Hickey: Penn State is the Big Ten team you want to be in 2023
As the new year dawns, 1 thing seems clear in the Big Ten: Penn State is the team you want to be in 2023.
For the past 6 seasons, the Nittany Lions have been relegated to that uncomfortable middle seat of a car that you aren’t even sure is a seat. Ohio State has done most of the driving with either Michigan or Michigan State riding shotgun. And even Indiana for a freakish, pandemic-shortened season.
But it’s impossible not to feel enthusiastic about what the next year might hold for Penn State. James Franklin finally has the Nittany Lions moving into the offseason with undeniable momentum — something that hasn’t been true since the end of 2019, when Penn State finished with an identical 11-2 record.
The vibe feels different than in early 2020, though, thanks in part to how thoroughly the Lions took care of business in 2022.
Yes, Penn State lost to Michigan and Ohio State. But that was expected. The Wolverines and Buckeyes were undeniably better this season.
The difference between this Penn State team and those of recent vintage was how the Nittany Lions fared against the teams they were supposed to beat.
Penn State was never outplayed or outcoached by an inferior opponent. Indeed, no team even came close to upsetting the Lions.
The 35-31 road win at Purdue to open the season was a quality victory. Northwestern was the only other losing opponent to finish within 10 points of Penn State, but that soggy 17-7 game looked like it was being played on a Slip ‘N Slide.
Of course, all that offseason momentum wouldn’t mean much if Penn State had a senior-laden roster. Key veterans like quarterback Sean Clifford, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, safety Ji’Ayir Brown and cornerback Joey Porter Jr. will be gone, but the Nittany Lions return a strong nucleus.
Fabulous freshmen ready to grow
Everywhere you look, freshmen were making plays for Penn State in 2022.
Running backs Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen jumpstarted a ground game that was 13th in the B1G a year ago. Singleton rushed for 1,061 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Allen added 867 yards and 10 scores. It’s not inconceivable that the Lions will have a pair of 1,000-yard rushers next season.
Defensively, Abdul Carter led Penn State with 6.5 sacks and was second with 10.5 TFL. Fellow linebacker Kobe King was 5th on the team with 41 tackles. Dani Dennis-Sutton and junior-to-be Chop Robinson could become the Big Ten’s top defensive end tandem in 2023, and Adisa Isaac might still be around too.
And then there’s the quarterback.
Like Michigan’s JJ McCarthy a year ago, Drew Allar played in spots this season. Much like McCarthy, he should be ready to hit the ground throwing as a sophomore.
Penn State’s offseason question mark
At the moment, there is still 1 question that is likely to determine whether or not Penn State can overtake Ohio State and Michigan.
Who will Allar throw to?
The Nittany Lions have 1 of the B1G’s better tight end groups with Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren coming back. But the future at wide receiver is murky. KeAndre Lambert-Smith is the lone top-3 Penn State target back next season.
Freshman Harrison Wallace looks like he could be a factor next season. Wallace closed out the season strong with 3 catches for 49 yards against Rutgers and 2 catches for 47 yards in the Rose Bowl.
Nonetheless, receiver is Penn State’s top transfer portal need. The Lions added NC State veteran Devin Carter, but might not be done.
Given what he can sell recruits, Franklin should be able to find that player. He’s already found Porter’s presumptive replacement at corner in North Carolina transfer Storm Duck. Finding the next Parker Washington or Mitchell Tinsley will be his next move. Carter seems to be a Tinsley type.
How Penn State compares to Michigan and Ohio State
Michigan and Ohio State were a step or 2 ahead of Penn State in 2022. That might not be the case next season.
The Buckeyes have plenty of talent coming back, including the nation’s top receiver in Marvin Harrison Jr. But they must replace back-to-back Heisman finalist CJ Stroud.
Given Ohio State’s recent history at quarterback, there’s a good chance Ryan Day will pull it off. But unless he brings in a veteran transfer, there will be some uncertainty at that position heading into the season.
With McCarthy returning and a haul of stars already secured from the transfer portal, Michigan looks like the team to beat in 2023. But until we know for certain Jim Harbaugh is back next season — his “I expect to be back” statement on Thursday answered nothing — Michigan’s future isn’t crystal clear.
The gap between the Wolverines and Nittany Lions in the trenches this season was pronounced. Fortunately, the Lions have until Nov. 11 to bridge it.
Regardless of whether Harbaugh returns, Michigan travels to Penn State for that game. It will almost surely be the White Out. And there could be a whole lot on the line.
As Harbaugh also noted Thursday, no man can predict the future. Nothing is guaranteed.
But Penn State sure looks like the Big Ten program that should be most optimistic for 2023.