Generally speaking, life’s too short to freak out about the Associated Press‘s Top 25 poll in early September, given how the majority of ranked teams are wading through the ‘cupcake’ portion of their respective schedules.
However, it’s fair to wonder if Penn State’s most recent ranking (No. 13 nationally) warrants heightened scrutiny, compared to the likes of No. 14 Wisconsin (zero points allowed this year), No. 18 Michigan State (opponents have cumulatively rushed for minus-6 yards), No. 19 Iowa (a near-flawless start) and No. 21 Maryland, which owns the most impressive blowout win of a ranked foe (crushing Syracuse by 43 last Saturday).
After all, Penn State’s leading rusher (Sean Clifford) also stands as the team’s quarterback; and that’s a weird factoid to discern, factoring in how Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders headlined the Lions’ running back depth chart just two seasons ago.
Yes, PSU head coach James Franklin has recruited extremely well in recent years, in the class of Michigan, Ohio State and other national powers; and by these subjective assessments, Penn State should have an excellent foundation of playmaking and trench-warfare talent for years to come.
But by most accounts, heading into the preseason, this was viewed as a transitional year for Penn State, especially after incumbent quarterback Tommy Stevens transferred to Mississippi State (following former Lions O-coordinator Joe Moorhead).
Has the narrative changed at all with two runaway victories against Idaho and Buffalo, coupled with strong outings from Clifford (above)?
That’s the beauty of this year’s Big Ten schedule. We’ll know the answer to that crucial question much sooner than later.
Check out Penn State’s mini-marathon of daunting matchups, starting with Pittsburgh this week (defending ACC Coastal champs) and ending in East Lansing, Michigan before Halloween weekend … but hopefully without the four-hour weather delay, a la two years ago.
vs. Pittsburgh (Sept. 14)
at Maryland (Sept. 27)
vs. Purdue (Oct. 5)
at Iowa (Oct. 12)
vs. Michigan (Oct. 19)
at Michigan State (Oct. 26)
Bottom line: If Penn State can weather this upcoming storm with a 6-0 mark, or even a 5-1 record (the result of a heartbreaking close defeat), the Nittany Lions would likely stand no lower than 10th overall in the AP poll, heading into the Nov. 23 showdown with Ohio State.
Of equal importance, within this 5-1 or 6-0 hypothetical, Penn State would be guaranteed a shot at the Big Ten East title come mid-November; and that should be the ultimate prize for a program which hardly drew the long straw with the conference’s schedule rotation in 2019.