So far this summer, we’ve seen how Penn State compares against the two best teams in the B1G East, as well as the flag bearer for the B1G West. For PSU to make it to the playoffs, they’ll most likely run through all three of those teams. But what happens (if) when the Lions actually get to that top 4 grouping? Let’s see how Penn State compares to some of the mainstays in the playoffs, starting with a team that - some would argue - has a pretty easy path to the final four.
Quarterbacks - Push
Let’s get it out of the way right up front: OU is QBU. Kyler Murray (2018), Baker Mayfield (2017), Sam Bradford (2008), and Jason White (2003) have won the Heisman this century, playing the QB position for the Sooners. Forgive me, but I’m going to put a LARGE sum on the Sooners doing well at the QB position regardless of what year it currently is.
That being said, Oklahoma will be rather inexperienced at QB this year. With Jalen Hurts off to the NFL, OU will trot out either RS SO Tanner Mordecai, or RS FR Spencer Rattler. Those two combined for 23 completions, 288 yards, and three TDs last year. Compare that with Clifford, who threw for 2,654 yards, 23 TDs, and 7 INTs. Sean definitively has the experience advantage, but with how dynamic and explosive the Oklahoma offense is, I have a hard time believing that the OU starter doesn’t give Cliff a run for his money. Let’s call it a push, and an exciting matchup to watch.
Offensive Line vs Defensive Line - Push
This is a tough one to call when the Lions have the ball, and not at all unlike Wisconsin, because both the Sooners and the Badgers go with a 3-man DL. The PSU line is going to be devastating in the run game, and when you compare a straight up match up of OL vs DL, the Lions have a 5-3 man advantage. In a pure man-on-man basis, the Lions get a vigorous nod up front, not even considering the combination of experience and skill PSU will enjoy.
Conversely, when Oklahoma has the ball, they’ll bring an offensive line that actually has more experience and more talent than Penn State. No player up front is younger than a RS JR, and what’s worse, all five players are former 4-star recruits. I think the PSU DL will be stout in 2020, but that’s a LOT to overcome. It appears that both OLs get the nod, and so we’ll call this a push as well.
Running Backs vs Linebackers - Advantage PSU
When Penn State has the ball, I like their chances. They have one of the top RB rooms in the country, with Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, and Caziah Holmes all being players that could start for D1 schools. We should also expect some 2-back sets, maximizing the talent in the backfield. Interestingly, Oklahoma actually doesn’t run a 3-4-4 defense, but a 3-3-5 defense - perhaps to counter the high-scoring offenses in the Big XII. As there are only the usual amount of LBs to contend with, coupled with the Sooner DL being short on men, I’d expect PSU to lean on their run game hard. The Sooner LBs are in no way bad - all three were blue chip recruits, and no one is younger than a TR JR/RS SO - but there’s just too much stacked against them with how Penn State’s offense is built. PSU has the edge when they have the ball.
For as much praise as the OU QBs get, they usually are pretty solid running the ball. RS JR Kennedy Brooks returns as the second-leading rusher (behind Hurts), and former JUCO player Rhamondre Stevenson returns as well. Those two will look to get a head of steam behind the Sooner OL, but they’re going to have to contend with one of the best LB rooms in the country. Micah Parsons, Brandon Smith, Lance Dixon, Ellis Brooks, and Jesse Luketa among others will be tough for anyone, and so I’ll give the Lions the edge here. For the first time, we have a team taking a lead in a category, and PSU gets the overall category edge.
Receivers vs Secondary - Advantage Oklahoma
Here’s hoping the advantage the Lions have from their RBs can carry them, because it’s going to be a tough day at the office for the PSU receivers. After Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson, there are a lot of unknowns. The talent is there, but it’s young and unproven. And unfortunately for Penn State, Oklahoma is built around stopping the pass. Their base defense features five DBs, all of whom are at least TR JRs. Two of their DBs are former 4-star recruits, while the other three are former 3-stars, which means there may be some chance for the Lions to pass, but I’d expect all those extra bodies to make it a wash. Oklahoma has the edge when the Lions have the ball.
On the other side, when Oklahoma has the ball, they’ve got the edge. They lost CeeDee Lamb, but bring back Charleston Rambo (cool name), Jeremiah Hall, and Trejan Bridges - those three combined for 66 receptions, 994 yards, and 10 TDs. Given the amount of time I’m expecting the Sooner OL to provide the QB, and the history of passing acumen in Norman, and I’ll give the edge to Oklahoma here. OU gets the win in this category.
Special Teams - Advantage Oklahoma
When the Lions are on special teams, Jake Pinegar will look to build on his 2019 campaign wherein he went 11/12 for the Lions. They’ll also have Jordan Stout booming punts, kickoffs, and long field goals. Unfortunately there aren’t very many proven return options, as KJ Hamler is off to the NFL.
For Oklahoma, Reeves Mundschau will punt, and he averaged 42.4 yards per punt in 2019. Gabe Brkic is back as place kicker, and he was perfect on the year, hitting all 17 of his FG attempts. Tre Brown is back as the leading kick returner, averaging 17.9 yards per return. Oklahoma will need a new punt returner however, as CeeDee Lamb is off to the NFL. I hate to say it, but I’m giving another edge to Oklahoma.
Coaching - Push
This may be a bit of a cop out, but when it comes down to it, I think these are two evenly matched coaches.
Franklin has, so far, done a phenomenal job of rebuilding the Lions into contenders, and has gotten better at the game day minutiae as well. He’s imperfect, yes, but he’s aware of his issues and works on them. He’s a young, dynamic coach, with great recruiting acumen, and collects ace talent around him.
Lincoln Riley took over an Oklahoma squad that was already at that elite level, and has kept the train rolling. Another young coach, he’s kept the Sooners at the top of the Big XII, despite Texas always being back. He’s also gotten OU to the playoffs, something Franklin has yet to do. Is the Big XII an easier path to the playoffs than the Big Ten? In my opinion, yes. Does it really come down to beating Texas and/or some random team like Baylor and that’s it? Yes. But he’s done it, and he’s done it with regularity. Overall, I think these are two of the top young coaches in college football, and I’ll say they’re even.
Overall - Advantage Oklahoma
Out of the six categories we just discussed, I’ve got PSU with one nod, Oklahoma with two, and three pushes. PSU has the edge at RBs vs LBs. Oklahoma has the edge at WRs vs DBs, and STs. The two teams are even at QB, OL vs DL, and coaching.
Were these two to meet, I think you’d see a fairly high scoring affair. Oklahoma is built around its offense, and I’d expect the Lions’ secondary to get chewed up a bit. Conversely, the Lions should be able to ground down the Sooners on the ground, but passing will be tough. With more proven options on special teams, Oklahoma can either chip away with field goals, or flip the field with a bit more regularity. While James Franklin is a solid game day coach, expect his prowess to be matched stride-for-stride by Lincoln Riley.
Ultimately, on a neutral field, I’d say Oklahoma wins it something like 55-60% of the time. If the PSU passing game can break out, or if the special teams take a solid step forward, that drops closer and closer to 50%. But right now, I’d say PSU would take the loss in this playoff matchup.
What say you?