Reason to believe Penn State enters a contender
Put your hand up if you saw Penn State shocking college football last season, winning the Big Ten title en route to a Rose Bowl appearance, top 10 ranking, and near berth in the College Football Playoff.
Okay, I’ll put my hand back down.
But I was one of just two reporters covering Penn State that had the Nittany Lions going 9-3 in the survey story we ran from last season’s preseason media day. What most people didn’t realize was that lifting NCAA sanctions and James Franklin’s recruiting success had created a roster capable of beating almost everyone on the schedule. Everyone except Michigan and Ohio State, and we know how the Ohio State game went. The Pittsburgh loss, in a wild game against a team good enough to later upset Clemson, still came against a team with inferior talent.
The 49-10 loss to Michigan, the toughest assignment on the schedule, coincided with the Nittany Lions’ weakest effort all year and poisoned their public perception, making it possible to beat the Vegas spread for every game the rest of the way.
Ways to improve upon, or at least repeat, an 11-win season will dominate Nittany Lion story lines beginning with this week’s Big Ten media days, the start of preseason practice early next month, and the Sept. 2 season opener vs. Akron.
Penn State won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but a closer look at the overall talent level and how it matches up to the rest of the schedule shows the Nittany Lions can expect to finish 2017 right around where they finished 2016. That would be right on the edge of the CFP chase.
I’ve arrived at that conclusion again based on my ad hoc method for measuring overall roster talent. And that’s to take the 247sports.com’s composite recruiting rankings, calculate a standardized score for each FBS team’s recruiting points for each of the last five years, and then combine those scores with a double weight on the third and fourth-year classes since that’s who fills most two-deep depth charts.
Penn State only comes in No. 22 in these talent rankings, reflective of how they’ve done in recruiting since 2013, and a number that should keep improving. But the more important point is only Ohio State is markedly better this season, and a reloading Michigan is only marginally better and at home.
Pittsburgh has fallen off a little compared to PSU, Michigan State is scuffling after a 3-9 season and offseason of expulsions, and rising Maryland is nowhere near elite.
It’s pretty reasonable to think the Nittany Lions will go 11-1 against that slate, though the stretch of Michigan at home, followed by Ohio State and Michigan State on the road from Oct. 21-Nov. 4 could beat up anyone and cause problems for the last three games.
Vegas mostly agrees, with the Lions listed as summer 17-point favorites on Pitt, 12-point favorites at Iowa, 6 1/2-point favorites over Michigan, 8-1/2-point underdogs at Ohio State, 13-point favorites at Michigan State, and 17-1/2-point favorites on Nebraska.
The problem for Penn State is it visits Ohio State in a revenge game for the Buckeyes, though the 24-21 upset at Beaver Stadium with the fourth-quarter blocked kicks didn’t keep Ohio State from last year’s CFP. And barring major injuries or in-season swoons, there’s no game where the Buckeyes figure to be underdogs, let alone much less than touchdown favorites.
So Penn State may well need someone to knock off Ohio State to win the Big Ten East, not unlike the way it needed Ohio State to beat Michigan last year.
In fact, it’s reasonable to think the questions surrounding last Nov. 26 will surround the Nittany Lions every year in the near future in regards to Big Ten East division hopes.
1) Did they win their final game?
2) Did they need help from the Ohio State-Michigan game, and if so, did they get it?
Last year, of course, the answer was yes on both fronts. First, Ohio State opened the door for a tiebreaker scenario that would benefit Penn State with a 30-27 overtime win over Michigan. That led to one of the more surreal scenes in recent Beaver Stadium memory as Franklin wanted the score kept from his players so they’d concentrate on Michigan State. But Penn State fans, checking phones for updates, broke out in an ovation when that score went final during the first half. The Beaver Stadium PA never announced the score, but instead played Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
The Nittany Lions then held up their end with a 45-12 win.
This year, the scenario has Penn State at Maryland on Nov. 25 the same day Ohio State visits Michigan. Will Penn State beat Maryland to finish 11-1? I say so. Can Michigan knock off what will be an unbeaten Ohio State? I say no.
I’m predicting the Buckeyes will also join Alabama, USC, and Florida State in the playoff. If this all holds, unless the CFP committee selects two teams in from the same conference, there’s probably a different holiday carol for Penn State fans to sing watching others again play for a national title.
Brigandi is sports editor at The Sun-Gazette. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.