Penn State’s most anticipated season since 2017 is just days away.
The team’s 2023 campaign kicks off Saturday night Sept. 2nd against a familiar foe of years gone by, when the West Virginia Mountaineers come to Happy Valley for a 7:30 PM matchup on NBC and Peacock.
Speaking of yesteryear, Penn State hasn’t won a national championship since 1986 and hasn’t made any of the College Football Championships since its inception at the end of the 2014 season.
But is that the goal?
Olu Fashanu, Penn State’s star left tackle, certainly thinks so or he wouldn’t have given up his sure-fire top-ten NFL draft stock to come back. Nor would he have referenced “unfinished business” earlier this offseason.
Defensive coordinator Manny Diaz likely had his choice of head coaching positions across the country, but he’ll be prowling the sidelines Saturdays in Beaver Stadium this fall as the defensive coordinator.
With the evolution of the transfer portal, no roster is safe. Twelve players chose to leave the program last year, none went to a team with better national championship odds better than Penn State’s +2200 (Bet MGM). While seven players transferred in.
James Franklin has this roster bought in and there’s one clear goal for this season:
1-0 against West Virginia.
The fanbase’s expectations are more than that, though.
The same fans who watched Penn State pull away from Utah late January 2 at the Granddaddy of them all in Pasadena, California.
The ones who once cheered for the likes of Ki-Jana Carter, Larry Johnson, and Saquon Barkley who witnessed Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen set freshman running back records in the Big Ten last year.
The 3 yards and a cloud of dust-minded fans who saw the fabled “11” jersey worn by a true freshman last year, who came of age right before their eyes in Abdul Carter.
And to keep this brief, the ones who watched Penn State’s most experienced and prolific statistical signal caller graduate after leading the roller coaster ride that was Penn State football the last four seasons in Sean Clifford.
Those fans. They. Want. More.
And I firmly believe those fans will get more.
There’s a new sheriff in town calling the shots. The fanbase’s eyes have been looking his way and chanting his name since he signed his national letter of intent Dec. 15, 2021. Drew Allar, the presumptuous week 1 starter, will have his chance to lead this program to heights not achieved by Christian Hackenburg, Trace McSorley or Allar’s mentor Clifford.
This team is different.
To paraphrase Franklin, this team has the best depth he’s ever had at Penn State entering his 10th season at the helm. It’s three deep at nearly every position.
Best will be a theme this year.
Critically, this team has the best offensive line this program has seen since I’ve been alive.
The aforementioned running back duo is the best Penn State has had, and yes, that means better than Barkley and Miles Sanders.
The defensive end group will have five if not six, players constantly pouring off the sidelines with fresh legs. One, I predict, will have the most sacks since Carl Nassib had 15.5 in 2015—Dani Dennis-Sutton.
The linebacking core will have freakish athleticism from sideline to sideline. The best core in Franklin’s tenure.
Finally, the defensive backfield is likely better than it was last season.
Even though Joey Porter Jr. is with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ji’Ayir Brown is in San Francisco with the 49ers, Kalen King is still a member of this program. He’s ranked as the third-best corner in the country according to PFF. Johnny Dixon will have the other side. Those are just two of a defensive back group that has depth to rival that of the defensive ends.
Penn State will have a tough slate of games to achieve their goals and meet the lofty expectations of its fans in reaching the college football playoff. Iowa comes to town for a White Out and Penn State’s first CBS game since the new B1G media deal Sept. 23.
A month later, Penn State will travel to Columbus to face off against the mighty Buckeyes in front of a crowd donned in Scarlett.
The last great challenge of the season will come at home. On 11/11, Penn State will likely need one more one that day, one more 1 in the win column.
For as much as the stars are seemingly aligning for Penn State this year, I don’t think this is the year.
Penn State will miss the final playing of the 4-team college football playoff. Ultimately, Ohio State and Michigan will be too strong. Going 2-0 against those two teams is an almost insurmountable mountain, significantly taller than Mount Nittany.
But this season won’t be a total loss.
Penn State will win one of those two games. Penn State will return home from Columbus, victorious.
PSU will finish the season 11-1 with a lone loss at home against Michigan.
The final four will be: 1. Georgia, 2. Michigan, 3. Clemson, and 4. Alabama. The committee likely will flip Clemson and Alabama to avoid a rematch of the SEC Championship game.
Penn State will face off against another program looking to burst onto the scene this year, Florida State.
The Orange Bowl will be played at 4 p.m. Dec. 30 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Penn State will win, finishing the season ranked No. 5.
The 12-team playoff after the 2024 season can’t come soon enough.