Since winning the Big Ten title in 2016, it’s been a familiar refrain with Penn State and the College Football Playoff: stuck on the outside looking in.
The Nittany Lions, who were 11-2 that season, watched as Ohio State finished third in the rankings and got a spot in the playoff despite losing to Penn State and therefore dropping the Big Ten East divisional tiebreaker.
Penn State has never been closer to a playoff spot than they were that season. But, they’ve also not been all that far off the national radar in the years since either.
With the playoff set to expand to 12 teams next season, a look back at rankings shows that Penn State would have finished the first week of December in the discussion for a berth in five of the past seven seasons, including last year.
Likely no other non-playoff participant would have seen such a drastic change in perception as the Nittany Lions in the past decade. Instead of “best program that hasn’t made the playoff”, Penn State would have been a regular participant and had teams - especially 2017 - that could have done damage.
With one season left featuring the current four-team playoff format, Penn State has once again entered the national conversation. The Nittany Lions are off to a 4-0 start, ranked No. 6 in the AP poll, and coming off a thorough domination of conference rival Iowa in last Saturday’s Whiteout.
So, the question, can Penn State break through and reach a college football semifinal in 2023? Here, we lay out three detailed reasons why this could be the year for the Lions. But, we’ll also examine potential stumbling blocks that could see Penn State watching from home on the evening of January 1, 2024.
Reason to Believe #1: Power in Depth
The lifeblood of a playoff team is a talented, deep roster. Penn State has built that through exceptional recruiting and with smart pickups in the transfer portal. Head coach James Franklin has been adamant in saying that this group has the fewest questions marks of any team he’s had in his career. In nearly every position room, Franklin and his coaches must feel that there is a capable backup ready to step in no matter how big the injury.
Last year, the offensive line’s depth was tested mightily in the last month of the season once starting left tackle Olu Fashanu and left guard Landon Tengwall were lost for the year. Players like tackle Drew Shelton and guards JB Nelson and Vega Ioane were called upon in November to help get Penn State to the finish line and a place in the Rose Bowl. Now, Nelson has stepped into a starting role, while Ioane and Shelton are going to be valuable rotational players in a position group that most clearly shows the changes at Penn State in the past decade.
At the skill positions, it’s much the same. There’s no spot where it’s more evident than at running back. Nicholas Singleton was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2022, but he’s second in rushing attempts and yards to classmate Kaytron Allen this year. Tight end and wide receiver, though it’s more unproven, are featuring similar time-share situations.
On defense, Manny Diaz has made it clear that he wants to keep players fresh within games and within the season. That’s meant a ton of substitutions and specific personnel packages for his unit. That, coupled with some blowout wins, has meant that Penn State is rested and healthy with bigger games looming on the schedule. The hope for Nittany Lion fans is that the group can continue to smother its opponents and force turnovers as it’s done in the first few games.
Reason to Believe #2: Star Power
While there’s strength in numbers, NFL-caliber talent is also a necessity to make the playoff. It’s not that Penn State hasn’t had bonafide NFL-ready stars before. But a difference with this group compared to previous iterations of rosters is that just about every position group has a player who seems destined to be a high round draft pick or to one day start in the league.
Fashanu is the leader of that group. The star left tackle made the decision to return to Penn State, giving that offensive line an anchor. Couple that with skill players like Theo Johnson, Singleton, and Allen and it’s easy to see that Penn State should be able to put enough points on the board.
It’s the defense, however, where the stars really shine. At each level on that side of the ball, Penn State has multiple players who figure to be on an NFL roster in two years. Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac, and Dani Dennis-Sutton are causing havoc along the defensive line. Abdul Carter is flashing in the next line of No. 11’s to star in the linebacker group, while Curtis Jacobs has quietly been the most consistent defensive player over the course of the first month. Lastly, Kalen King and Johnny Dixon are playing at an extremely high level in the secondary. All of those names will figure into all-conference teams, possible all-American selections, and future NFL drafts.
Reason to Believe #3: Drew Allar
Look, I hadn’t mentioned quarterback for a reason. There are many close observers of Penn State football that point to quarterback play as the biggest holdup for past potential playoff teams. I, first off, do want to point out the successes that Franklin’s two most recent starting quarterbacks had. Trace McSorley started for three years, beat Ohio State and Michigan, helped Penn State to a Big Ten title and a pair of New Years Six bowls. Meanwhile, Sean Clifford owns just about every Nittany Lion passing record, beat Michigan twice, and led the Lions to a pair of major bowl wins. Both players have also spent time in the NFL with Clifford currently serving as the backup in Green Bay.
But, put simply, there are things that Allar can do that neither of those could. Allar’s arm strength, especially his ability to stretch the field horizontally is better. His demeanor in the pocket allows for things to happen down the field. Most importantly, he hasn’t turned the ball over thus far in his career. Literally never, having thrown eight touchdown passes to zero interceptions so far this year. Even with all the credit that should be given to Clifford and McSorley, Penn State fans - and probably fans across the country watching some of those biggest games of the past several seasons - can recall some backbreaking turnovers in recent Nittany Lion losses.
Prior to the season, I tabbed Allar as the team’s most valuable player. Again, it’s not that I believe he’s the most talented or bound for the biggest, accolade-filled season for the Lions. Instead, I do believe that his maturation and success is central to Penn State winning a Big Ten title and getting to a playoff semifinal.
Reason for Concern #1: Michigan and Ohio State
Based on all I’ve written so far, I must think that Penn State is a very good football team, right? Well, I do. But, the biggest reason for concern as a Penn State fan is actually two reasons and they’re in the Big Ten East. Michigan is the two-time defending conference champion and playoff participant the past two seasons. Meanwhile, Ohio State came up just shy of making the playoff title game last season. By the way, they also have deep, talented rosters with star players and are both currently ranked above the Nittany Lions. Penn State, under Franklin, has beaten both the Buckeyes and Wolverines before, but never in the same season. In fact, you have to go back to 2008 to see the last time Penn State did that as a program.
With the Wolverines, Penn State’s big advantage is that the game is in Happy Valley. There, the Lions throttled Michigan in 2017, held on after a huge start in 2019, and led late in the fourth quarter back in 2021. But, the Wolverines escaped the upset attempt with a touchdown in the closing minutes, dominated Ohio State and Iowa, and established themselves as the team to beat in the conference. Can Penn State get it done in State College this year? Well, maybe, but they’ll have to show a lot better than they did last year in a humiliating loss to much the same Michigan team.
And about those Buckeyes, Penn State hasn’t beaten them since 2016. There were bad blown fourth quarter leads in 2017 and 2018. Even last year, the Lions had all the momentum and the lead before the wheels came off in the final 10 minutes. For the first time in the Franklin era, you can make the argument that Penn State will have the edge at the most important position on the field thanks to Allar. But, Ohio State showed an ability last year to hit explosive pass plays against Penn State’s secondary and they’ll have the home field advantage.
Reason for Concern #2: 2-loss Curse
No college football team has ever gone to the playoffs with two losses, though Penn State did very nearly sneak in back in 2016. Meanwhile, James Franklin has never finished a season with fewer than two losses.
Things tend to snowball in State College. Despite all of the “1-0 mentality” talk, the Lions have had a funny way of seeing a disappointing loss turn into another a week or two later. Never was this more frustrating than back in 2017 when Penn State played valiantly and lost a thriller to Ohio State. A week later, and partially because of a thunderstorm, the Nittany Lions lost on the road at Michigan State - the same day that Ohio State was upset at Iowa. Penn State could have won the East at 11-1, but instead they let that Buckeye game cost them twice.
There’s a crowd of good teams at the top of the Big Ten East. One loss might not kill playoff aspirations. But, it’s also clear that Penn State hasn’t been able to avoid a second loss on the schedule under Franklin.
Reason for Concern #3: Special Teams
Finally, an area of concern that is on the field rather than on the schedule. But, it’s a big deal early in the season. Penn State has an attacking, stingy and fast defense. Meanwhile, the offense is still progressing, but features a capable running game and talented quarterback. While Penn State should have enough to win a lot of games in blowout fashion as it’s done thus far, there’s major concern with the kicking game.
The Nittany Lions are tied for 11th in percentage of made field goals in the conference. Through four games, Penn State has trotted out two different kickers who have combined to make 5-of-9. Alex Felkins, a grad transfer from Columbia, technically missed two on Saturday night in the elements against Iowa. He had a longer field goal attempt blocked at Illinois. Nevermind a game winner at the gun in Columbus, a real question becomes can Penn State keep offensive momentum going in big games with a guaranteed field goal.
Punting has actually been worse. Though Riley Thompson was able to set up a Penn State score last week with a perfectly placed punt off the back of an Iowa blocker, the Nittany Lions have not gotten much else out of the FAU transfer. Currently, Thompson is next-to-last in the conference in net punting. If Penn State wants to win with defense, a churn-it-out running game, and efficient quarterback play, the hidden yardage game figures to be a huge factor in October and November.