Top 10 to unranked: Looking back on similar seasons for Penn State
2020 has been a historical season for the Penn State football program, albeit for all the wrong reasons.
The Lions are 0-4 for the first time in the lives of many of Penn State’s freshmen, and following a loss to Ohio State in Week 2, dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in 63 polls, ending the third-longest streak in program history.
After starting the year ranked No. 7, Penn State will inevitably finish unranked for the first time in 5 years. It marks the 3rd time the Lions will have failed to improve upon their preseason ranking under James Franklin among the 4 occasions they garnered a position in the preseason poll.
It’s not a trend programs want to be linked to, and to Franklin’s credit the 2016 team went from unranked to No. 7 and last year’s team improved 6 spots from its initial AP rank. And by comparison, it could be worse as Michigan has only once improved upon its preseason ranking in 6 years under Jim Harbaugh. Of teams with at least 7 preseason Top 25 rankings in the 21st century, Texas A&M has never improved upon its preseason ranking (likely until this year).
Over the last 31 seasons, there have been 27 occasions in which a preseason Top-10 team finished the year unranked. Michigan was the lone team to do so in 2019. Before this year, only 3 Penn State teams had finished the season unranked after receiving a spot in the preseason top 10: the 1992, ’83 and ’76 teams. Since the present is ever painful, a look back at three similar circumstances may provide some comfort knowing that Penn State — historically, at least — is capable of overcoming rankings shortfalls.
Preseason No. 8
Penn State worked its way up to No. 7 in the polls winning its first 5 games before dropping 2 in a row, to Miami and Boston College. A broken finger in the preseason sidelined sophomore Kerry Collins, who was expected to be the starter for the first time in his career. In his place, John Sacca quarterbacked the team for the first half of the season before giving way to Collins and the illustrious career he would go on to have under Joe Paterno.
The Lions lost 5 of their final 7 games, including 24-3 to No. 13 Stanford in the heralded Blockbuster Bowl held in Miami Gardens to end the season.
The ’91 team produced 8 draft picks in the 1993 NFL Draft, led by the selection of wide receiver O.J. McDuffie, who was selected 25th overall by the Miami Dolphins.
While this team finished unranked, the next two teams finished inside the final top 10, with the 1994 squad producing an undefeated team with one of the most prolific offenses in college football history with Collins, Kyle Brady and Ki-Jana Carter.
Preseason No. 4
In the wake of Penn State’s first national title in program history, it was an ugly start for the Lions as they quickly fell to 0-3, losing games against No. 1 Nebraska (by 38 points), Cincinnati and No. 13 Iowa. Penn State also had its 2nd of 3 ties under Paterno, a 24-24 draw with No. 17 Pittsburgh in the season’s penultimate game.
It was an unenviable position for Dan Longeran and Doug Strang to battle it out to fill the large shoes vacated by Todd Blackledge at the starting QB position before Strang got the official nod in Week 3. At his disposal, however, was standout wide receiver Kenny Jackson and a freshman, D.J. Dozier, who went on to finish his Penn State career with over 3,200 rushing yards, the 7th most in program history.
The Lions wrapped up their season with a win over Washington in the Aloha Bowl, which coincidentally had the smallest Penn State reporter contingent until this past weekend at Nebraska.
The ’83 team directly produced 8 picks in the 1984 NFL Draft led by Jackson at No. 4 to the Philadelphia Eagles and linebacker Scott Radecic to the Kansas City Chiefs with the 34th overall pick.
Preseason No. 10
In Year 10 under Paterno, Penn State hobbled out to a 1-3 start, beating Stanford in the opener before losing to No. 2 Ohio State, Iowa and Kentucky.
Sophomore Chuck Fusina played his first season as the Lions’ starting quarterback and went on to have one of the better careers for a Penn State QB, finishing 2nd on the Heisman ballot in 1978 and winning the Maxwell Award that same year.
Matt Suhey, Steve Geise and Mike Guman split the majority of carries out of the backfield for the Lions with Mickey Shuler leading the team in receptions.
Penn State concluded its season with a loss to No. 15 Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl, but would never win fewer games in a season until 1984. The Lions finished each of the next two seasons, with Fusina under center, 11-1, and produced 4 picks in the 1977 NFL Draft led by the selection of offensive guard George Reihner at 38th overall to the Houston Oilers.