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2021 Penn State college football preview: Nittany Lions ready for bounce-back season

Penn State fell apart early in the 2020 season but returned to win their final four games. The Nittany Lions should be motivated to erase last year’s pandemic-impacted year.

Illinois v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Penn State Nittany Lions are near the top of the list among teams that should be much better than the 2020 version of themselves. The start-and-stop nature of last season’s pandemic-impacted Big Ten football season did some damage to some of the conference’s top programs, and Penn State was among them.

The Nittany Lions lost their first five games to start out the season, but to their credit they regrouped and won four in a row to close it out. James Franklin fired Kirk Ciarrocca after one season as the offensive coordinator and brought in Mike Yurcich from Texas to run the offense, which certainly needs an upgrade.

Was 2020 a one-year blip, or is it a sign of something more fundamentally wrong in Happy Valley? For now, Franklin and his staff should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt considering the success they’ve had so far.

2020 Season Review

  • 4-5 Big Ten (3rd in East)
  • Lost each of their first five games, won the final four of the season

2021 Talent

2021 247Sports Composite Ranking: 21
ESPN Returning Production: 78% overall (37th): 74% offense (58th), 82% defense (24th)
Returning Talent Index: 1.43, 3rd in Big Ten
Returning starters: 9/11 offense, 7/11 defense
* All rankings out of 130 FBS schools

Key Player

Quarterback: Sean Clifford (Senior)

Sean Clifford is going into his third season as the starting quarterback for Penn State, and he is on his third offensive coordinator. The Nittany Lions will need much more from this passing game to challenge the Ohio State Buckeyes at the top of the Big Ten East. Clifford struggled with turnovers as he threw nine interceptions in nine games, so that will need to be fixed. Still, he has a decent amount of playmaker options at the wide receiver position to have a big year.

Offense (non-QB): WR Jahan Dotson (Senior)

Jahan Dotson is a real threat in this offense, and he broke through in 2020 with a big season. In nine games, he caught 52 passes for 884 yards and eight touchdowns. He has real big play ability, and he does well in yards per reception throughout his career. Dotson will continue to be a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators and secondaries as he continues to develop chemistry with Clifford in a new offense.

Defense: CB Tariq Castro-Fields (Senior)

Penn State will replace a lot of players in the front seven, but the secondary is likely to be the strength of this defense. Cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields played in just three games in 2020 but made an impact in his limited playing time, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten. He finished with 15 passes defended in his previous two seasons in 2018 and 2019, and we should expect him to make a big impact in a full year at the position.

Team Stats Projections

2020 SP+ final: 18th overall: 26th offense, 14th defense, 81st special teams
2021 SP+ projection: 14th overall: 29th offense, 6th defense

Odds from DraftKings Sportsbook

To win national title: +8000
To win Big Ten: +700
Win total: 9 (Over +100, Under -125)

2020 Against The Spread: 4-5-0
2020 Point Total: Over 4-4-1

2021 Penn State Schedule

2021 Penn State Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Date Opponent Time (ET)/TV Spread/Total
Saturday, Sep. 4 at Wisconsin 12:00 pm/Fox PSU +4.5
Saturday, Sep. 11 Ball State 3:30 pm/FS1 PSU -20.5
Saturday, Sep. 18 Auburn 7:30 pm/ABC PSU -7.5
Saturday, Sep. 25 Villanova TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 2 Indiana TBA PSU -5.5
Saturday, Oct. 9 at Iowa TBA PSU +3
Saturday, Oct. 16 OPEN TBA N/A
Saturday, Oct. 23 Illinois 12:00 pm/TBA PSU -20.5
Saturday, Oct. 30 at Ohio State TBA PSU +12.5
Saturday, Nov. 6 at Maryland TBA PSU -10.5
Saturday, Nov. 13 Michigan TBA PSU -7.5
Saturday, Nov. 20 Rutgers TBA N/A
Saturday, Nov. 27 at Michigan State TBA PSU -13.5