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Penn State 1 of 12 Surprise Teams in Phil Steele’s Preview

James Franklin
James Franklin | Photo by Penn State Athletics

Phil Steele’s college football preview magazine is out and he puts Penn State as one of his 12 surprise teams in the country and No. 18th overall in his power poll.

A surprise team by Steele is described as a “non-preseason AP top 10 team that has a decent shot at making the College Football Playoff and even winning the national championship.”

Penn State falls at No. 8 on the surprise list, behind (in order) Pitt, USC, NC State, Baylor, Miami, UCLA and Ole Miss. They sit ahead of Texas, BYU, Wisconsin and Wake Forest.

Part of this is due to what Steele felt was a 2021 team that didn’t play up to their talent level. He uses the Iowa game, in which they were No. 4 in the country and 5-0 at the time, as an example.

In that game, which Penn State led 17-7 at one point, quarterback Sean Clifford went down with a shoulder injury that affected him the rest of the season. Injuries to other key players such as P.J. Mustipher, Adisa Isaac, Devon Ford and Journey Brown also contributed to a 2-6 finish last year.

In addition to the Iowa game, Steele highlighted 2021 games against Michigan and Michigan State, in which they led in the fourth quarter but lost as well as their game against Ohio State, in which the team led in the second half but lost yet again.

Overall they had a +101 yards per game difference last season and were -10 in turnovers. Those numbers together, as Steele points out, are usually reserved for an seven or eight win team.

In a different ranking than his power poll, which is solely based on the talent of the team, Penn State is No. 22 in his top 40, which takes into account a team’s strength of schedule. Penn State has the 20th most difficult schedule in the country according to Steele. The Big Ten, is the second most difficult conference to win in the country behind the SEC.

Note: Steele has nine different power rankings in his magazine, but we will only cover those two here.

Steele projects Penn State to finish third in the Big Ten East behind Ohio State and Michigan. While Steele is high on Penn State’s receivers – the third best group in the Big Ten, 14th best in the country and has Mitchell Tinsley (first team), Parker Washington (second team) and KeAndre Lambert-Smith (fourth team) as All-Big Ten – it is the only offensive unit he has for them ranking among the top five in the conference.

He does have them improving on their 25 points per game average from last season, but still having them average around 375 yards per game.

Steele is much higher on the team’s defense though with all three of their units placing in the top four in the conference including the Big Ten’s No. 1 group of defensive backs. Not surprising, because both cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (first team) and safety Ji’Ayir Brown (second team) are Phil Steele preseason All-Big Ten. That unit is Steele’s fourth best defensive back unit in the entire country behind Georgia, Texas A&M and NC State.

Despite losing seven starters, including five to the NFL draft, he expects this year’s defense to be the best that Penn State has had in three years, especially if they stay healthy.

Interestingly though, he does not project Penn State to have one of the top 15 defenses in the country whether that in pass, rush or as a whole.

Overall, Steele has Penn State offensively scoring 29.4 points per game and allowing 22.8 points per game for an average point differential of +6.6 which would be 40th best in the country. It’s seventh best in the Big 10 behind Ohio State (+24.0), Michigan (+18.5), Wisconsin (+12.0), Nebraska (+9.0), Minnesota (+8.7) and Iowa (+7.3).

For coaching, he has James Franklin and co. tied with Wisconsin for the fifth best coaching staff in the conference. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz leads the conferences top coaching staff ahead of Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern who are all tied for second and ahead of Penn State and Wisconsin.

He likes the stability that Franklin has brought to Penn State, mentioning that this is his ninth year and he came after Penn State had four coaches in a 29 game span from 2011-14. He also highlights the 10-year contract extension that Franklin signed during last season.

The Penn State season is set to start on Thursday, September 1 at 8:00 p.m. on the road against Purdue, who Steele projects will finish fifth in the Big 10 West, but gives them the conference’s second-best quarterback in senior Aidan O’Connell.

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