Nobody likes being a third wheel. The Penn State Nittany Lions finished last season with 11 wins, but it’s the two conference losses that make it seem disappointing. The Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines have turned into national title contenders, adding playoff implications to the Big Ten’s most anticipated rivalry. Head coach James Franklin has tallied an impressive 78-36 record at Penn State, but the inability to break through against the conference’s elite still hovers over his legacy.
This season might be his best shot to change the narrative for his Nittany Lions. Penn State ranks seventh in the recently released AP poll, one tier below No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Ohio State. Nonetheless, the roster is loaded with talent and experience.
They have 14 returning starters, including potential first-round talents in DE Chop Robinson and CB Kalen King. The defense, led by a strong secondary, has the tools for Manny Diaz to take it to the next level. Whether or not they can hold up in the trenches is the biggest concern heading into 2023. Last season, Penn State held 10 teams to 17 or less points, but surrendered 40+ points to both Ohio State and Michigan.
All eyes on Drew Allar
Inconsistency at the quarterback position has plagued Penn State in previous years, but sophomore QB Drew Allar is a big reason why there is so much hope in Happy Valley. Allar saw limited action in 10 games last season, but gained valuable experience while showcasing the arm talent that has fueled his hype so far. The former five-star prospect will benefit from playing behind the Big Ten’s second-best offensive line. He also gets the support of Penn State’s improved running game.
The dynamic backfield combination of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen will take the pressure off the young quarterback and keep the offense ahead of the sticks.
The biggest question mark comes from their unproven wide receivers. If Allar is the type of quarterback that can elevate those around him, his ability to unlock the potential of this offense could be the missing piece for Penn State to finally compete with the conference’s best.
It all comes down to two games
When you're coming off a year where you beat everybody in your path except for Michigan and Ohio State, the schedule isn’t a major concern outside of those two games. However, this season sets up nicely for the Nittany Lions in a few different ways. Let’s start with the conference road games. Penn State travels to Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State, Maryland and Michigan State. Playing on the road at Columbus is a massive challenge, but catching the Spartans indoors at Ford Field is a plus, and the rest of the opponents are very manageable.
Everything will come down to Week 8 at Ohio State, and a showdown with Michigan in Week 11 at Beaver Stadium. The major benefit of the schedule is how it provides the perfect runway for Penn State to cause chaos at the top of the conference. Penn State should head to Columbus well-rested after taking on UMass at home the previous week, and return to a soft landing against Indiana.
They get another break with hosting Rutgers after Michigan, making it unlikely they slip up in that spot. Everything is laid out perfect for the two big showdowns that will make or break their season.
Is it finally the year for Franklin?
I have Penn State pegged as a team that is more than capable of knocking off either Ohio State or Michigan. In terms of betting the Nittany Lions, I’m comfortable they will eclipse their win total of 9.5 wins. The bet carries a hefty price tag (-150 at BetMGM) with implied odds of 60%. I still think there is some value considering they can cover the number without having to win against the conference's top two teams. Laying -150 on season-long props isn’t for everyone, but I do think this is a situation where the juice is worth the squeeze.
I’m confident Allar is going to be a big upgrade over Clifford, in addition to returning so much production from last year’s 10-win team. I think having this level of defensive talent in Diaz’s system for a second straight year will pay huge dividends. Diaz's aggression can give a team like Ohio State trouble, who could be more vulnerable than usual in pass protection.
An upset over Ohio State or Michigan is more likely to muddy up the top of standings with tiebreakers than give Penn State a clear path to win the Big Ten. That’s why I’m much less confident in them fully breaking through with a conference championship season. At +550 odds, I’m willing to take a small shot on Penn State’s upside, but the best bet is to bank on a 10-win season. Best Bet: Penn State over 9.5 wins -150.
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