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Penn State Football 2020 Ranking Round-up: National Media Eyes PSU at No. 8

by on January 16, 2020 5:00 PM

The national media's way-too-early 2020 college football preseason rankings are out in force. And Penn State is:

5th, 6th, 6th, 7th, 7th, 7th, 7th, 8th, 8th, 9th, 9th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th.

On average, that's No. 8 in the nation. Nearly great. The Nittany Lions' average finish in The Associated Press rankings over the past four seasons has been far from average.

James Franklin's 11-2, Cotton Bowl-winning squad finished ninth in the final Associated Press to end the 2019 season, on the heels of season-ending rankings of No. 17 in 2018, No. 8 in 2017 and No. 7 in 2016.

(The last such streak like that for the Nittany Lions came in 2005-09, when Penn State had finishes in the final AP poll of 3rd, 24th, unranked, 8th and 9th.)

Optimism and expectations are high for 2020. Penn State has already booked more than 1,200 new season tickets for a campaign that kicks off against Kent State in Beaver Stadium on Sept. 5.

Other 2020 home games are against San Jose, Northwestern, Iowa, Ohio State (a sure Whiteout), Michigan State and Maryland. Penn State's last three games vbs. Iowa — all wins — have been decided by a combined 13 points, while Northwestern has not been at Beaver Stadium since 2014, Franklin's first year at Penn State (a 29-6 PSU loss).

Penn State's road contests in 2020 are at Virginia Tech, Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska and Rutgers. The Virginia Tech and Nebraska games are the first times a Franklin-coached team has played at those venues. In fact, Penn State has never played Virginia Tech in football.

For the Nittany Lions, only two 2019 starters are not back on offense (KJ Hamler, Steven Gonzalez), while Franklin must replace six starters on defense. The cabinets are hardly bare: Penn State's last four recruiting classes, including the 27 athletes in the Class of 2020, have ranked high on the national scale: 12th, fifth, 11th and 14th.

With that in mind, here's a rundown of what 15 different national outlets and writers have to say so far about Penn State (with rankings in parentheses) in 2020:

FanSided, Zach Bigalke (5th) — Few teams broke out more comprehensively in the postseason than Penn State. The Nittany Lions went to the Cotton Bowl and toppled Memphis, preventing the Tigers from realizing any Cinderella dreams for the Group of Five. While the defense gave up 39 points at AT&T Stadium, they also neutralized the strong multifaceted Memphis backfield and forced Brady White to try to win the game with his arm. Though the Tigers quarterback finished with 454 yards through the air, White also threw two costly interceptions. His counterpart, Sean Clifford, was just 11-of-20 for 133 yards with a touchdown and a pick.

Key to Penn State’s victory was the huge performance by redshirt sophomore Journey Brown, who gashed Memphis for 202 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. Noah Cain added 92 yards and a pair of scores. The deep backfield is a huge reason why Penn State will land in the top 10, and why they could be ranked in the top five in the AP Top 25 or by the coaches. James Franklin’s team will be a trendy pick to unseat Ohio State in the Big Ten East next year as they enter 2020 with momentum. 

Stewart Mandel, The Athletic (6th) — Former Minnesota OC Kirk Ciarrocca was a great hire by James Franklin. All four running backs who combined for nearly 400 yards in the Cotton Bowl are expected to return, along with QB Sean Clifford, standout TE Pat Freiermuth and four O-line starters. Penn State will have a few holes to fill on defense, but LB Micah Parsons will be an All-America candidate.

Athlon Sports (6th) — The Nittany Lions have won at least 11 games in three out of the last four seasons, and coach James Franklin’s squad is primed for another run at double-digit victories. New offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca inherits a group that averaged 6.1 yards per play last year and brings back quarterback Sean Clifford (2,654 yards and 23 TDs) and a deep group of running backs, headlined by Journey Brown (890 yards). Finding a go-to receiver to replace KJ Hamler is a priority, but tight end Pat Freiermuth (43 catches) passed on the NFL for another season in Happy Valley.

Four starters are back up front, providing optimism Penn State can cut down on its sacks allowed (32) from 2019. Linebacker Micah Parsons ranks among college football’s top returning defenders next fall, and the secondary got a boost with Tariq Castro-Fields’ decision to return for 2020. Coordinator Brent Pry is losing a few starters off a group that limited teams to just 16 points this season, but there’s more than enough young talent to keep the defense playing at a high level. Road matchups against Virginia Tech, Michigan and Nebraska are tough, but Penn State gets Ohio State at home on Oct. 24 next season.

Bruce Feldman, FOX (7th)

B/R - Bleacher Report (7th)

Yahoo Sports (7th) — The Nittany Lions are positioned to be the top Big Ten East challenger to Ohio State again. QB Sean Clifford should improve on a solid first year as a starter and RB Journey Brown averaged nearly seven yards a carry. The offense needs to replace WR KJ Hamler but the return of TE Pat Freiermuth is a boost. LB Micah Parsons could be the preseason Big Ten defensive player of the year and S Lamont Wade could again be one of the best safeties in the conference. 

Connor O'Gara, Saturday Down South (7th) — K.J. Hamler and Yetur Gross-Matos leaving certainly hurt, but I love the potential of this offense returning. Penn State went out and poached Kirk Ciarrocca from Minnesota, which was one of the biggest assistant hires of the coaching carousel cycle. That’s for an offense that returns the likes of Sean Clifford, Pat Freiermuth, Journey Brown and future breakout star Noah Cain. Oh, and that’s not to mention a defense that returns All-American linebacker Micah Parsons. There are questions in the front 7 and at receiver, but the Lions have recruited exceptionally well under James Franklin to fill those gaps.

Wayne Staats, Turner Sports/NCAA.com (8th)— The Nittany Lions might have the best linebacker in the country in Micah Parsons, who had 14 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss and two forced fumbles in the Cotton Bowl win. Offensively, QB Sean Clifford goes into his second year as a starter and has TE Pat Freiermuth and a group of dangerous running backs with new OC Kirk Ciarrocca (from Minnesota). The schedule isn't easy, though: at Virginia Tech, at Michigan, vs. Iowa and vs. Ohio State by the end of October.

SportsDay, Dallas Morning News (8th) — The reigning Cotton Bowl champs still have to find a way to conquer the Ohio State Boogeyman in the Big Ten East division, but the Nittany Lions have finished in the top 10 three of the past four years. How they adjust to their new offense under former Minnesota OC Kirk Ciarrocca will say a lot.

Bill Bender, Sporting News (9th) — James Franklin signed a longterm extension, and he continues to build the program toward a Playoff breakthrough with big recruiting classes. Sean Clifford, Journey Brown, Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson lead what should be a high-scoring offense while Micah Parsons can step into Yetur Gross-Matos’ role as one of the best defenders in college football. Road trips to Virginia Tech and Michigan in the first five weeks won't be easy, but it still comes down to Ohio State. The Buckeyes which visit Happy Valley on Oct. 24.

Mark Schlabach, ESPN (9th)— 2019 record: 11-2, 6-2 Big Ten. Returning starters: nine offense, five defense, one special teams. Key losses: DE Yetur Gross-Matos, WR KJ Hamler, S Garrett Taylor, OLB Cam Brown, MLB Jan Johnson, DT Robert Windsor. Outlook: The Nittany Lions have won 11 games and played in a New Year's Six bowl game in three of the past four seasons under James Franklin. Obviously, the next step for them is reaching the College Football Playoff, which won't be easy with Ohio State sitting atop the Big Ten East.

Franklin hired Minnesota's Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator to replace Ricky Rhane, who was hired as Old Dominion's coach. Ciarrocca will try to get more out of quarterback Sean Clifford, who struggled down the stretch while battling an undisclosed injury. New offensive line coach Phil Trautwein will try to shore up a unit that allowed a whopping 32 sacks in 2019. PSU also loses Hamler, its top pass-catcher and most explosive offensive weapon. Defensively, the Nittany Lions lose top edge rusher Gross-Matos, who had 9.5 sacks. That said, All-American linebacker Micah Parsons and four other starters are expected back.

College Football News (9th) — Biggest Positive: The offensive playmakers are in place. KJ Hamler is bolting early for the NFL, but Journey Brown leads a loaded group of running backs, the line will be great, and Sean Clifford established himself as a quarterback to build around. Biggest Concern: There are just enough key losses on defense to be annoying. The D will be fine in time, but six of the top nine and nine of the top 11 tacklers are gone. At the moment, seven starters have to be replaced. Key New Addition: TE Theo Johnson. Pat Freiermuth has All-America potential, but the 6-6, 245-pound Johnson has everything needed to grow into a go-to safety valve target as a possible No. 2 tight end option. Key Loss: DE Yetur Gross-Matos. Out of all the missing parts on the 2020 Penn State D, this is the one guy that hurts. Penn State will find pass rushing production, but he was the one everyone had to account for.

Brad Crawford, 247 Sports (10th)

Brett McMurphy, Stadium (11th) — Last year: 11-2 (defeated Memphis 53-39 in Cotton Bowl). Schedule highlights: Sept. 12 at Virginia Tech, Oct. 3 at Michigan, Oct. 17 vs. Iowa, Oct. 24. vs. Ohio State, Nov. 14 vs. Michigan State. Former OCs Joe Moorhead and Ricky Rahne have gone on to head coaching positions, but despite turnover at the offensive coordinator position, James Franklin continues to have success with the Nittany Lions. With Franklin, Penn State has won at least 11 games in three of the past four seasons for the first time in more than 50 years. New OC Kirk Ciarrocca, of Minnesota, will have depth at running back (Journey Brown and Noah Cain) in State College, although KJ Hamler left early for the NFL Draft. Sean Clifford (23 TD passes, seven interceptions) returns at quarterback.

Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com (12th) — James Franklin parlayed his name being floated at USC into an extension. Not that he didn't deserve it. Penn State is loaded at running back going in 2020. I can't wait to see Micah Parsons again at linebacker. Ohio State comes to Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions could be a darkhorse to win the East.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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