Here we sit in the throes of the off-season, watching the transfer portal, and hoping none of our couches get porched.
So far, things seem to be going pretty well for the Lions. They’ve picked up a few nice pieces from the portal without losing too many, they’ve kept their key coaches in place and are looking for a stud at WR coach, but otherwise, things are going well.
So with little else to talk about, let’s talk about playoffs.
There seem to be a few key issues at stake when talking about a team making the playoffs: overall roster talent, excellent talent at the QB position, and scheduling. You can argue about “catching lightning in a bottle” but that seems anecdotal at best - and is usually simply a matter of one or two players suddenly making a difference - a la Kenny Pickett at Pitt a couple years ago. No, these things are generally earned by patiently yet steadfastly building a team.
Overall Roster Talent
Put simply, Penn State has consistently recruited well. I can already hear the keyboard warriors cracking their knuckles, ready to tell me about how recruiting rankings don’t matter, and how many unrated players are in the Pro Bowl each yet, and I’m here to tell you to shush.
Outliers are exactly that, and if you compare the number of former blue chip recruits in the Pro Bowl vs unrated players, you’ll see exactly that.
And while I will at least hear the argument that recruiting rankings are often wrong, it’s exceedingly rare for a consensus blue chip recruit to be a complete and utter bust. A poor fit for a scheme, or simply bullying lesser players in high school, sure, it definitely happens. But on the whole, recruiting matters. Here are the blue chip ratios (BCRs) for the last 5 national champions (the percent of 4- and 5-star recruits on the roster):
- 2022 Georgia - 77%
- 2021 Georgia - 80%
- 2020 Alabama - 83%
- 2019 LSU - 64%
- 2018 Clemson - 61%
I think you get the point. Overall recruiting is vital. So where exactly is Penn State at this juncture?
According to 247Sports, the Lions’ BCR heading into the 2022 season was 55%, and the 2023 class was comprised of 73% blue chip recruits. I’m no math wizard but that 55% is set to increase. Will it be in the hyper elite status of UGA or Bama? Well, no, one class doesn’t jump a team up into the 70s or 80s, but it will continue to push them in the right direction.
Recruiting - CHECK
Excellent Talent at the QB Position
Looking back through the years, there are a few teams that won it all with BCRs closer to 50%. One that stand out to me was Clemson back in 2016, at just 52%. So how did they do it? Aside from playing in a laughably weak ACC, that is.
Deshaun Watson was a 4-star recruit, but an exceptionally highly rated one: his 247Sports composite score was a 0.9794, and he was listed as the #42 overall recruit in the country, and the #1 overall dual threat quarterback. With him leading the team, Clemson finally got over the Alabama hurdle, and the team won the MNC with a relatively low BCR.
How about Penn State?
Well, look no further than heir apparent to the QB position, Drew Allar.
Allar was a consensus 5-star recruit, with a 0.9852 score, and a national ranking of #32. His physical talents are apparent immediately upon seeing him play, but James Franklin took perhaps one of the best approaches possible in 2022, by letting Drew ride the pine. Instead, Allar was able to learn the system without needing to be its master in his freshman season. Sean Clifford led the team - and suffered the abuse - while Drew was able to come in during mop up duty and learn the ropes.
This cannot be understated: not needing to be “the guy” from day one is important, as more than one highly touted recruit has had those crushing expectations come crashing down around them (Christian Hackenberg, anyone?).
Drew Allar has all the talent in the world, has experience, is much more comfortable in Mike Yurcich’s system, has had a full year in a collegiate weight room with nutritionists, and is uninjured.
Quarterback - CHECK
And here we have what may be the biggest impediment to the Lions’ playoff hopes. For all the work that James Franklin has done in building a quality roster with exceptional talent at a few key places, Penn State is still stuck in perhaps the toughest division of any college football conference.
The Big Ten East - or B(1G)east if you prefer - is set to be exceptionally difficult once again. Most way-too-early top 25 predictions have three (!) teams in the top 10 (if not the top 5 in some cases). Michigan is coming off of back-to-back Big Ten Championships and playoff appearances, while Ohio State is coming off a playoff appearance of its own (and were it not for a crazy comeback by Georgia, a probable national championship).
The Lions are coming off an 11-win, Rose Bowl season of their own.
Add in Maryland of all teams, which posted an 8-win season of their own, plus Michigan State who should probably have been better than they were in 2022, and you can see the perils awaiting the Lions. But for the sake of transparency, let’s take a gander at their schedule:
- September 2 - vs West Virginia
- September 9 - vs Delaware
- September 16 - at Illinois
- September 23 - vs Iowa
- September 30 - at Northwestern
- October 7 - BYE
- October 14 - vs UMass
- October 21 - at Ohio State
- October 28 - vs Indiana
- November 4 - at Maryland
- November 11 - vs Michigan
- November 18 - vs Rutgers
- November 25 - at Michigan State
Their crossovers against the West aren’t brutal, but including both Illinois and Iowa is still a difficult combination. Playing UMass before Ohio State and Indiana before Maryland helps, but the back-to-back Maryland and Michigan games will be difficult, particularly in November.
It’s not the most difficult schedule in the world, but certainly could be easier. Still, they avoid the revamped Wisconsin Badgers, the Matt Rhule-led Nebraska Cornhuskers, and the ever-pesky Minnesota Golden Gophers, and their non-con schedule should pad out the resume nicely.
Schedule - TO BE DETERMINED
So there you have it. It looks like the Lions have an overall talented roster, and absolutely have a study at quarterback. If they can take advantage of a schedule that is tough, if not insanely brutal, there is a good chance the team can push for a playoff appearance before the playoffs expand in 2024. Add in that they will likely be a preseason top 10 squad, meaning they’ll have a bit more leniency, rather than having to come from the unranked masses and climbing into the upper echelon, and I think the Lions could make the playoffs.
Will they? Only time will tell.