2020 Team Preview: Can Penn State Climb Past Ohio State?

The Penn State Nittany Lions have one team they know they have to defeat. They topped Ohio State in 2016 and won the Big Ten championship. Each of the past three years, they have fallen short against the Buckeyes and have failed to win the Big Ten East Division title. Beating Ohio State is the gateway to the Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff for the Nittany Lions, who continue to recruit well but are looking for their next big breakthrough.

Offseason Changes

The Nittany Lions lost speedy receiver K.J. Hamler to the NFL, plus formidable defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. Those are two significant losses. John Reid, Cam Brown, and Robert Windsor are the other players who were taken in the 2020 NFL Draft. The team also faced a change on its coaching staff, but one which appears to be a net-plus rather than a net-minus. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne left to become the head coach at Old Dominion. He was replaced by Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who had been the highly successful offensive coordinator for P.J. Fleck at Minnesota and, previously, Western Michigan. Ciarrocca’s success with a spread passing game should enable the Nittany Lions to improve their aerial attack.

The Nittany Lions Will Succeed If…

Sean Clifford maxes out at quarterback. Clifford is an agile and versatile quarterback who can throw on the run, but his consistency as a downfield passer and his ability to perform against elite defenses are in question. Ohio State dominated him and the Penn State offense a year ago. Penn State’s 17 points came mostly from Ohio State turnovers committed in the Buckeyes’ half of the field. If Penn State falls behind by 10 points against a really good team, are the Nittany Lions able to come back? That is the question they will have to answer this season. Penn State’s defense should be very solid. The offense has to carry its fair share of the workload in order for the season to come together the way head coach James Franklin wants it to.

The Nittany Lions Will Fail If…

The team can’t find an elite wide receiver. The loss of K.J. Hamler is significant, but what’s more is that the players behind him are unproven. Clifford’s most dependable target last season was tight end Pat Freiermuth, who returns as the tight end this season. Teams are going to try to take away Freiermuth when Penn State throws the ball, so Freiermuth will have more success to the extent that new receivers emerge to spread the field and prevent defenses from anticipating where Clifford will throw. Penn State has an elite running back, Journey Brown, but a No. 1 receiver is much more of a question mark. Cam Sullivan-Brown and Daniel George are the main receivers on the depth chart. They and the players right behind them have a big responsibility within the context of Penn State’s season.

Prediction

Penn State should be good enough to beat Michigan, even though that game is on the road in Ann Arbor. Can PSU beat Ohio State at home? The Nittany Lions have a good chance. However, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields gives the Buckeyes the game-changing skill player Penn State doesn’t have. Penn State will have a good season, but it won’t beat Ohio State.

Prediction: 2nd In Big Ten East

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