As the season bares down upon us, we at BSD put our collective heads together to take our best shot at predicting Penn State’s record in 2021. Here are those predictions:
For no particular reason, I’m bullish on this team. Perhaps it’s the new offensive coordinator, perhaps it’s the strength of the skill players and the secondary, but I’m just feeling a bit rosy right now.
Realistically, I think this season hinges on the Wisconsin game. If they win that game, they might not drop a game until they play OSU, and end up 11-1. If they lose to the Badgers - particularly if it’s a resounding loss - I think OSU, Iowa, Indiana, and Auburn all become a bit messier, and the team could drop to 8-4.
I’ll split the difference, which would be 9.5-2.5 on the season. That’s not mathematically possible, you say, and since I am feeling a bit generous, I’ll round and go with 10-2. The offense is better than last year, the defense is a bit worse, but overall the gains outperform the losses, and the Lions make their way back to the New Year’s Six.
This is more than slightly a cliché, but how the Nittany Lions start the 2021 season will dictate their potential. If they manage to emerge unscathed against Wisconsin (in Madison), Ball State, Auburn, Villanova, Indiana, and Iowa (at Kinnick), Penn State will most likely be unbeaten against Ohio State. However, I expect them to drop at least one of those first six, most likely the Badgers, but rebound to beat Auburn and slip past Iowa.
Ohio State is still at least one step above the good guys right now. Hopefully the 2022 recruiting class closes the gap a little bit, but the 2021 version of the squad will drop their second game to the Buckeyes in Columbus. Normally I would be a little scared of the season finale on the road against Sparty, but Michigan State has been such a mess for several years now that they won’t be a threat.
10-2 seems like not a bad finish to a season after the 2020 campaign.
We may joke about 15-0 or GTFO quite a bit around these parts (in fact, it’s one of my favorite offseason traditions), but, as much as we joke about that, I hadn’t actually predicted an undefeated regular season for Penn State... until last season. That resulted in the Nittany Lions having their first losing season under James Franklin (the first losing season since the Dark Years™), topped off by the first 0-5 start in school history. I have learned my lesson.
Franklin’s Nittany Lions have varied in quality over the past seven seasons, but they all share something in common: No matter how good they are, no matter how easy or tough their schedule is, they always find a way to lose exactly two games in the regular season on their good years. I happen to believe this will be a good year.
You can take your pick of games they can possibly lose. The opener on the road against Wisconsin seems like the perfect setup. The class of the Big Ten West coming off a disappointing season of their own, looking to prove the same things Penn State is, with fans in the stadium after a year without them. An Auburn team that doesn’t lack talent, even if they’re the ones making the trip and experiencing a Whiteout for the first time. An Indiana team that actually believes they can compete —_and beat_ the best of the best in the East, or even an Iowa team that is never an easy out, and returns a ton of talent from a deceivingly good team last season. And, of course, there’s the elephant in the room, the team the rest of the Big Ten looks up at, the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Pick any two of the above, or get crazy with the upsets, and you have yourself your 2021 season. 10-2 it is.
Well now, it seems like everyone is firmly entrenched in the 10-2 camp.
NOT SO FAST.
I think a lot of people want to see Penn State get off to a fast start after the way last season went, but I’m not sure that will be the case. An incredibly difficult early slate paired with a ton of turnover on the coaching staff as well as some on the playing field lead me to believe that this is a Penn State team that will be a bit choppy to start the season, but may well close the season on a tear as the schedule opens up and the young players begin to play like vets.
For that reason, I’m going to go with a 9-3 record and a team that just misses out on the New Year’s Six bowl. Now, whether that’s a disappointment or not is up for discussion. I think starting on the road at Wisconsin is an absolutely brutal ask, especially against a Jim Leonhard defense. Then trips to Iowa and Ohio State obviously loom large, with the latter feeling more like a puncher’s chance at best. On the bright side, I think Penn State could well finish the season undefeated at home and depending on the manner of their losses, could well sneak into one of those big bowls. I think Sean Clifford bounces back for a better season, though I’m not convinced he has the accuracy to produce a great season. The hope is that the run game, a strong offensive line and a bevvy of receiving targets make that easier. But then there are defensive concerns, especially with the pass rush. I just worry there are too many holes to make a jump all the way back into the top 10, but we shall see.
My gut feeling this entire offseason has been 9-3, and while it’s been nice to read glowing practice reports about the skill players on offense looking poised for a big year, as well as the secondary and certain linebackers named Brandon Smith, I’m sticking to my 9-3 prediction. I just don’t like opening on the road at Wisconsin in what will be a packed house with fans who haven’t been able to watch their team in person for nearly two years. This isn’t to say I can’t see PSU getting out of Madison with the dub, but considering teams spend game one working out the kinks in an actual live game against an opponent, it’s hard for me to feel terribly confident. I do however, think this is a team that could be firing on all cylinders by mid-season. Perhaps not in time to avoid a road loss at Iowa, and Ohio State will likely be clicking by the time they play at the ‘Shoe, but that’s why they play the games. For now, I’m going to say PSU runs the table at home and drops road games at Wisky, Iowa, and OSU, earning them a Citrus Bowl date with Florida on New Year’s Day.
I’m joining the 9-3 camp as well. Schedule-wise, it just seems to make the most sense. They probably split Wisconsin and Auburn, and probably lose at Ohio State. So from there, you’re asking Penn State to go 3-0 against Indiana, @ Iowa, and Michigan. Possible? Sure. But 9-3 seems like the most likely outcome, especially when you consider that the bottom of the Big Ten isn’t quite pathetic anymore. Rutgers and Illinois should be semi-competent. We saw what Maryland could do last season. There’s just very few games (right now) where Penn State is an obvious two-touchdown-plus favorite, which is needed if you want to be a projected 10-2 in my opinion.
This is a season that could go in a variety of directions for the Nittany Lions. Anywhere from 8-4 to 11-1 is very much in play and could occur without it being much of a surprise. The schedule does not do Penn State any favors. Road trips to Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State loom large. Auburn is tough in the non-conference, and neither Michigan nor Indiana will be easy games. In that stretch Penn State could go anywhere from 2-4 to 5-1 without it being a major surprise. We will also learn a lot about this team in a hurry with 4 of their first 6 games coming at Wisconsin, vs. Auburn, vs. Indiana and at Iowa. Entering their bye week, the Nittany Lions could be anywhere from 2-4 to 6-0 without it being a major surprise, setting the tone for the entire season.
Personnel wise, the Nittany Lions have a very, very talented roster, but there are some question marks. Unfortunately, their two biggest question marks are at probably the two most important positions in today’s college football - quarterback and pass rusher. Starting with the latter, the pass rush was already going to be a bit of a question mark due to a lack of proven depth. Now that Adisa Isaac will likely miss the entire season this puts a lot of pressure, no pun intended, on Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie who will become the primary pass rushing threat. The Nittany Lions also desperately need two of Nick Tarburton, Zuriah Fisher, Amin Vanover and Smith Vilbert to step up at defensive end. I will be curious to see if Brent Pry looks to utilize Curtis Jacobs and Brandon Smith as blitzers to help with the pass rush.
As for quarterback it’s been discussed time and time again. Sean Clifford is the single biggest wild card for the Nittany Lions this season. If he can finally take a step forward from his 2019 season, instead of the massive step backward he took last season, with Penn State’s stable of running backs, tight ends, wide receivers and what should be a strong offensive line, the Nittany Lions could have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten. One thing that is working in Clifford’s favor is that Mike Yurcich is by far the best offensive coordinator and quarterback coach he has had since Joe Moorehead left, and Yurcich may be better than JoMo. It’s a big, big season for Clifford. He will be the difference between 8-4 and 10+ wins.
Ultimately, I just can not have the faith needed in Clifford to expect the Nittany Lions to get back to the 10 win mark. He was not nearly as good as his stats indicated in 2019 and he was atrocious in 2020. It could be a very frustrating year as the Nittany Lions have the roster of a 10+ win team and are stuck with a QB who may not even be in the top half of Big Ten QBs despite the league having some pretty poor quarterback play. the Nittany Lions will get clipped by Wisconsin, Ohio State, and one of Indiana, Iowa and Michigan on their way to a 9-3 season.
I’m very high on this team considering the turmoil that led to a losing season a year ago. For one, I believe last year was more of a wild series of unfortunate events leading up to and during the season that led to such a poor start. I’m also high on the character of this team from what I’ve been seeing and hearing since the end of the season, which hey, did end on a four-game win streak. While there are some big question marks to address, the pieces seem to be in place for a special season in Happy Valley.
There are two main things keeping me from going with a 10-2 or even an 11-1 prediction (something wild would need to happen in the first two months of the season to give me any optimism Penn State has a chance to beat Ohio State in Columbus) are questions regarding two crucial positions - quarterback and defensive line. I believe we see a much improved Sean Clifford from a year ago with a full offseason with experienced passcatchers and the guidance of new OC Mike Yurcich. However, I don’t expect perfection and there will likely be a couple bad games along the way. These sunk Penn State during the 0-5 start, and a couple of untimely turnovers could certainly result in a loss or two. While the defensive line has potential, there will need to be some major development for the unit to be as dominant as we’ve seen in years past. It seems likely there will be a game or two where the defense struggles to get off the field, allowing opponents to maintain a lead and churn out the clock.
I’ll go with loses to Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa, with good guys ending on another four-game win streak which hopefully leads to a NY6 bowl game.