Journey Brown and a deep backfield should ease the transition to a new offensive coordinator
Penn State has been to three New Year's Six bowl games under head coach James Franklin, winning two of those, but the next step is a difficult one to take. Penn State enters a unique 2020 season feeling confident in its chances to punch its first College Football Playoff ticket in program history, but earning that national championship opportunity will have to be earned the hard way.
The national outlook for Penn State is very positive. The Nittany Lions are entering the season looking like the clear best team in the Big Ten not named Ohio State. But even if the Buckeyes are bound for another trip to the playoff, Penn State still is being viewed as a team capable of joining their Big Ten East colleague.
Is this the year Penn State takes that next elusive step, or will the Nittany Lions have to settle for an appearance elsewhere in the New Year's Six as the best-case scenario in 2020?
Three Reasons Why Penn State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. New offensive coordinator calling the shots
Penn State has a number of new faces on the coaching staff this season. Among them is new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who replaces Ricky Rahne (now the Old Dominion head coach). With Ciarrocca leading the offense, expect a good blend of stability on offense and reliable play-calling that makes the best use of the skill on the field. Ciarrocca won't be afraid to gamble, but he will also know that sometimes the best play to use is a pretty simple call.
2. Penn State's tremendous depth at running back
When Ciarrocca asks the offense to run the ball, he should feel very confident in his decision. Penn State's running back depth is among the best in the Big Ten, and perhaps the nation. Journey Brown and Noah Cain are each on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award and together they make one of the best running back duos Penn State has had.
3. Micah Parsons anchoring steady Penn State defense
Penn State's best player actually plays defense. Parsons is already featured on a variety of watch lists going into the season and is regarded by many as arguably the best defensive player in the sport. Parsons will be the leader of what should be a steady Penn State defense, and Parsons will be gobbling up tackles all season long. Expect Parsons to have a hand in a handful of turnovers forced by the defense as well.
Three Reasons Why Penn State Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. Major question marks at wide receiver
For as good as Penn State could be on offense this season, the biggest question mark the Nittany Lions need to address is the wide receiver position. It appears to be the weakest link on the team after some of the top players at the position have transferred or left for the NFL the past couple of years. The position is in need of a breakout star, and Jahan Dotson may be the most likely go-to receiver aside from tight end Pat Freiermuth. Freshman KeAndre Lambert-Smith may also be a wild card.
2. Can Penn State avoid being tripped up on the road?
Penn State is 42-11 over the last four seasons, but seven of those losses have come in true road games (two more were in a bowl game). This year's road schedule is not particularly kind to Penn State with a trip to Michigan Stadium (1-8 at Michigan since 1998), Bloomington a week after facing Ohio State, and a trip to Nebraska the week after that for the longest road trip of the season (and a game that could be an upset alert in the making by the Huskers if things start working well for Nebraska).
3. Getting past Ohio State
It's no secret that to be the best in the Big Ten, Penn State and every other program in the conference has to get by Ohio State. Penn State has played the Buckeyes closer than any other Big Ten school the last few years, but Ohio State still manages to make the plays they need to win while Penn State can't quite seem to get over the hump. Penn State does get the Buckeyes in Happy Valley, but the expected lack of a packed and frenzied Whiteout crowd should make things a little easier for the visiting Buckeyes.
There is no question Penn State is in the College Football Playoff discussion for the 2020 season. The ingredients for a very successful season are all right there for James Franklin; a solid offense powered by the run with an improving quarterback, good quality offensive coaches, one of the best defensive players in the country, and Ohio State at home. But the Nittany Lions will be tasked with some tricky road spots and dropping two games in a shortened season with only conference play on the schedule will be more than enough to knock Penn State out of the mix. But if Penn State can make it to Oct. 24 (home against Ohio State) without a loss, the Nittany Lions may remain on the playoff radar in November no matter what the result is against the Buckeyes.
Count on Penn State playing in a New Year's Six bowl game, but with Ohio State, Clemson and Alabama potentially locking down three spots, Penn State may run into some stiff competition that keeps them out of winning that final coveted spot.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB, and Like him on Facebook.