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After an 11-win year, James Franklin and Penn State enter the offseason with all sorts of buzz

On3 imageby:Jesse Simonton01/05/23


Heading into the fall, Penn State was just 11-11 in the last two seasons, with veteran head coach James Franklin having to answer all sorts of questions about the stability of the Nittany Lions’ program after receiving a 10-year, $85 million contract extension in midst of a two-year dip. 

But after signing a Top 10 recruiting class and hiring a pair of new coordinators, the ninth-year head coach in Happy Valley entered the 2022 season with a quiet confidence that his team could compete for the Big Ten title. 

I concurred, writing in August that Penn State looked primed for a springboard season

Penn State then went out and delivered one of the more muted 11-2 years in recent memory, capping the season with a resounding 35-21 win over Utah in the Rose Bowl on Monday

The Nittany Lions weren’t exactly Big Ten contenders after getting blown out by Michigan and losing a hard-fought game against Ohio State, but they ended the season on a five-game winning streak by an average margin of nearly four touchdowns — with the lion’s share of game-changing plays coming from a star-studded group of underclassmen. 

Suddenly, Franklin’s program is making all sorts of noise, with players and coaches alike already teasing a “special” 2023 run. 

“It gives us a lot of momentum,” first-year DC Manny Diaz told Fox Sports

“The standard of what we expect next year is well-defined. Once you taste something like this, it’s hard to go back.”

It’s obviously a premature prediction, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for Penn State to be the Big Ten favorite next season. Ohio State has uncertainty at quarterback. Michigan may have a new head coach

The Nittany Lions? They return the nucleus of a young roster that gained valuable seasoning in 2022 — and one that still managed to win 10 games by double-digits — with the expectation to build off this fall’s momentum. 

The hype train is about to get cranked up in Happy Valley. 

Against Utah, 5-star freshman tailback Nick Singleton, who had over 1,000 yards in his debut season, ran for an 87-yard touchdown. He’ll be back. Same for No. 2 tailback Kaytron Allen (867 yards, 10 touchdowns), who also had a touchdown against the Utes.

Sophomore wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith hauled in an 88-yard touchdown in the Rose Bowl. See you in 2023. All-American offensive tackle Olu Fashanu sat out the game with an injury, but he’ll be back. 

Penn State also returns key defensive pieces like linebacker Chop Robinson (1.5 sacks vs. Utah), corner Kalen King (Big Ten best 21-passes defended) and Big Ten freshman of the Year Abdul Carter, who had folks making Micah Parsons comparisons after the linebacker recorded 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in his first season with the Lions.

Franklin, who now has four 11-win seasons at PSU, is already working to tweak the margins of the roster via the transfer portal, too, adding former UNC corner Storm Duck and NC State wideout Devin Carter and looking for more help at receiver and defensive tackle.

Just days removed from its first Rose Bowl victory since 1995, Penn State is already eying a return to Pasadena next fall — only not to play in the Rose Bowl again, but to make the College Football Playoff for the first time in school history. 

“We’re looking at next year like, ‘OK, we made it this far now, next year we can really like take it to another level, a national championship,’” Robinson told The Athletic

“That’s what we want, of course. If everybody keeps their head down, we work extra hard like we did this year, we’re going to be a special team.”

How “special” Penn State’s 2023 season might largely depend on the offseason development of former 5-star quarterback Drew Allar

Franklin’s OC change to Mike Yurcich worked wonders this fall, as PSU, behind its two-headed tailback tandem, was much more dynamic and explosive (+10.8 points per game compared to 2021). But while Sean Clifford ended his Penn State career in storybook style vs. Utah (21 of 25 passes for 279 yards and two scores), PSU’s offense always had a ceiling under the veteran quarterback. 

It might not be under Allar, though. 

The Ohio native is considered to have limitless potential, armed with an accurate laser and a 6-5, 230-pound frame that can move. He spent the year mostly watching and waiting behind Clifford (just 60 total attempts), but now it’s his show. 

It’s hard to win 11 games quietly, yet that’s what Franklin & Co., did this fall. With so many game-changers back in 2023, though, Penn State is sure to be among the most buzzed-about teams this offseason. 

“We’ve got a really special team,” tight end Theo Johnson told the Central Daily Times, also noting that he is leaning toward returning to Happy Valley rather than entering the NFL Draft. 

“Obviously a lot of young guys are gonna be back next year. … I think we can do a lot of special things next year. I wanna be a part of that.”