When we last saw them, Penn State football players were circling AT&T Stadium, hugging parents and making confetti angels after winning the Cotton Bowl. They had reason to celebrate, for then and for the future.
The team left Dallas carrying a roster capable of winning a Big Ten title in 2020. Penn State welcomed a new offensive coordinator eager to refresh the passing game, featured one of the nation's fastest-rising running backs and headlined a defense with a top-five NFL draft pick at linebacker.
Little wonder, then, that Penn State coach James Franklin said he was "extremely frustrated" that the Big Ten postponed the 2020 football season.
Franklin understood why the Big Ten postponed in early August, even without a road map for what would come next. But Franklin also lamented a team closing in on a College Football Playoff berth.
"That's part of the frustration," Franklin said recently.
With that in mind, and before getting to the mechanics of what happens next, let's pause to appreciate what might have been for Penn State in 2020. This week, AllPennState will explore the Lions' prospects for a conventional, coronavirus-free 2020 season, from their top players to promising newcomers to the new offense's potential.
"Our program is special," defensive end Shaka Toney said after the Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis. "We're in a better place right now. Penn State is where it belongs."
To kick off the "2020 season preview," we present five factors that would have made Penn State a CFP contender.
Championship teams need a few. Franklin's had at least one on each side of the ball.
Linebacker Parsons came into his own last season, which he capped with a Cotton Bowl performance that launched him into the 2020 Heisman Trophy discussion. After patiently climbing defensive coordinator Brent Pry's ladder to stardom, Parsons was ready to become the face of Penn State football this season.
"Certainly it was brought up in our offseason self-scout: How can we use Micah more?" Pry said this spring. "He’s obviously a rare talent, and I think his best football’s in front of him."
Meanwhile, tight end Pat Freiermuth returned for his third season because he loves Penn State and wanted to position himself as the nation's No. 1 tight end. Freiermuth could have been a 50-catch weapon this season while also opening room for the team's younger group of receivers.
Want one more? Running back Journey Brown averaged 7.6 yards per carry over his last five games, including a 202-yard performance in the Cotton Bowl.
2. Breakout players
This was going to be the year of defensive end Jayson Oweh, a two-time member of Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks of College Football" list. It was going to be a season of two-strip-sack games like the one Oweh had against Michigan State.
Safety Jaquan Brisker, who also made the "freaks" list, mirrored Oweh's path: He was a significant contributor in 2019 poised to make a starting impact.
On offense, tight end Zack Kuntz seemed ready to join Freiermuth in an offense that would have spread the ball across the field. And receiver Daniel George was poised to be the big target at receiver that the Lions had struggled to retain the past few years.
3. A quarterback's new offense
Penn State saw a similar transition in 2016, when first-year starter Trace McSorley incrementally became a standout in Joe Moorhead's offense.
This year, quarterback Sean Clifford had the benefit of a season as the starter and the energy of Kirk Ciarrocca's offense, which quarterbacks love. Clifford sounded so emphatic about making the transition to an offense that values precision and ball movement from its quarterback.
And Ciarrocca sounded like he was eager to employ Clifford's running skills in new ways.
4. An offensive line hitting its stride
Penn State returned four starters, including experienced vets in Michal Menet and Will Fries, and left tackle Rasheed Wallace is probably the line's best NFL prospect since Donovan Smith. Right guard C.J. Thorpe isn't far behind.
Add the fresh voice of line coach Phil Trautwein, who recalibrated the linemen's use of their feet and hands, and the group had a chance to be dominant.
5. The schedule
The Lions originally were scheduled to play one road game against a ranked team (Michigan) and had Ohio State and Iowa at home.
A few pressure points might have followed the Oct. 24 Whiteout against the Buckeyes, as the Lions would have visited Indiana and Nebraska. But they also had a bye week before hosting Iowa and Ohio State, a tantalizing double-feature at Beaver Stadium.
Follow along all week as we continue to explore the promise of 2020.
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