoring defense: 55th (8th, -47)
Total offense: 37th (57th, +20)
Total defense: 17th (34th, +17)
Passing: 40th (76th, +36)
Pass defense: 24th (100th, +76)
Rushing: 55th (36th, -19)
Rush defense: 26th (5th, -21)
Sacks: 50th (7th, -43)
Interceptions: 94th (61st, -33)
Red zone offense: 107th (T-21st, -86)
Red zone defense: T-104th (T-54th, -50)
Turnover margin: 112th (19th, -93)
Time of possession: 9th (108th, +99)
Our Top 25 — so far
No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels have plenty of firepower to work with
No. 24 Washington: Huskies back for more after 3-2 season
No. 23 Louisiana: Ragin' Cajuns out to prove that they belong
No. 22 Penn State
Our No. 21 team. Want a hint?
This school played an overtime game against Texas last season.