Over the last few years, Penn State has had a chance to break into the College Football Playoff but the Nittany Lions have kept stubbing their claws on the way to the four-team field. With what many expect to be a bit of a rebuilding year in some aspects, the expectations that Penn State could make the playoff for the first time in program history are not abundant while other Big Ten East division foes are among the top candidates to crack the field.
But why not Penn State? James Franklin has done well in bringing talent to State College, as the recruiting rankings have shown the past few years, and the program should have some potential at various positions even if replacing big-name contributors. The schedule throws some tough road games Penn State's way in Ohio State and Michigan State, as well as an always-dangerous trip to Iowa, but the Nittany Lions will at least get a shot at Michigan in Beaver Stadium. And Pitt, the defending ACC Coastal champion, travels to Happy Valley this year as well.
The College Football Playoff hasn't really had a surprise team make the four-team field at the end of the season in the playoff era just yet. Could Penn State be that first true surprise team that flies under the radar?
Three Reasons Why Penn State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Sean Clifford, the next star QB?
Replacing a three-year starting QB is a rarity in college football, and figures to be a tall order for Penn State after seeing Trace McSorley graduate. Tommy Stevens also left the program (for Mississippi State and Joe Moorhead), so the ball figures to be put in the hands of Clifford. The former four-star recruit in the 2017 class saw brief playing time last season and showed off some nice arm talent. He may not have the mobility McSorley offered, but he may end up being a better passer.
2. Ricky Slade is next man up at running back
Penn State's next running back following in the legacy of Saquon Barkely and Miles Sanders is Slade. The five-star recruit in Penn State's Class of 2018 got started last year behind Sanders by rushing for 257 yards and six touchdowns in nine games. Slade should be the primary running back, but former Notre Dame player C.J. Holmes could contribute as well.
3. Micah Parsons anchoring an improved defense
While Penn State's offense goes through some transition, the defense appears to be on pretty solid footing. Parsons should be the star of the defense this season as the sophomore attempts to live up to Penn State’s Linebacker-U legacy. Parsons led the Nittany Lions with 83 tackles last season. Pushing for 100 tackles may not be out of reach.
Three Reasons Why Penn State Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2019
1. Penn State's turnover concerns
After leading the Big Ten with the fewest turnovers and the best turnover margin in 2017, the Nittany Lions dipped into the negative side of the turnover margin in '18 (the first time since 2014 Penn State had a minus turnover margin). With a new starting quarterback and an offense that could need some adjusting, Penn State should have some legitimate concerns about ball control with a new cast of characters.
2. Will receivers catch the football?
One of the biggest problems last season for Penn State was their wide receivers not being able to come down with the football enough times. Dropped passes were drive-killers far too often for Penn State's offense and needs to be an area of improvement this fall. If dropped passes continue to pester Penn State, any chance of playing for a Big Ten title and a playoff spot will be difficult to pull off.
3. The Big Ten East gauntlet
Penn State's biggest hurdle to playing in the College Football Playoff the last few years has been games in the Big Ten East. Losses to Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan have come back to bite the Nittany Lions in recent years and all three should be challenging again this fall.
Penn State looks to be a bit of a wild card team in the Big Ten this season. With Ohio State and Michigan the top two favorites for the Big Ten title, and with both sitting in the same division as the Nittany Lions, it should be a tough road for Penn State to get into the playoff discussion. Penn State will get Michigan at home, but the Nittany Lions must travel to Ohio State in late November and will make visits to Michigan State and Iowa.
Penn State can certainly play itself onto the playoff radar by the middle of October just before hosting Michigan, and a win against Michigan would certainly boost the profile. If things go well, a road game at Ohio State so late in the season (Nov. 23) could be the right push at the right time for a playoff boost, but a lot must go right before that before it can become a discussion worth having. But the playoff may be out of reach by the end of the year with a shot at a New Year's Six bowl game the best to hope for.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 14
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 8.5
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 8.5
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.