Between 2016-2019, Penn State won over 40 games, won the Big Ten Championship, won the Fiesta Bowl, and played in the Rose Bowl, and was ranked as high as #2 multiple times. Penn State has since gone 11-11 in their last two seasons with no bowl victories. They started historically bad in 2020, before rolling off 4 straight victories, and in 2021 they did the opposite. They were #2 in the country before going 2-6 and ending their season to Arkansas in their bowl game.
Now looking at 2022, for the first time since 2016, they are unranked heading into week 1. James Franklin is set to begin his 9th season at the helm of the Penn State program. Penn State will have a new voice leading their defense as Brent Pry left to become the head coach at Virginia Tech. Former Miami head coach Manny Diaz takes over in Pry's place. When Diaz was last a defensive coordinator, his team ranked as the #4 defense in the country and led many major defensive categories.
Looking at the 2022 Nittany Lions. Some say this team can still win 9 games. With the recent struggles and turnover on their roster and staff, is this team set to return to being a top 15 team? Or is this team on the decline?
Who is back?
Sean Clifford is back as QB1 for Penn State. The 5th year senior has been good for Penn State, but not great. He struggled with injuries in 2021. This has to be the year that he elevates his game. He has something that top collegiate QB's like Bryce Young, CJ Stroud, and Caleb Williams don't not have, and that is collegiate experience. This will be his 4th season leading the Nittany Lion offense. It is almost unheard of for a QB to start at that same school for 4 seasons. You cannot argue that is a huge plus for Penn State.
Clifford will again have Mike Yurich back as his offensive coordinator. There were some learning curves for the two last season, but now with a full year in the books, I expect to see a much tighter bond between the two.
Returning offensive starters: QB Sean Clifford, RB Keyvone Lee, WR Parker Washington, WR KeAndre Lambert-Smith, TE Brenton Strange, RT Caeden Wallace, OC Juice Scruggs
Returning defensive starters: DE Nick Tarburton, DT PJ Mustipher, LB Curtis Jacobs, CB Joey Porter Jr., S Ji’Ayir Brown
Who is gone?
The big loss is Brent Pry on defense. He has been with Franklin since his time at Vanderbilt and was the brains behind the continuous dominance on defense. The Penn State defense will look much different as Arnold Ebiketie is gone. Clifford lost his top target from last season in Jahon Dotson who left for the NFL. His leading RB Noah Cain is now an LSU Tiger. Leading tacklers on defense in Brandon Smith and Ellis Brooks are also gone
Penn State has been producing offensive and defensive stars the past few years. Last year they still produced some, but not to the level as they have in year's past. This team has less than last year.
The new kids
Notable newcomers: WR Mitchell Tinsley (Western Kentucky), WR Kaden Saunders (Freshman), WR Omari Evans (Freshman), RB Nicholas Singleton (Freshman), OG Hunter Nourzad (Cornell), DE Chop Robinson (Maryland), DE Dani Dennis-Sutton (Freshman)
@ Purdue- Loss
vs Ohio- Win
@ Auburn- Loss
vs Central Michigan- Win
vs Northwestern- Win
@ Michigan- Loss
vs Minnesota- Win
vs Ohio State- Loss
@ Indiana- Win
vs Maryland- Win
@ Rutgers- Win
vs Michigan State- Loss
Final record: 7-5
Penn State has a tough schedule in 2022. Opening the season on the road against Purdue is a tough draw. Early games against Ohio and Central Michigan should be easy wins for Penn State. Playing on the road against Auburn is going to be a nailbiter. I feel the home field should benefit the Tigers. Penn State's Big Ten schedule does see Penn State bring both Ohio State and Michigan State to Happy Valley. However, Ohio State is one of the best teams in the country and Michigan State are capable of overtaking Ohio State in 2022. Playing at the Big House has never been a strong point for Penn State and Michigan is still just as good as last year's playoff team. Penn State does get 5 games against weaker Big Ten teams that they should take care of with ease. I said the same thing about Illinois is 2021, so hopefully they remember that they need to actually try in each game.
Overrated, Underrated, or Just Right?
I read over a dozen prediction articles for Penn State. I believe comparing my predictions to everyone else, Penn State is overrated in 2022. I see a lot of 9-3 or 8-4 predictions, and even someone who guessed 10-2. I do not see Penn State ending the regular season with just 3 losses. This is a brand-new team with 10 new starters and a new defensive coordinator. There are too many new pieces. Their first half of the schedule is much more manageable than the second half. All the first half games are winnable, but I still expect them to only come away with 2 wins. The second half is tough. Even the games that are winnable, Penn State has struggled @ Indiana and two years ago lost to a Maryland team who is returning a lot of starters from 2021.
Penn State is back the 2015, where they beat who they should beat and lose to who they are supposed to lose. This team has lost that image of being one of the top college football programs. 2020 and 2021 pushed this team back many many steps.
Sean Clifford is a good college QB, but he is not great. He needs to elevate his game for this team win 9 or even 10 games this season. His needs to cut down on the incompletions and protect the ball much more. He is going to have to find a new WR1 with Dotson gone. This is his 4th year as a starter, but if he does not step up, Penn State will not exceed any expectations. Many experts say his experience as a college QB will elevate his game, but unless he has a back-up who can take over for a benched Clifford, he has zero pressure on him. Giving him pressure will cause his game to elevate, and he unfortunately doesn't have any.
3 keys to 2022
1. Figure out the run game early
Penn State used to be RB U, but Saquon and Miles Sanders are both long gone. Penn State has failed to average over 5 yards per carry the last two seasons. That kind of production cannot be the standard for Penn State. Leading rusher Noah Cain is gone and someone else will take over that role in 2022. If they do not identify RB1 early and figure out the run game, the second half of this season will look very similar to 2021.
2. The pass rush needs to step up
Penn State averaged less than 3 sacks per game in 2021. Penn State is playing Auburn, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State. If they want any chance of winning just one of those games, they will need to get to the QB. Keeping the Penn State offense on the field is the top priority and getting to the opposing QB is the best way for them to do that.
3. James Franklin relies more on Yurich and Diaz
James Franklin has had some great coordinators who have worked for him since he took over at Penn State, with 4 of them now head coaches at other universities. He arguably two of the best coordinators in all of college football on his staff. He needs to put his trust in both of them. James Franklin is trying to save his job in 2022. That seat is heating up. He has two of the best minds in college, and if he lets them coach their respect areas, I think Franklin can save his job. If that involves giving up play calling than Penn State could be in business. Franklin can recruit like no one else, and he should focus more on that.