Skeptic's guide to Penn State's 2022 season
It’s amazingly how much doubt can be sown in the hearts of Penn State fans with an 11-11 run of football spanning less than 15 months. Are the past 2 seasons a mere hiccup for James Franklin, or is the 9th-year coach’s program spiraling irreversibly downward?
Skepticism surrounds Happy Valley these days. Many followers are all out of faith and patience. And it’s hard to blame them, as they seem to be the rational thinkers in Nittany Nation, the honest assessors. So let’s give them their due; let’s take a skeptic’s-eye view of the 2022 Nittany Lions and peg them for at least 4 losses, which would land them short of ESPN’s Football Power Index prediction of 8.3 regular-season victories. The FPI ranks Penn State as the 3rd-best team in the Big Ten and 12th-best in the country, which makes one wonder just how raw and flawed the data are that ESPN’s computers ran through some 20,000 game simulations.
As a counterbalance to the overly optimistic blue Kool-Aid drinkers, here’s the skeptic’s guide to why Penn State will top out at 8 wins in the coming season:
Franklin losing steam
Only 9 Power 5 head coaches have been in their present positions longer than Franklin has been guiding Penn State. This is uncharted territory for the 50-year-old PA native, who never spent more than 5 years at any coaching stop prior to arriving in State College in 2014. What more does he have to offer PSU football? Can he figure out how to thrive as a long-tenured leader at a power program, or was his 42-11 run from 2016-19 his peak?
He resurrected Vanderbilt from consecutive 2-10 seasons, taking the Commodores to 3 straight bowl games and going 9-4 in 2012 and 2013. Then he restored the sanctions-addled Lions to prominence quicker than most thought possible. But here’s the rub: Quick turnarounds are one thing, sustained success quite another. In both cases, Franklin employed the element of surprise, pulling off some recruiting coups and hitting league opponents with innovative schemes, especially on offense.
But the bold, daring, wide-open attack has lost its edge since Joe Moorhead left the offensive coordinator post after the 2017 season. Opponents have adjusted. And Penn State’s one-dimensional attack isn’t fooling anyone anymore.
So what else is Franklin bringing to the table? Given the past 2 seasons, it’s fair to question his abilities across the board. Is he a good enough motivator? Strategist? Recruiter? Talent evaluator? Staff builder? Marketer? The feel-good vibes have waned after his flirtations with USC and LSU, his seemingly undeserved pay raise and contract extension, and his entreaties about facilities upgrades that kind of came off as excuse-making.
Coaching staff in flux
The Lions have newbies at DC (Manny Diaz) and special teams coach (Stacy Collins) this season. While some new blood isn’t necessarily a bad thing, those were not the program’s trouble spots last season. Mike Yurcich returns for Year 2 at OC, and Phil Trautwein for Year 3 as the O-line coach. Those were major trouble spots in 2021, so things need to change drastically on that side of the ball.
Last year, Yurcich’s offense ranked as Penn State’s worst since 2015, and the line hasn’t facilitated a 100-yard rusher in the past 16 games. Why wouldn’t fans be skeptical?
O-line better? Wishful thinking
Trautwein and overly optimistic pundits likely will try to convince you that Olu Fashanu, Sal Wormley, Landon Tengwall and transfer Hunter Nourzad will provide an upgrade over outgoing starters Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda and Eric Wilson. Why should anyone believe that?
Let’s call the swap of Ivy League grad transfers (Cornell’s Nourzad for Harvard’s Wilson) a wash. Well, Walker and Miranda entered last year with 40 combined starts for the Nittany Lions. Fashanu, Wormley and Tengwall — perhaps the favorites to join returnees Caedan Wallace and Juice Scruggs in the first 5 — will enter the 2022 season with a combined 1 start.
It couldn’t get any worse? Don’t bet on that.
The QB conundrum
NFL Draft gurus are doing Franklin no favors, casting former Penn State backup QB Will Levis as a probable first-round pick after he finishes up his college career this fall at Kentucky. Sean Clifford isn’t likely to be throwing the 15-ounce oblong ball for a living on Sundays after completing his eligibility — most likely as PSU’s first 10,000-yard passer.
As a 3-year starter, Clifford has had 8- and 9-game winning streaks but has gone 4-12 outside of those runs. Often solid, he nonetheless rarely carries or rallies the Lions to victory. He represents a higher floor but lower ceiling than Franklin’s other options, past and present. He’s an opportunity cost — we’ll never know what Levis or Tommy Stevens might have done as Penn State’s primary starter. Christian Veilleux might never get to build on his stellar relief appearance last year against Rutgers — at least not in a PSU uniform. And we’ll have to wait a year to see if 5-star recruit Drew Allar will be the program’s savior or just the next Christian Hackenberg.
The 24-year-old Clifford is neither the answer to nor the cause of Penn State’s woes, but he doesn’t seem to have the intangibles to cover over the team’s many blemishes. Unlike predecessor Trace McSorley, Clifford has shown no flair for rising to the occasion in crunch time. That leaves an 8-4 record as a best-case scenario, skeptically speaking.
Defensive losses will hurt
The Lions have to replace 5 of their top 7 tacklers from last season, including the top 2 in LBs Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith, not to mention dynamic sack leader Arnold Ebiketie. Odds are, Penn State won’t repeat as a top 10 scoring and red zone defense in Diaz’s debut season.
There will be growing pains
Franklin brought in a top-10 recruiting class this year, but even the 3 5-star players who highlight the group aren’t likely to jump into prominent roles right away. Add in the fact that the 2021 class was Franklin’s worst by ranking since his debut 2014 season, and it doesn’t look like the Lions can simply reload. And even if they could, they’d be reloading from a team that went 7-6 a year ago.
We’ll know soon enough
Penn State plays on the road at Purdue and at Auburn in Weeks 1 and 3, and a 3-0 start would silence the skeptics for a while. The FPI suggests the Lions will fall to Ohio State and Michigan, and this past season suggests the team could crater if it loses even 1 game it shouldn’t. The season-ending home matchup with Michigan State could ultimately prove whether all this skepticism was warranted.