65 Teams in 65 Days: Penn State Nittany Lions

Head Coach: James Franklin

Offensive Coordinator: Mike Yurcich

Defensive Coordinator: Manny Diaz (First Season)

Conference: BIG 10

2021 Record: 7-6 (4-5) (Lost to Arkansas in Outback Bowl) 2022 Non Conference Opponents: Ohio, Auburn, Central Michigan

Key Additions: WR Mitchell Tinsley (Western Kentucky), LB Chop Robinson (Maryland), OL Hunter Nourzad (Cornell)

In 2021, Penn State rode an elite defense to a 5-0 start and looked to be surely on their way to a New Year's Six Bowl and maybe even a College Football Playoff appearance. That all came to a sudden halt as the Nittany Lions lost six of their final eight games, ending the season with a 7-6 record. Over the offseason, former defensive coordinator Brent Pry was one of the hottest names for a plethora of head coaching vacancies, and left Happy Valley for Virginia Tech. To replace him, Penn State hired former Miami head coach Manny Diaz. Even though Diaz was a terrible head coach, he has a ton of experience and success as a defensive coordinator, making him a great replacement for Pry.

At quarterback, Sean Clifford returns for his fourth season as the Nittany Lions starter. Given all the experience he has and the weapons he has had throughout his career, Clifford has been average at best. Last season he had Jahan Dotson at his disposal, yet during conference play, Clifford only had two games with a PFF grade better than 70. He makes good decisions, as his turnover worthy pass percentage was only 2.2, but he is awful under pressure, posting a 29.0 PFF passing grade under duress last season. Clifford has shown no real signs of improvement and expect another average season. The Nittany Lions rushing attack was arguably the worst in the BIG 10 last season and expect more of the same this time around. Keyvone Lee leads the attack and he is one of the worst lead backs in power five as he only had four games in conference play last season where he averaged more than four yards per carry. Freshmen Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen will compete for the job to complement Lee. With a room that lacks talent and is full of inexperience, Penn State's rushing attack will be in contention for the worst in the conference. The receiving corps loses Jahan Dotson, a Penn State legend, but replaced him nicely by adding Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley. Tinsley checks all the boxes, as last season at Western Kentucky he totaled over 1,400 receiving yards, only dropped two passes, made 13 contested catches on 26 attempts and quarterbacks had a 144 passer rating when targeting him. He is no Jaxson Smith Njigba, but expect Tinsley to be one of the best receivers in the BIG 10 and eclipse 1,000 receiving yards for the second straight season. They also return their second and third leading receivers in Parker Washington and Keandre Lambert-Smith. Washington had a great 2021 season and is undoubtedly one of the best slot receivers in the nation. He has sure hands, while also being explosive after the catch, averaging 6.1 yards after catch per catch. With Tinsley and Washington leading the way, Penn State’s receiving corps is elite and it's a shame they have to play with Sean Clifford. The offensive line was average last season, ranking eighth and ninth in the conference at run and pass blocking. This season I expect them to be better, as they return their two leaders in snaps, Juice Scruggs and Caeden Wallace. Scruggs was the best player on the line last season, being the only member to have an above average run and pass blocking grade. The group loses three of five starters, but I expect two of last season's reserves in Bryce Effner and Landon Tengwall to have breakout seasons. Both have played a solid amount of snaps and in 2021, both had PFF grades better than 77. Sean Clifford and the rushing attack limit the Nittany Lions’ ceiling, but the receiving corps is way too explosive for this offense to be bad.

Penn State’s secondary was elite last season, ranking second in the conference, only behind Iowa. They lose safety Jaquan Brisker, the leader and also Tariq Castro-Fields, who only allowed one touchdown in 2021. These losses are tough, but not too worrisome, as the Nittany Lions get Joey Porter Jr, one of the most exciting cornerbacks in the nation back. Last season, Porter allowed only two touchdowns and quarterbacks had an 84.7 passer rating when targeting him. He committed ten penalties, but expect that number to drop, as in his previous two seasons, he only committed one on 495 snaps. Nickelback Daequan Hardy also returns, and he is one of the best nickelbacks in the nation, allowing a mere 41.6 passer rating when targeted and not allowing a touchdown in 2021. Safety Ji’Ayir Brown is the final returning starter in the secondary and he is also a high quality player. 2021 was his first season as a starter and he ended up blowing away all expectations, compiling six forced incompletions and three interceptions. With those three returning and talented players such as Kaelen King filling in the holes. The Nittany Lions’ secondary will be more than fine in 2022 and will rank in the top five of the conference. The linebacking room and front seven as a whole will most likely regress though. The only returning linebacker is Curtis Jacobs, who is a great player, picking up 61 tackles a season ago, but he is not good enough to make up for the losses of Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks. The rest of the linebacking corps is very inexperienced, and with a first season defensive coordinator, I don’t see them being any better than last season. The defensive line loses a ton of production and in particular Arnold Ebiketie, an elite pass rusher. They don’t have anyone who will put up 52 pressures like Ebiketie did, and they will struggle defending the run, as one of the only returning pieces is Coziah Izzard, who was a huge liability, missing 19% of his tackle attempts and only totaling ten stops on 264 run defending snaps last season. Penn State’s secondary is fantastic, however the front seven will struggle under a new scheme and lacks a real force rushing the passer.

A weak front seven and rushing attack really limits this Penn State team. Most of their wins will come against pass heavy teams, such as Purdue and Maryland and I think the Nittany Lions will struggle against well rounded teams who love to pound the rock like Minnesota, Auburn and Michigan. The schedule isn’t too daunting, as they avoid Iowa and Wisconsin, but it's still very challenging and I just don’t see Penn State being a contender in their division.

Record Prediction: 7-5 (5-4)

AT Purdue: Win

V Ohio: Win

AT Auburn: Loss

V Central Michigan: Win

V Northwestern: Win

AT Michigan: Loss

V Minnesota: Loss

V Ohio State: Loss

AT Indiana: Win

V Maryland: Win

AT Rutgers: Win

V Michigan State: Loss

Best Bet: Penn State UNDER 8.5 Wins

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