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Midweek Musings - Penn State is Going Undefeated in 2020

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Head Bald Coach

Like this, but more national championship-y
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

In the last few weeks, we’ve treated you to the way-too-early offensive depth chart, followed by the way-too-early defensive depth chart. We also went ahead and looked at the schedule way-too-early while we were at it. With the return of Shaka Toney, I feel ready to make the following proclamation: Penn State is going undefeated in 2020.

Let’s set the stage: if you read through the two depth chart posts, you’ll know that the supposed strength of the team next season will be the offense. 8 returning starters, both the starters and the backups averaging out to blue chip status. A fresh new coaching look at offensive coordinator, on the OL, and with the wide receivers. The offense is going to be lit, fam.

Then there’s the defense. The supposed weakness of the team. The defense that, despite losing starters at all three levels, is projected to be even more talented than its 2019 counterpart. The defense that will be led by Brent Pry, who has shown time and again that his defenses work. Yeah, I think I like that “weakness.”

So let’s get to it. Here’s why Penn State will go undefeated in 2020.

Week 1 (September 5th): vs Kent State Golden Flashes

2019 Record: 7-6 (5-3 MAC)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: Defeated Utah State 51-41 in the Frisco Bowl

The Golden Flashes were a decent MAC team in 2019, but nothing to write home about. Nothing about this game screams alarm bells, unlike the opener against Appalachian State a few years back. The Flashes will be decent again in 2020, but it won’t matter. The Lions get to try out their new offense against an overmatched opponent, shake off the rust, and get the backups some second half work.

Prediction: Penn State 42, Kent State 14 (1-0)

Week 2 (September 12th): at Virginia Tech Hokies

2019 Record: 8-5 (5-3 ACC)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: Lost to Kentucky 37-30 in the Belk Bowl

You’re going to hear a lot about Virginia Tech this off season. Every year, the media likes to pick a random, down on their luck team, and proclaim them as darkhorse candidates to make the playoffs. VT fits that mold as they should return a decent amount of production, and in the laughable ACC Coastal, any team can make it to the championship game. But again, it won’t matter, as the Lions are just too potent on both sides of the ball. A fun first half falls apart for the Hokies.

Prediction: Penn State 35, Virginia Tech 21 (2-0)

Week 3 (September 19th): vs San Jose State Spartans

2019 Record: 5-7 (2-6 MWC)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: N/A

I personally like these sorts of opponents, random teams that we never get to see in person. I just wish that the Spartans were a bit better, because this is going to be the most one-sided non-conference game the Lions face. Oh well, one last chance to fine tune before Big Ten play starts.

Prediction: Penn State 56, San Jose State 10 (3-0)

Week 4 (September 26th): vs Northwestern Wildcats

2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: N/A

Where to start with the Wildcats? They won the Big Ten West in 2018, then stumbled to a 3-9 season. That’s not great. The Wildcats offense fell off a bridge, though the defense was its usual pesky self. If the offense can regain its footing, I’d expect Northwestern to be its usual obnoxious test, but one that the Lions should overcome. A close first half, perhaps a turnover or two, keep the Wildcats in it into the third before the Lions pull away.

Prediction: Penn State 38, Northwestern 21 (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten)

Week 5 (October 3rd): at Michigan Wolverines

2019 Record: 9-4 (6-3 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: #18

2019 Bowl: Lost to Alabama 35-16 in the Citrus Bowl

Here’s where we start having some fun. In any given season, Penn State should be better than all but two to three teams they face. The Lions are in the upper echelon of college football when it comes to spending, facilities, recruiting, etc. The only teams that are on par or better than the Lions are Michigan, Ohio State, and then maybe one or two other teams on the schedule. So let’s talk Michigan.

The Wolverines, as usual, were touted as a strong contender for the playoffs in 2019. Many believed that, despite losing a huge chunk of their defense, and pretty much all of their running backs, Jim Harbaugh would just keep on trucking and somehow win the East. Well, that didn’t happen, as the offense was inept for the first half of the season, and the defense got burned when it mattered against big opponents.

The bad news: the Lions have to go to Ann Arbor, which has been unkind to them in recent history.

The good news: Michigan is going to SUFFER in the returning starter category. Only five returning starters on offense, including a new quarterback. Their offensive line in particular loses four starters. Only six returning starters on defense, including all three linebackers, and a new safety with the graduation of Lavert Hill.

That Don Brown Defense™ will be tested, and the offense under Josh Gattis is going to take some time to break in a brand new offensive line and quarterback. It will be a tough game, as Michigan recruits as well as anyone, but Ann Arbor won’t be the buzzsaw it’s been the last few years.

Prediction: Penn State 24, Michigan 14 (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten)

Week 6 (October 10th): Bye

The bye week comes at a good point next season. After ramping up the competition, the Lions can take a break and heal, before taking on what should be the two toughest weeks of their season.

Week 7 (October 17th): vs Iowa Hawkeyes

2019 Record: 10-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: #15

2019 Bowl: Defeated USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl

Iowa, as always, managed somewhere around 8 or 9 wins in 2019, relying on their stingy defense to keep them in games. Were it not for some referee tomfoolery, the Lions would have defeated the Hawkeyes by a greater margin than the actual 17-12 victory they managed.

The bad news for Iowa is they suffer from a lack of returning production. On offense, they lose quarterback Nate Stanley, and potential top 10 pick OT Tristan Wirfs. On defense, six players depart, including AJ Epenesa and safety Geno Stone. Iowa will try their best, but their best wasn’t good enough at home in 2019, and their best on the road in 2020 will be even worse.

Prediction: Penn State 35, Iowa 10 (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten)

Week 8 (October 24th): vs Ohio State Buckeyes

2019 Record: 13-1 (10-0 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: #3

2019 Bowl: Lost to Clemson 29-23 in the Fiesta Bowl (College Football Playoff semifinal)

What’s irritating about Ohio State is how reliably they avoid skipping a beat. Urban Meyer is one of the top college coaches of all time, and after departing, Justin Fields falls into the lap of Ryan Day, his replacement, and the Buckeyes march their way to the playoffs.

Here’s the thing: 2019 was the year for OSU. They’ll be good every year, but you don’t get a perfect storm like 2019 very often. All of the players were Urban Meyer’s. Fields managed to get a transfer waiver cleared, and managed to avoid injury all season. The defense was chock full of NFL talent. To me, they were the second best team in college football in 2019, and they blew it.

In 2020, Fields will be back, but RB J.K Dobbins is off to the NFL. On defense, DE Chase Young, LB Malik Harrison, CB Jeff Okudah, and FS Jordan Fuller all need to be replaced. The OSU coaching staff was scavenged as well, and the Buckeyes will have to replace their co-DC, and co-OC. Can OSU win the B1G again? Sure. But they had to fight tooth and nail to get the win over a depleted Lions team in Columbus in 2019, and they’ll be at State College in 2020.

The Lions win - convincingly - and the two biggest hurdles of the season are finished before we hit November.

Prediction: Penn State 38, Ohio State 24 (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten)

Week 9 (October 31st): at Indiana Hoosiers

2019 Record: 8-5 (5-4 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: Lost to Tennessee 23-22 in the Gator Bowl

Oh man, were it not for one of the weirdest final five minutes in a bowl game ever, #9WINDIANA would have been a thing. Oh well. This is the trappiest trap game to ever trap. The Lions will have a letdown, win or lose (win) after Ohio State. They also play poorly in Bloomington no matter what the status is of the two teams. But it won’t matter, as the Lions are just better, and they get out of Indiana with the win.

Prediction: Penn State 28, Indiana 21 (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten)

Week 10 (November 7th): at Nebraska Cornhuskers

2019 Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: N/A

Nebraska is a weird team, that probably should be better than they are or have been lately, but also seem to just coast on their laurels from the 90s. Scott Frost was meant to be their savior, but can’t seem to get his team to actually play well, and then turns around and blames literally anyone except himself when Big Red loses.

The Cornhuskers were mostly competitive in 2019, playing in six one-possession games, but they went just 2-4 in those games. A play or two here or there and they could at least have made it to a bowl. But frankly I’m having issues seeing it. Will they make a bowl in 2020? Maybe, but there appears to be some dysfunction around the team, and it starts at the top. After a sleepy game in Bloomington, the crowd in Lincoln will finally get to witness a home loss to the Lions since joining the B1G.

Prediction: Penn State 42, Nebraska 21 (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten)

Week 11 (November 14th): vs Michigan State Spartans

2019 Record: 7-6 (4-5 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: Defeated Wake Forest 27-21 in the Pinstripe Bowl

I still have a hard time reconciling how bad Michigan State was in 2019 with the fact that they made a bowl and then went on to win it. Boggles the mind. Mark Dantonio obstinately refuses to change his coaching personnel, and with Michigan and Penn State actually being good again, MSU is staring at 4th place in the East (at best) dead in the face pretty much every season. Yet I’ll hear a cacophony of people saying how good of a coach Dantonio is, one of the best in the country. Just stop it. Sparty gets slapped around for 3 hours and the Lions win easily, hopefully putting the nail in the coffin of Dantonio’s tenure at MSU.

Prediction: Penn State 49, Michigan State 14 (10-0, 7-0 Big Ten)

Week 12 (November 21st): vs Maryland Terrapins

2019 Record: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: N/A

Maryland started 2019 on fire, even ending up ranked at one point, before a strange loss to Temple, and then an absolute massacre against Penn State. The players seemed to quit, and new coach Mike Locksley looked lost. Can the Terps have a better year in 2020? Sure, they’re actually not an untalented team. But will they still be playing for anything really worthwhile in late November? Kind of doubt it.

Prediction: Penn State 42, Maryland 9 (11-0, 8-0 Big Ten)

Week 13 (November 28th): at Rutgers Scarlet Knights

2019 Record: 2-10 (0-9 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: N/A

2019 Bowl: N/A

The good news for Rutgers is they got rid of Chris Ash, and brought back Greg Schiano. Schiano has actually put together a solid coaching staff, and is working on bringing in some solid transfers. The bad news is Chris Ash left Rutgers all but devoid of talent, and the last time Schiano had success on the banks, it was in the Big East. The B1G East is a completely different animal, and while I expect Rutgers to be more competitive going forward, they have a LONG climb to respectability.

Prediction: Penn State 45, Rutgers 10 (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten)

Big Ten Championship (December 5th): vs Minnesota

2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

2019 Ranking: #10

2019 Bowl: Defeated Auburn 31-24 in the Outback Bowl

What narrative would make me the happiest? Defeating the Golden Gophers in Big Ten Championship game. I thought about putting Wisconsin here, but the Lions have taken the Badgers’ lunch money the last few years, and they’re a stale opponent from the West. Give me Minnesota, and let the Lions exact revenge for their 2019 loss. Minnesota is set to bring back pretty much all of its offense, with the biggest exception being their offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca, who has taken up happier climes in State College. Their defense is going to be in a rough spot, bringing back just two starters. If the Gophers can continue to row the boat and ski some u mah under PJ Fleck, the Lions can exact retribution, and move on the playoffs.

Prediction: Penn State 31, Minnesota 26 (13-0, 10-0 Big Ten)

Rose Bowl - College Football Playoff Semifinal (January 1st): vs Oregon

2019 Record: 12-2 (8-1 Pac 12)

2019 Ranking: #5

2019 Bowl: Defeated Wisconsin 28-27 in the Rose Bowl

Despite convincingly winning every game on their schedule, the Lions receive the #2 ranking in the final CFP poll, while Alabama sits at #1, Oregon #3, and Clemson #4. Bama and Clemson duke it out (again) in the Sugar Bowl, while Penn State heads to southern California.

The Ducks bring back almost everyone from a stout defense, but lose quarterback Justin Herbert. However, Oregon’s secret weapon is new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. From a narrative standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than taking on Oregon in the Rose Bowl against their former offensive coordinator. The Ducks do their best to stymie the Lions’ offense, but can’t score enough points of their own, ultimately succumbing to Penn State.

Prediction: Penn State 35, Oregon 21 (14-0, 10-0 Big Ten)

College Football Playoff Championship Game (January 11th): vs Alabama

2019 Record: 11-2 (6-2 SEC)

2019 Ranking: #8

2019 Bowl: Defeated Michigan 35-16 in the Citrus Bowl

A year after missing the playoffs for the first time since its existence, Alabama is on a mission. Nick Saban is angry, and the Tide bring back most of their offense from 2019. Not that it matters, as Alabama has been the top recruiting team for the better part of the last decade.

After dismantling Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, the Crimson Tide come out on fire against Penn State, building a double-digit lead in the first quarter before the Lions settle in and start their comeback. Sean Clifford looks like the second coming of Joe Burrow, and Micah Parsons leads the defense against a stout Alabama offense. Unlike some other championship games, there are no late-game heroics needed, as the Lions go up by two touchdowns with 5 minutes to go, and rely on Journey Brown to bleed the clock dry.

Penn State is your 2020-2021 national champion.

Prediction: Penn State 38, Alabama 24 (15-0, 10-0 Big Ten)

Real talk for a minute: everything from the Big Ten Championship Game through the playoffs is of course complete conjecture on my part. Who knows what will happen beyond the 12 games Penn State has on its schedule? I’m just crafting a fun narrative at that point.

But as for the 12 regular season games on the schedule, I 100% believe Penn State can - and should - win all of them. 2019 was a rebuilding year by pretty much all accounts. PSU wasn’t supposed to go 11-2; most people said 9-3 was the most likely result. Were it not for the strange loss to Minnesota, the Lions would have been in serious discussion as the #4 team in the playoff.

I fully expect the 2020 team to be better than the 2019 team. More talented, more experienced, and with a more favorable schedule. OSU will be down compared to 2019, Michigan loses a bunch of players, and everyone else on the schedule should be below Penn State in sheer talent alone. Without a single bit of pie in the sky dreaming or narrative-crafting, I believe Penn State will go 12-0 next year.

After that? Who knows, but just like LSU felt like a team of destiny this year, if the Lions get to 12-0, I’ll have zero qualms with saying they could then run through the postseason and get that mythical national championship.

All we have to do now is just wait and see how right I am.