Penn State
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Buy or Sell: 2020 Penn State Nittany Lions Football

July 02, 2020

In the coming weeks, Brandon Vogel and Derek Peterson are running through Big Ten programs for a “Buy or Sell” kind of opponent preview. We’ll keep the list here for those just jumping in and want to recap:

Brandon Derek
Indiana Hoosiers Buy Sell
Maryland Terrapins Sell Sell
Michigan Wolverines Buy Sell
Michigan State Spartans Sell Sell
Ohio State Buckeyes Sell Buy

One of the best rushing attacks in the Big Ten might get better in 2020. Micah Parsons, a potential top-10 pick in next year’s NFL Draft, anchors a defense with plenty of talent. James Franklin has had the Nittany Lions right there on the cusp for a few years now. Following an 11-2 campaign last season, are you buying or selling Penn State in 2020?

Brandon Vogel: Buy

It took Franklin two seasons to rebuild Penn State’s depth, but the Nittany Lions have been climbing since then and the 2020 team has the potential to be his best yet. Penn State has one of the best defensive players in the country in Parsons. Quarterback Sean Clifford had a debut season as the starter that, if anything, was slightly overlooked despite putting up 3,000 yards of total offense. Surround Clifford with an insanely talented backfield, one of the best tight ends in the country, Pat Freiermuth, and four returning starters on the line and this should be an offense capable of close to 40 points per game. It will be directed by new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who built one of the most dynamic passing attacks in the country last year at Minnesota. The schedule sets up pretty well, too. A trip to Virginia Tech is the biggest challenge in September, but October will be the month that decides if Penn State ascends from excellent to elite. The Nittany Lions open the month at Michigan then have a bye week before hosting Iowa and Ohio State back to back. We’ll know by the end of that stretch if Penn State is in Playoff contention or not, but the bigger point is this is a team that merits such consideration.

Derek Peterson: Buy

For the last two years, it has looked like Michigan, not Penn State, was the clearest and most present danger to Ohio State’s reign on top. That isn’t the case this season. Brandon mentioned Ciarrocca; I think he’s key. James Franklin keeps having to replace offensive coordinators as his guys have been up-and-coming coaches moving on to that next opportunity. Ciarrocca feels like the up-and-comer who moved on from Minnesota to the next opportunity at Penn State. Year-over-year, Minnesota’s offense went from 65th nationally in scoring (28.9 a game) to tied for 20th at 34.1. The Gophers ranked 16th in quarterback completion rate and sixth in yards per passing attempt. Huge development at the quarterback spot helped steer an offense that combined uber-efficiency with split-second explosiveness. Ciarrocca had the necessary tools—a smart quarterback that made quick reads and a stable of bigger wideouts as good as any in the country—but for him to do in two years with that offense what he did, it speaks to his ability to evaluate and fit talent into what he’s trying to accomplish. Now, at Penn State, a team whose five-year average in recruiting class rankings is the 14th-best nationally (Gophers are 44th), Ciarrocca has a proverbial gold mine to pull from. What kind of improvements can he make in Happy Valley? If Minnesota went from good to great under his tutelage—not to borrow Brandon’s line of thinking—does Ciarrocca help Penn State take that step from great to elite? He’s got Sean Clifford as a returning starting quarterback, his big receiving target that every fully-functioning offense needs, and the Big Ten’s leading returning rusher in terms of yards per carry (Journey Brown, 890 yards and 12 scores at 6.9 yards a carry). Add in a defense with Micah Parsons, Shaka Toney, and Jayson Oweh in the front seven and Penn State looks like it could be one of the most complete teams in college football. If Penn State is putting up points at a blistering rate, it might not matter that the secondary can be taken advantage of, opposing offenses would need to become one-dimensional to keep pace and Penn State has the pass-rush to make life miserable in obvious passing situations. I’m not buying the Nittany Lions as a team to beat Ohio State and snag a CFP berth, but rather buying them as the clear-cut No. 2 team in the East.

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