Penn State was a fixture in the top 25 for four years, from 2016 until early 2020, but the Nittany Lions fell out during their 0-5 start and never found their way back.
However, PSU is expected to start next season back in the top 25, according to several way too early preseason rankings. Here’s a sampling of where the Lions are slotted.
Rank: No. 10
Comment: Penn State’s streak of 15 consecutive winning seasons ended in 2020, but the Nittany Lions should return to their winning ways. Quarterback Sean Clifford is back and will be working with new offensive coordinator/QB coach Mike Yurcich, who comes to State College after a one-year stint at Texas. Overall, the Nittany Lions will return at least 16 starters — nine on offense and seven on defense. They’ll be tested early, opening the season at Wisconsin followed by consecutive home games against MAC champion Ball State and Auburn under new coach Bryan Harsin.
Poll’s top 10: 1. Ohio State; 2. Alabama; 3. Georgia; 4. Oklahoma; 5. Clemson; 6. Texas A&M; 7. Iowa State; 8. Texas; 9. North Carolina; 10. Penn Sttae
Rank: No. 17
Comment: At this time last year, the Nittany Lions had legitimate hopes for a College Football Playoff appearance. But without spring practice, the opt out of star Micah Parsons and other losses like star running back Journey Brown, 2020 went poorly in Happy Valley. After a shocking 0-5 start, Penn State won four in a row to end the year. And last week came with a surprise move by coach James Franklin, who dumped Kirk Ciarrocca after one season in favor of former Texas OC Mike Yurcich.
Poll’s top 10: 1. Alabama; 2. Oklahoma; 3. Clemson; 4. Georgia; 5. Ohio State; 6. North Carolina; 7. Iowa State; T8. Notre Dame; T8 Texas A&M; 10. Cincinnati
Rank: No. 20
Comment: After a horrific 0-5 start, Penn State closed out the season strong with four consecutive wins. At no point were the Nittany Lions close to living up to their preseason Top 10 ranking, but figuring things out late is better than never figuring them out at all.
A big part of that change was the implementation of freshman running back Keyvone Lee. He had 19 carries for 93 yards in PSU’s first five games before becoming the featured back of that four-game winning streak, racking up 70 carries for 345 yards down the stretch.
Shortly before the season began, Penn State’s leading rusher from last year (Journey Brown) retired from football because of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Its second-leading rusher from last year (Noah Cain) suffered a season-ending injury after just three touches. The Nittany Lions also lost former 5-star recruit Ricky Slade as a transfer over the summer. Hardly a surprise that the run game took a huge step backward.
But in Lee and fellow freshman Caziah Holmes, they appear to have a solid foundation for next year. Factor in a third straight year of the Sean Clifford-to-Jahan Dotson connection, and Penn State should bounce back considerably.
Poll’s top 10: 1. Alabama; 2. Oklahoma; 3. Clemson; 4. Georgia; 5. Ohio State; 6. Iowa State; 7. Cincinnati; 8. USC; 9. Texas A&M; 10. Indiana
Rank: No. 22
Comment: Penn State’s 2020 season was derailed shortly after it started when tailbacks Journey Brown and Noah Cain were lost to season-ending injuries. Shortly thereafter, the Nittany Lions lost Freiermuth to shoulder surgery. They lost their first five games before rallying to win the last four. With quarterback Sean Clifford and Cain expected back, Penn State’s offense should be more balanced in 2021. On Friday, coach James Franklin fired Kirk Ciarrocca and replaced him with former Texas offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.
The defensive line will have to be rebuilt, but help is coming from Temple transfer Ebiketie and Duke transfer Tangelo. Penn State will also have to identify two new starting safeties. Dixon, a starting cornerback at South Carolina last season, will provide some depth in the secondary. After opening next season at Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions host Auburn two weeks later.
Poll’s top 10: 1. Clemson; 2. Alabama; 3. Oklahoma; 4. Georgia; 5. Ohio State; 6. Texas A&M; 7. North Carolina; 8. Iowa State; 9. USC; 10. Indiana
Rank: No. 25
Comment: Everything that could go wrong did for the Nittany Lions in 2020, but quarterback Sean Clifford returns to what should be an improved team. Senior receiver Jahan Dotson will return, as will running back Devyn Ford. James Franklin still has a lot of talent on the roster, and it needs to show up before the gap with Ohio State widens more.
Poll’s top 10: 1. Alabama; 2. Clemson; 3. Ohio State; 4. Oklahoma; 5. Georgia; 6. Notre Dame; 7. Texas A&M; 8. Florida; 9. Iowa State; 10. Cincinnati
Rank: Not ranked
Poll’s top 10: 1. Clemson; 2. Oklahoma; 3. Georgia; 4. Alabama; 5. Ohio State; 6. Iowa State; 7. Cincinnati; 8. LSU; 9. North Carolina; 10. Texas A&M
Some other polls:
Saturday Down South: PSU ranked No. 20
The Athletic: PSU ranked No. 21
Athlon: Not ranked