Well, the 2019 Penn State Football season is nearly here. While the team enters the season with many question marks, we answer five of the biggest ones here. We’ll have answers to the rest no later than Jan. 13, as we hopefully party the night away in New Orleans.
1) Who is Penn State’s most important player on offense this season?
QB Sean Clifford
Even though Penn State is breaking in some new players at the skill positions and along the line who will absolutely need to perform well, Sean Clifford is the obvious choice. Assuming he is named as the starter, Clifford will take over for Trace McSorley after a wildly successful three-year run that saw a Big Ten Championship, Fiesta Bowl victory and a return to national relevance.
Clifford proved himself in a short sample size last season, but things will be different as a full-time starter as defensive coordinators prepare to stop him. If Clifford quickly proves that he is capable of taking command of the offense and is able to put his strong, accurate arm to good use, Penn State’s offense has the opportunity to quickly bounce back. While the season will begin with plenty of question marks on offense, it can quickly become a dangerous, high-flying scoring machine with a breakout season from Clifford.
2) Who is Penn State’s most important player on defense this season?
LB Micah Parsons
You can easily go with defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos here and be 100% correct. After going back and forth several times myself, I went chose Parsons as he can make a much bigger leap this season as a true sophomore.
It was clear from the start that Parsons had uncommon athletic ability as soon as he stepped on the field. However, he would sometimes find himself out of position and at times fade into the background at first. That gradually changed with experience, and soon you could see the game starting to slow down for Parsons. He not only ended up leading the team in tackles (as a backup true freshman, mind you), but by season’s end he was making more disruptive plays.
This will lead to a sharp improvement for Parsons in year two - the ability to regularly make game-altering plays. The type of plays that end up being the difference between beating the best teams on the schedule and a narrow, heart-wrenching lose.
3) What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?
More offensive productivity with the simple reduction of dropped passes.
It’s been well-documented that Penn State’s receivers suffered an epidemic of drops last season that had a large domino effect on the course of the season. One player would drop a pass, leading to others to get inside their own heads and drop passes, leading to McSorley not trusting his receivers and running more, leading to nagging injury issues that had him playing at less than full strength. The drops altered drive after drive and routinely kept the Nittany Lions from scoring opportunities. Heck, if you remove one of the drops that happened late in the Ohio State game, Penn State runs the clock down for a game-winning field goal attempt with a few seconds remaining, and the now infamous fourth-and-five never happens.
Most of the drops from a season belonged to players no longer with the program. As long as the new receivers reduce the sky high amount of drops, the entire offense improves and the team makes the most of its opportunities with each possession.
4) What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?
The Buckeyes have been the dominant force in the Big Ten, regularly winning conference crowns and being in the playoff hunt each year. For Penn State to turn the corner, it must first overtake its division foe. Add to this that Penn State very well could and should be riding a three-game winning streak against the Buckeyes, and this game becomes that much more important. The Nittany Lions must overcome its demons from the last two years, where late collapses against Ohio State led to crushing defeats that took them out of the conference and playoff chases.
5) What is your prediction for win-loss record and postseason destination?
I believe Penn State will be improved and surprise many people around the nation, but will drop a couple games with all the new faces playing key roles. The defense should be one of the best in all of college football, and the offense has the talent to do some damage once everyone gets settled.
I’m already counting the Ohio State game as a loss — I just can’t get my brain to believe they can pull it off after falling apart the last two seasons. The other could come as more of a surprise — the combination of Iowa’s front four and a night game at Kinnick is scary. Michigan State is always a tough out as they have proven the last two seasons. Minnesota falls on a tricky place in the schedule, and the Gophers keep showing steady progress. There’s also the showdown with Michigan, which has been popping up in plenty of preseason playoff predictions.
Overall, I think it will be an entertaining and largely satisfying season that ends in a New Year’s Six Bowl and the chance to finish the season in the top 10.