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2021 record prediction: Giger’s early pick for Lions

Photo by Penn State Athletics: QB Sean Clifford

Now that things have settled down a bit — knock on wood — with the transfer portal and coaching carousel, I’m gonna go ahead and take a shot at my Penn State record prediction for next season.

I usually like to come up with a prediction shortly after one season ends, but that’s just not going to be practical going forward because of the transfer portal. As we’ve already seen over the past month, this time of year will be nuts going forward in college football, with a whole slew of players coming and going.

Here’s our running feature, Roster Rumblings, to get you caught up to speed on all the player movement within the PSU program this offseason.

There likely will be some more moves, with other current players still deciding to transfer out and some more also coming into the program. But it appears that the bulk of players actually facing a decision already have made one, so we can have a good idea who will be on the team this fall.

I’m not gonna bury the lede too much here and keep you wondering what my record prediction is, so here goes: 9-3

A few weeks ago, I was going back and forth between 8-4 and 7-5. Then something huge happened, which I’m sure you all know, that made me much more optimistic. It put me into the mindset of going back and forth between 9-3 and 8-4, and I’m shooting for the more optimistic approach here.

For the record, I still see 7-5 as a possibility. I don’t really see 10-2 as a strong possibility because of one key factor explained below.

PSU went 4-5 this past season, so there’s a whole lot of work to do to get anywhere near double digits in wins next season.

These are the five biggest factors that went into my 9-3 prediction:

1: Mike Yurcich (reason for optimism)

This one’s a no-brainer. I have great confidence in Yurcich and his ability to score points. If he does what everyone believes he’s capable of doing based on past performance, Penn State’s offense will put up a lot of points.

No more “blend” nonsense with the offense. No more morphing of the old system with the new coach’s system and trying to come up with something that works.

Yurcich’s system works. And James Franklin needs to let him run it. Which I believe he will.

Franklin didn’t make the shrewd move of firing Kirk Ciarrocca and bringing in a hired gun like Yurcich with the intention of getting in his way.

Yurcich will have weapons at his disposal in senior quarterback Sean Clifford, outstanding senior receiver Jahan Dotson and very promising sophomore wideout Parker Washington. The running backs also will be good — Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Keyvone Lee, Caziah Holmes.

2: The schedule is brutal (reason for pessimism)

Here’s the schedule, as it stands now. There’s been some talk about potential changes, so we’ll have to see on that.

Sept. 4: at Wisconsin

Sept. 11: vs. Ball State (which went 7-1 this season and finished in the top 25)

Sept. 18: vs. Auburn

Sept. 25: vs. Villanova

Oct. 2: Off

Oct. 9: at Iowa

Oct. 16: vs. Illinois

Oct. 23: at Michigan State

Oct. 30: vs. Indiana

Nov. 6: at Maryland

Nov. 13: vs. Michigan

Nov. 20: at Ohio State

Nov. 27: vs. Rutgers

That schedule is why I initially was deciding between 8-4 and 7-5. Road trips to Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State in the same season? That’s brutal. The Lions could lose all three. I’m not saying they will, but I see at least two losses there.

3: Sean Clifford (reason for optimism and pessimism)

As I wrote not long ago, Clifford is an average college quarterback. Nothing more, nothing less. Stats the past two years show him to be essentially the 30th to 40th best QB in the nation.

You can win games with that, especially in an offensive system like Yurcich has and with the weapons the Lions will have on offense.

But Clifford has to get a whole lot better if we’re gonna think the 2021 Penn State team can reach double digits in victories during the regular season.

There is reason to think Clifford can get a lot better. He will be a senior with a ton of experience, and he’ll get to do a lot of cool stuff in Yurcich’s system. He also surely was humbled by his poor start and getting benched this past season, so he will be vowing to not let that happen again.

Still, the question remains of whether Clifford can be trusted to win games against really good teams with his arm. He regressed at the end of the 2019 Cotton Bowl season, then had the bad start last season before playing better against weaker competition.

Clifford has a lot of talent. It’s time for him to put it all together in this new offense. If he can, Yurcich will look like even more of an offensive genius. But if Clifford struggles with turnovers again, having Yurcich around won’t make as much of a difference.

4: Defensive transfers and returnees (reason for optimism)

Penn State’s defense looked like it could be in for a substantial dropoff from a mediocre 2020 season with so many departures. Then cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields and safety Jaquan Brisker announced they would be returning for another season, a surprise in both cases since each player already had accepted an offer to play in the Senior Bowl.

The Lions lost standout defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney to the NFL draft, but they were able to pick up experienced transfers in Arnold Ebiketie from Temple and Derrick Tangelo from Duke.

I was highly skeptical about what PSU’s defense would look like, which is why I still had 7-5 as a possible record. But having these four players in the mix makes 9-3 much more possible.

5: Offensive line (reason for pessimism)

Always a concern. That’s just how it is at Penn State. Even when the unit has been expected to be good, like last season, there typically end up being problems.

Michal Menet and Will Fries are heading to the NFL, so that’s two key pieces the line will have to replace. Backup C.J. Thorpe also is transferring so he can play on the D-line elsewhere.

Look, I just have a hard time trusting Penn State’s offensive line. Every year.

Add all these things up, and like I said earlier, it had me going back and forth between 9-3 and 8-4.

As much as I love the Yurcich hire, the brutal schedule makes it tough for me to predict any better than 9-3.

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