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Could PSU really be the 9th best team in the Big Ten?

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Sean Clifford

The folks at Pro Football Focus came out with some … ummm … interesting rankings and analysis this week. And when we say interesting, we actually mean kind of confusing and contradictory.

OK, so Pro Football Focus ranked all 130 teams in the FBS for this fall. You can see all the rankings here:

Penn State came in at No. 19 in the PFF rankings. There are three Big Ten teams ranked ahead of the Nittany Lions: No. 3 Ohio State, No. 9 Iowa and No. 14 Wisconsin.

That all sounds about right, given what’s expected this season from the Buckeyes, Hawkeyes and Badgers.

After Penn State at 19, Indiana is No. 24 and Michigan is No. 25.

But, in a separate analysis piece projecting conference title probabilities for each Big Ten team, Pro Football Focus ranked Penn State all the way down at … No. 9.

That’s right. It says eight teams have better odds to win the Big Ten than the Lions.

1: Ohio State

2: Iowa

3: Wisconsin

4: Indiana

5: Michigan

6: Minnesota

7: Michigan State

8: Northwestern

9: Penn State

10: Illinois

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OK, so let’s get this straight: Pro Football Focus’ FBS rankings have PSU as the fourth highest-ranked Big Ten team, yet the Lions have worse odds to win the conference than five other teams that are ranked below them: Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State and Northwestern.

Certainly, it’s understandable to have different criteria for Big Ten West teams, since their path to the league championship game is easier because they’re not dealing with Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State in the standings.

Still, PFF has both Indiana and Michigan below Penn State in the national rankings, yet the Hoosiers and Wolverines both have better odds to win the Big Ten despite playing in the same division as PSU.

Doesn’t that seem quite, I don’t know, odd?

Here is what Pro Football Focus had to say about PSU’s Big Ten odds:

Conference Championship Appearance Probability: 4%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 2%
Projected Win Total: 7.2

The concerns for Penn State in 2021 are the same one’s from 2020: the quarterback position and a lack of depth at wide receiver. Sean Clifford took a step back last year compared to his 2019 campaign, lowering his passing grade from 69.3 to 60.9. Only three of his 21 games over the past two years have featured multiple big-time throws, which isn’t going to cut it. He doesn’t have much help in terms of receivers, as there is no proven threat outside of Jahan Dotson. 2020 four-star recruit Parker Washington started in the slot as a true freshman but didn’t show anything to lead us to believe he’s going to break out in 2021 (68.7 receiving grade last year).

The Nittany Lions’ roster is littered with talent elsewhere, though, which is why they have the fourth-best win total in the Big Ten in our projections. Their one-two punch of Noah Cain and Baylor transfer John Lovett gives the team one of the better running back rooms in the country. On defense, Jaquan Brisker is one of college football’s top safeties. Penn State also will welcome transfer additions along the defensive line that should ease the loss of Odafe Oweh and Shaka Toney.

At the end of the day, the deficiencies on the offense will make it tough for the Nittany Lions to challenge the Buckeyes or maybe even the Hoosiers for the Big Ten East crown in 2021.

Also, for good measure, here is what PFF said in its story ranking Penn State No. 19 in FBS. And note that it gives the Lions zero chance to win the national title.

National Championship Win Probability: 0.0%
Conference Championship Win Probability: 2.0%
Highest-Graded Returning Player: FS Jaquan Brisker (82.8)

Penn State will be going back to Sean Clifford as its starting quarterback after an underwhelming 2020 that saw him earn a career-low PFF passing grade. And there is no clear plan at backup quarterback after Will Levis transferred to Kentucky.

Penn State is tied for the second-shortest odds to win the Big Ten title game, but the team doesn’t come close to its implied probability based on our simulation. It would take a performance we haven’t seen from Clifford yet for the Nittany Lions to live up to their lofty preseason expectations.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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