Penn State to play on New Year's Day, after all: How the Lions landed the Outback Bowl

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  • James Franklin
    American college football player, college football coach, quarterback

Penn State will try to earn some type of season redemption in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.

The Nittany Lions will play the Arkansas Razorbacks for the first time ever. The game kicks off at noon on New Year's Day in Raymond James Stadium.

The bowl will be seen as a jumping off point for the 2022 season, which should feature dynamic change. The Lions will break in a new defensive coordinator, probably a new quarterback and may rely on big contributions from arguably James Franklin's top recruiting class ever.

Nov 20, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Members of the Penn State Nittany Lions team sign their alma mater following the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Rutgers 28-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 20, 2021; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Members of the Penn State Nittany Lions team sign their alma mater following the game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Rutgers 28-0. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

First, though, the Lions will hope to improve on their worst bowl season record under Franklin since the team lost their final four to finish 7-6 in 2015.

Heading into the week, Penn State seemed most likely to land in bowl games in Las Vegas, New York City (Pinstripe) or Nashville (Music City). Their New Year's Day hopes seemed to be ruined by two losses in the final three games — narrow defeats to Michigan and Michigan State.

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But Outback Bowl officials viewed the Nittany Lions as the best option to be had, even over others with better records — Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota. The Lions have not played in the game since the 2010 season and always boast a stellar bowl game travel following and TV ratings.

The Lions' reputation in these games won out, in the end.

Penn State, of course, started this season at 5-0 and moved into the top five of the national rankings in early October. But a dominating start at Iowa was wiped away after quarterback Sean Clifford was knocked out by injury.

The Lions lost that day, which started a stunning slide of five defeats over their final seven games. They were so close to so much more — their five defeats came by a combined 21 points.

The Outback Bowl surely will be the final game in a Penn State uniform for stars such as receiver Jahan Dotson, safety Jaquan Brisker, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, punter Jordan Stout — and perhaps Sean Clifford. The fifth-year quarterback, however, does own another year of eligibility, if he so chooses, because of an NCAA COVID exemption.

Other key Penn State seniors or underclassmen who may leave but still haven't announced their intentions include defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher, safety Ji'Ayir Brown, linebacker Brandon Smith and offensive tackle Rasheed Walker.

The Lions are 3-3 in bowl games under Franklin, missing only last year with their 4-5 record.

Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at fbodani@ydr.com and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Outback Bowl: Penn State to face Arkansas at Raymond James Stadium