HomeSportsIs this the year Penn State breaks into Big Ten?

Is this the year Penn State breaks into Big Ten?

No one 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 disappointing. The Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan Wolverines have become national title contenders, adding playoff implications to the Big Ten’s most anticipated rivalry. Head coach James Franklin has 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 may be his best chance to change the story for his Nittany Lions. Penn State ranks seventh in the recently released AP poll, one level below No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Ohio State. Nevertheless, the squad is packed 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 they can hold up in the trenches or not is the biggest concern heading into 2023. Last season, Penn State had 10 teams with 17 or fewer points, but gave 40+ points to both Ohio State and Michigan.

Inconsistency in the quarterback position has plagued Penn State in recent years, but sophomore QB Drew Allar is a big reason why there is so much hope in Happy Valley. Allar saw little action in 10 games last season, but gained valuable experience as he showcased the arm talent that has fueled his hype thus far. The former five-star contender will benefit from playing behind the Big Ten’s second-best offensive line. He also has the support of Penn State’s enhanced running game.

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The dynamic backfield combination of Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen will take the pressure off the young quarterback and keep the offense in front of the sticks.

The biggest question mark comes from their unproven wide receivers. If Allar is the type of quarterback who 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 best in the conference.

It all comes down to two games

When you’ve had a year where you’ve beaten everyone in your path except Michigan and Ohio State, the schedule isn’t much of a concern outside of those two games. However, this season is off to a good start 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 huge challenge, but getting the Spartans in at Ford Field is a plus, and the rest of the opponents are very manageable.

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It all comes down to week 8 at Ohio State and a showdown with Michigan in week 11 at Beaver Stadium. The big advantage of the schedule is that it provides the perfect runway for Penn State to wreak havoc at the top of the conference. Penn State should go to Columbus well rested after facing UMass at home the previous week, and return to a soft landing against Indiana.

They get another break hosting Rutgers after Michigan, making it unlikely to slip in that spot. Everything is perfectly laid out for the two big showdowns that will make or break their season.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 26: Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin during the Big Ten Conference Media Days on July 26, 2023 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Is it finally the year for Franklin?

I pegged Penn State as a team more than capable of beating Ohio State or Michigan. As for betting on the Nittany Lions, I’m confident they’ll eclipse their win total of 9.5 wins. The bet comes with a hefty price tag (-150 at BetMGM) with an implied odds of 60%. I still think there is some value given that they can cover the numbers without having to beat the top two teams in the conference. Putting -150 on all-season props isn’t for everyone, but I do think this is a situation where the juice is worth it.

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I am confident that Allar will be a big upgrade over Clifford in addition to bringing back so much production from the team with 10 wins from last year. I think having this level of defensive talent in Diaz’s system for a second year in a row will pay huge dividends. Diaz’s aggression could spell trouble for a team like Ohio State, which could be more vulnerable than usual on pass protection.

An upset over Ohio State or Michigan is more likely to cloud the top of the standings with tiebreaks than give Penn State a clear path to win the Big Ten. That’s why I’m much less confident that they’ll fully break through with a conference championship season. With odds of +550, I’m willing to take a small chance on Penn State’s bright side, but the best bet is to count on a 10-win season. Best bet: Penn State over 9.5 wins -150.

Statistics provided by cfbstats, the athletic and

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