Seven months after the confetti fell on national champion Alabama, a new college football season is nearly here. As part of Sports Illustrated's 2021 preview content, we're rolling out scouting reports for all of SI's preseason top 25 teams, featuring all the names, storylines and big games you need to know. Starting with No. 25 Nevada and running through No. 1 Alabama, we'll be featuring five teams per day from Monday through Friday.
The Big Story: Penn State
Penn State began last season a top-10 team and went into Thanksgiving winless. Its fall from the polls was swift, punctuated by opt-outs, injuries and a loss to Maryland for the first time since 2014. The Nittany Lions did rattle off four consecutive wins to end the season to inspire some hope for a return to form in ’21 under James Franklin.
Can’t Miss: Jahan Dotson
Dotson’s decision to return to Penn State is the best possible vote of confidence for the program. Dotson, a preseason All-America, was mocked as an early-round NFL draft pick after accounting for more than a third of the Nittany Lions’ receiving yards as a junior. He was last seen going for nearly 200 yards and two scores against Illinois in PSU’s season finale, and, earlier in the season, Dotson accounted for all three of his team’s touchdowns against Ohio State. He’s a dynamic playmaker who has rapport with quarterback Sean Clifford and is a lock for 1,000 yards in a non-pandemic-shortened season.
Key Question: Will the Nittany Lions’ defense be able to stop anyone in 2021?
Losing both starting safeties and defensive ends is not a good start to the much-needed turnaround on that side of the ball, but Penn State dipped into the transfer portal to rebuff its defensive line and secondary. The defense was allergic to turnovers a season ago and has to improve in that facet, especially with an offense prone to giving the ball away. There were signs of improvement in the winning streak down the stretch, but that bump in production could be credited to simply playing weaker opponents.
X-Factor: The ground game
Elite running back play has been crucial to Penn State’s recent success under Franklin. A five-year streak of Nittany Lions running backs accumulating 1,000 yards of total offense ended in 2020, and the offense suffered. The team averaged just 3.0 yards per carry. Noah Cain returns in the lead back role after missing virtually all of last season. He came on midway through his freshman year but was injured in Penn State’s first game, against Indiana. Cain will have depth behind him in Keyvone Lee, the team’s leading rusher in 2020, and Baylor graduate transfer John Lovett. Improved play at the position should make Clifford’s life in the pocket easier, too.
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Date to Circle: Sep. 4 at Wisconsin
There’s no cupcake opponent to help the Nittany Lions ease back into things. They head to Madison Week 1 for a date with the Badgers, whom PSU hasn’t lost to in a decade. It’s difficult to draw conclusions from Wisconsin’s COVID-19-interrupted campaign, but the Badgers return most of their starters on offense and defense. There may be bigger games ahead for Penn State (see: Auburn, Ohio State), but the opener against Wisconsin will show whether it’s more like the team that started 0–5 or the one that finished 4–0.
The Bottom Line
The floor in Happy Valley is a bowl game. The ceiling is challenging Ohio State in the Big Ten East. Both of those outcomes were made impossible after last season’s dismal start. The hope for Franklin and everyone else involved is that 2020 was a fluke. With games against Wisconsin and Auburn in the first three weeks of the season, we’ll know soon enough if that’s the case.
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