Another season, another predictions roundtable! Penn State comes into a curious situation in 2022, having come off a disappointing 7-6 season, where they rose as high as No. 4 during their 5-0 start, only to come crashing down to end the season. Key injuries and lack of depth at those spots led to a whimper of a finish, but not all hope is lost! Penn State returns a healthy dose of talent, and their No. 6 recruiting class arguably the best in the James Franklin era, so there’s plenty of hope for what’s to come!
Penn State has a difficult start to the year in West Lafayette. I think it takes at least a half for the good guys to find their rhythm, especially on offense. However, the defense will do enough to keep them in the game long enough for Clifford and Co. to take control. After the narrow win at Purdue, Ohio is a much easier contest, setting up another early test, this one at Auburn. Tank Bigsby was a huge problem last year in Beaver Stadium, so I’d expect more of the same in 2022. The Tigers will be out for revenge, and will also be sporting a new quarterback-either TJ Finley or Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada. As of this moment (early August), I’m going with the Tigers in a close one. Western Michigan provides a reprieve, and Penn State ends the first month of the year at 3-1.
After another victory against Northwestern, Penn State travels to the Big House. Michigan’s receiving corps, including the frustrating tight end Erick All, is stocked with talent, and despite losing their standouts Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo, the defense is no slouch. Although Penn state had them on the ropes last season, that was in Happy Valley. Michigan gets the win, dropping Penn State to 4-2. Minnesota serves as a rebound game before the showdown with the Buckeyes. A 5-2 Penn State squad against what’s likely to be a 7-0 Ohio State seems like a recipe for an upset, doesn’t it? The home crowd keeps Penn State in this all four quarters, with Parker Washington’s performance making Jahan Dotson proud. Despite PW’s two touchdowns, Ohio State is too much in this one.
Penn State rebounds to sweep the rest of the season, including a closer-than-it-should-be win against Michigan State to close out the regular season at 9-3.
This season has one of the biggest possibility in variance in Penn State record in quite awhile. If everything clicks, Penn State winning 10+ games is very possible. If some of the same problems that plagued Penn State in 2021 return it’s not unreasonable to see the Nittany Lions end up 7-5.
Ultimately, the season will likely hinge on Sean Clifford and the offensive line. Shocker, I know, saying quarterback and offensive line are the two most important components for a football team. If the offensive line takes a step forward and Clifford stays healthy, the offense should be plenty good in 2022. Another big factor is Penn State’s schedule. Trips to Purdue, Auburn, and Michigan, as well as a yearly matchups with Ohio State and Michigan State creates a brutal schedule.
The offense takes a step forward in year two under Yurcich’s leadership. Even with Brent Pry off to Virginia Tech the defense stays strong with Manny Diaz and talent at each level. That said, linebacker will cost them at least one game and there are still plenty of questions about Clifford and the OL. Penn State takes a step forward, but 2023 is the season when things could really start to get fun again
9-3, Citrus Bowl or Outback Bowl bid
Penn State starts the season with a win, albeit a shaky one, on the road at Purdue (1-0). They clean up against Ohio (2-0), then go on the road to a tough environment in Auburn, but face a Tigers team that isn’t as good as it was last year, and they get the dub (3-0). A two-game home-stretch against Central Michigan and Northwestern sees two more wins (5-0), before the Lions get their bye week.
The next three weeks will make or break the schedule as Penn State goes on the road to play Michigan, before back-to-back home games against Minnesota and Ohio State. Optimistically I could see the Lions going 2-1 in that stretch, though 1-2 is a real possibility. I’ll say they beat the Wolverines and Gophers, but drop a top 10 showdown against OSU to get to 7-1.
From there, the Lions are on the back stretch, and it’s mostly downhill. At Indiana (8-1), home against Maryland (9-1), and at Rutgers (10-1) gives the Lions an outside shot at a playoff berth if they can close out the season with just one loss. Unfortunately, the final game is Michigan State, and though it’s at home, the Spartans seem to have figured out James Franklin the last few years. A tough loss gets Penn State to 10-2, and the Lions head back to a New Year’s Six game.
I’ve always broken down the schedule into three categories: games where Penn State SHOULD win playing a clunker, games where Penn State will have to play above its weight to win, and games that are true toss-ups. 2020 and 2021 have made me a little shy with predictions, especially last year.
Here’s how I order it as I sit here in mid-August. Those “should be” wins are Ohio, CMU, Northwestern, Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers. The games where I feel like Penn State will be a decided underdog: Michigan and Ohio State. Those “toss ups”, to me: Purdue, Auburn, Minnesota and Michigan State.
The more I sit and look at those lists, the more I shake my head because this feels like as much of a wild card Penn State season as I can remember in a long, long time. My concerns mirror a lot of others: prove-it year for OL, depth at linebacker, consistency and health at QB. I don’t think those units are strong enough to hold up over a full season at a championship level. I’ll say 9-3.
It’s easy to predict something based off the last two seasons. Let’s not regurgitate the same points we’ve beaten to death, although I wouldn’t fault anyone who has a hard time predicting anything other than 7-5 based on those same points. On top of that, Michigan won the conference last season, and sure, they lost half the defense and both coordinators, but you gotta give them their due. Then there’s Ohio State, who should automatically be picked to win the Big Ten every year by default. Michigan State also had a good season last year, and while it proves nothing since it was year two on a team composed of a bunch of transfers that are either gone or didn’t actually contribute much, you still have to give _them_ their due.
That leaves Penn State, where, predicting a win over those three is a tough pill, especially since what teams did the season before is a direct predictor of what they will do the season upcoming. Oh wait right that’s not how it works. Penn State returns most of its offense, has a good core on defense, with the only question mark being linebacker, and gets several guys from injury that should either start or contribute greatly. They also had arguably the best class Franklin has put together coming in, along with three key transfers to plug holes left by departures. There’s no reason why the Nittany Lions can’t compete for a conference title this year, as opposed to 2023, where everyone seems to think they’ll be.
All that said, as I said last season, I’m going to pick 10-2 until proven otherwise. Until Franklin goes and loses fewer than two games a season, I’m going to assume a loss to one of the big two, then another random loss to some other team to round it all up. Who will it be this season? It won’t be Minnesota since that was 2019, it won’t be Auburn since they’re *** my dude, and it won’t be Michigan State since that one required a miracle last season. So let’s go with Northwestern, shall we?
10-2, NY6 game somewhere.
Penn State could have a promising season and get to 10 wins, possibly even challenge for a Big Ten title. However, this would require many lesser-known, inexperienced players to make a splash this fall - probably more than what is fair or logical. The past two years have helped strip away a couple layers of my Penn State Optimism, and if you look at some of my game predictions in the weekly previews, you’ll see there were many times I falsely assured myself that they what clean things up and/or outclass opponents.
First off, the schedule sets up brutually. Road trips to Purdue and Auburn in the first three weeks make it difficult for a team depending on inexperienced players in key spots. This is immeditley followed with a home game against Central Michigan, who will be much better than your standard MAC opponents. The following week brings Northwestern to town, who showed a much more dynamic offense than expected in week 0 (although it may have been Nebraska’s defense making them look good - time will tell). This is followed with a trip to Ann Arbor for the defending Big Ten champs, then welcoming a Minnesota team that is coming off a 9-4 season and is common pick for West Division champs. This all leads up to a showdown with Ohio State, who is starting at #2 and could have a historically-fantastic offense. This is all before Halloween.
The bigger issue is what will happen at linebacker and offensive line. Linebacker will be without much experience outside of Curtis Jacobs, depending on a former safety and a middle linebacker with almost no experience. Offenses in the Big Ten will be ready to exploit this if some of the younger players don’t take a huge leap in the first few weeks of the season. Then there’s the offensive line. They have been the worst position group just about every year under Franklin (and in fairness to Franklin, during the BOB years and the latter part of the Paterno era). Now they will have to somehow improve immensly with hardly any depth. Things could go from bad to worse in a hurry if there are some injuries across the line - something that seems all but an inevitability from now until late November.
I feel more confident in the ground game and the QB depth (O-line we shall see) while having my concerns about the linebacker depth. The receiving corps is still good enough that any drop-off from losing Jahan Dotson should be minimal. The secondary and D-line I feel pretty strong about and think those could be a game-wrecking bunch for opposing offenses when they are clicking.
Much like last year, it feels like September is going to determine how bullish I am about the rest of the season, given the road games at Purdue and Auburn. Purdue will be a tricky season opener but one in which I think PSU’s talent/depth advantages win out in the end, while Auburn feels extremely “toss-up” like to me, but gun to my head, I think Auburn exacts revenge in an absolute rock fight of a game. Ohio and Central Michigan should without question, be wins (even though Central Michigan is no slouch and could be annoying).
Even though Nebraska might still be bad overall, that Northwestern game to open October suddenly seems more difficult, but it’s a game PSU should still win. The team should give Michigan a fight on the road, but it’s hard for me to see them coming out of Ann Arbor with a dub. Minnesota will be tough, but give me PSU all day at home under the White Out, something the Gophers have never had to deal with. While 2016 taught me to “never say never” about beating OSU, I’ll chalk that one up as a loss until proven otherwise.
Indiana on the road doesn’t seem as daunting as it has in years past, while that home game against Maryland could be a dogfight depending on whether their QB and WR’s are all healthy. Rutgers is still Rutgers, and Sparty at home to close the season feels like a revenge game and a chance for Sean Clifford to go out a winner in his final game at the Beav. I like PSU to go undefeated in November, which would put their overall record at 9-3 headed to the Citrus Bowl. After what we’ve gone through the last couple years, it would be a welcome step forward as the hype train rolls full steam ahead into 2023.
I’ll keep this short and simple, and like Bennett, will try to break this out into categories.-Penn State will likely lose to Ohio State and @michigan. That’s 0-2.-Penn State will likely beat Ohio, Central Michigan, Northwestern, @indiana, Maryland, and @rutgers. That’s 6-2.-@auburn, @purdue, Minnesota, and Michigan State are the swing games. Just based on what we have seen during the Franklin Era, 2-2 seems like the most realistic outcome give Penn State an 8-4 finish.
I like this Penn State team more than I did a couple months ago. It sounds like camp was good. It’s clearly a talented squad. The pause that I have is that I think this team is actually a year away. Could they make the leap a year early if Sean Clifford has his Kenny Pickett-esque season? Sure. I just can’t expect that out of Cliff for the obvious reasons, so because of that, I am going with a conservative 8-4.