College football Top 25: Can No. 7 Penn State match up with the Big Ten's top dogs?

With the 2023 college football season fast approaching, Yahoo Sports is rolling out our annual Top 25. We revealed Nos. 11 through 25 in three parts and are now counting down from No. 10 to No. 1 in the days leading up to the official start of the season on Aug. 26.

Previously: 25-21, 20-16, 15-11, No. 10 Texas, No. 9 Florida State, No. 8 Clemson

No. 7 Penn State

  • 2022 record: 11-2 (7-2 Big Ten)

  • National title odds: +2200

  • Over/under: 9.5 wins

Could this be Penn State’s year in the Big Ten?

In 2016, James Franklin’s third season as PSU head coach, the Nittany Lions won the Big Ten and barely missed the College Football Playoff. Since then, PSU has had three top-10 finishes but has not been able to overtake Ohio State or Michigan in the Big Ten East.

Entering 2023, there’s a case to be made that PSU is of the same caliber as Michigan and Ohio State — or perhaps even better.

The Nittany Lions are coming off an 11-2 season that was capped off by an emphatic win over Pac-12 champion Utah in the Rose Bowl. It was a season that was much needed. In the two seasons prior, PSU went a combined 11-11, so the 2022 campaign propelled PSU back into the national spotlight.

On top of that, a slew of talented young players emerged as key contributors. Though a few veterans moved on to the NFL, that group of young players will be part of the core that could push the Nittany Lions toward a Big Ten title. And if a few new starters live up to expectations, most notably sophomore quarterback Drew Allar, PSU could vault itself into the College Football Playoff conversation.

Is Drew Allar ready for the big time?

Sean Clifford became a punching bag at times during his four years as Penn State’s starting quarterback. He made head-scratching decisions from time-to-time and could be inconsistent with his accuracy. But on the whole, he was a pretty good college quarterback.

Penn State fans are hoping Allar is a great college quarterback.

Allar was one of the top QB prospects in the 2022 class and earned a five-star ranking from some recruiting services. He was Clifford’s backup last fall, and the PSU staff smartly got Allar reps in as many games as possible.

At 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds, Allar has all of the physical attributes you look for in a high-end QB, but will he have the same command of the offense that Clifford did? It’s always risky to assume immediate success for a QB just based on recruiting pedigree. But if Allar quickly shows he can play at a high level, this offense could be excellent.

Penn State quarterback Drew Allar takes over the reins for the departed Sean Clifford, who was the team's starting QB for the past four years. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State quarterback Drew Allar takes over the reins for the departed Sean Clifford, who was the team's starting QB for the past four years. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

PSU has one of the best running back duos in the country in Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen. Singleton and Allen combined for 1,928 yards and 22 touchdowns as true freshmen and will be running behind a strong offensive line that includes left tackle Olu Fashanu, a future first-round pick.

PSU is also very deep at tight end with Theo Johnson and Tyler Warren returning, but wide receiver is a question mark with Parker Washington and Mitchell Tinsley now in the NFL. KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who had an 88-yard TD in the Rose Bowl, is expected to be the No. 1 receiver with Harrison Wallace (19 catches, 273 yards) and Kent State transfer Dante Cephas also in line to start.

Like with Allar, PSU needs a few receivers to step up on a consistent basis for the team to reach its full potential.

One of the top defenses in the country

Penn State’s defense is nasty on all three levels.

Though cornerback Joey Porter Jr. and safety Ji’Ayir Brown were Day 2 NFL Draft picks, there shouldn’t be any drop-off in the secondary. Kalen King and Johnny Dixon make up one of the best cornerback duos in the country, Daequan Hardy has been a three-year contributor at the nickel spot and PSU is four deep at safety.

The linebackers are led by Abdul Carter, who could blossom into an All-American, and senior Curtis Jacobs. They are two of the fastest LBs in the country and could live in opposing backfields.

Up front, Penn State is loaded with pass-rushers. The top three to know are Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac and Dani Dennis-Sutton. Robinson and Isaac combined for 21 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks last year while Dennis-Sutton flashed his incredibly high upside with three sacks as a freshman reserve. He’ll have a much bigger role this year and could emerge as an all-conference caliber player.

If there’s one area of concern on the defense, it’s the interior of the defensive line. There’s good depth there, so defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will be able to rotate as much as he pleases. But most of PSU’s tackles are on the lighter side. That showed up in an ugly way when PSU was trounced in Ann Arbor by Michigan last fall.

Penn State lists 10 DTs on its roster and only three are above 300 pounds. Two of those — 302-pound Dvon Ellies and 301-pound Jordan van den Berg — are projected contributors. That’s something to keep an eye on as PSU goes up against some of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten.

Linebacker Abdul Carter is one of several talented returning players who lead a loaded Penn State defense this season. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Linebacker Abdul Carter is one of several talented returning players who lead a loaded Penn State defense this season. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Biggest game: Oct. 21 at Ohio State

The games versus Ohio State and Michigan are the obvious choices here, and Penn State has to win at least one of them to reach its goals. Penn State has consistently played close games with Ohio State, and the Buckeyes seem to be a better matchup for the Nittany Lions.

Ohio State is loaded at running back and receiver and should have an improved defense, but the offensive line is a concern, particularly at tackle. Penn State’s speed off the edge could potentially exploit that and get to Ohio State’s QB — whether it’s Kyle McCord or Devin Brown.

The Illinois and Iowa games aren’t surefire wins, but PSU really should be 6-0 when it goes to Columbus. If PSU can somehow win at the Horseshoe, it could set up an incredible matchup vs. Michigan at Beaver Stadium on Nov. 11.

Impact player: LB Abdul Carter

Once Carter arrived on Penn State’s campus last year, he quickly earned Micah Parsons comparisons. It wasn’t just that Carter was wearing No. 11. He has the burst and closing speed to get into the backfield and wreak havoc on opposing offenses just like Parsons.

As a true freshman, Carter posted 56 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks, and he didn’t even become a starter until midway through the season. With PSU’s depth in the front seven, don’t be surprised if Carter lines up at various spots in the formation to make things even more difficult for opponents.


Pick: Over 9.5 wins (-150)

Other than the OSU and Michigan games, Penn State should be a significant favorite in every other game it plays. There are a few tricky spots on the schedule, including a Week 3 trip to Illinois for Allar’s first road start. And then the road game at Maryland on Nov. 4 could be a look-ahead spot with the Michigan game the following weekend. Other than that, it’s hard to pick out any other potential losses on the schedule. Let’s bet the over with 10-2 as the most likely outcome.