The Nittany Lions ended the 2019 season at 11-2. If you asked anyone outside of the Lasch Building what their record would be this season, I doubt you’d find anyone with such lofty numbers. They lost eleven players to the NFL – six that were drafted including their all-time passing leader Trace McSorley and another NFL Offensive Rookie-of-the-Year candidate in RB Mile Sanders. Did you know he backed up Saquon Barkley?
Their schedule included a brutal three-game stretch with them visiting Iowa and Michigan State with the Wolverines the meat sandwiched in between – but thankfully at home. Throw in a late-season game at Ohio State and the odds were long for them to win the vaunted B1G East – and even a New Years 6 Bowl. At the start of the season, the AP had them at #15 behind Ohio State and Michigan
After opening the season with easy wins against Idaho (79-7) and Buffalo (35-13), the Lions moved up to #13 in the polls trailed closely by Wisconsin at #14. During week 3, the Lions struggled in the rain against Pitt but prevailed 17-10. Consequently, the hacks dropped them to #14 and moved Wisconsin up to #13 during their bye week.
After a bye week themselves, the Lions bounced back by thumping Maryland 59-0 on a rare Friday night appearance. Let’s this serve as a reminder that Friday nights should be reserved for High School football (which is was Maryland looked like on this night). That same weekend, the Badgers destroyed Michigan, 35-14 – wins that catapulted Wisconsin up to #8 and bumped Lions up to #12. The Wolverines dropped to #20.
Another convincing 35-7 win against Purdue and the Lions were 5-0 and up to #10 in the polls entering a showdown against #17 Iowa. Wisky remained at #8 while Michigan was back up to #16 already.
Iowa City is never an easy place to play. I was there in 2008 when the highly ranked Lions lost to the Hawkeyes on a last-second FG. The Hawkeyes have a way of taking down ranked teams – with recent wins at Kinnick over Ohio State and Michigan. We made this year our away game of choice and the Lions prevailed 17-12. With the win, the Lions moved up to #7, one spot behind Wisky, entering the Whiteout against the one-loss #16 Wolverines.
Home against Michigan, Penn State jumped out to an early 21-0 lead and, while Michigan mounted a comeback, the Lions never seemed to be in danger of losing the game even though the final score looked closer than it was – 28-21 Lions. Couple the big win with Wisconsin’s loss to Illinois and the 7-0 Lions moved up one spot to #6 while the Badgers dropped to #13. Sneaking into the picture now was a 7-0 Minnesota team – #17 two spots ahead of Michigan.
What looked like a tough game at Michigan State before the season started, ended up being a no-contest with the now #6 Lions taking care of business with a 28-7 win on the road. The win moved them up another spot and into #5 – just outside of the playoff. Wisconsin lost again, this time getting trounce, 38-7 by Ohio State and the Gophers picked up another win to move them to #13 at 8-0.
After another bye week – an oddity due to the way the calendar fell this year, the College Football Playoff released its first rankings. At the end of the regular season, this is the only poll that matters. The Committee had the Lions jumping Clemson to move into #4. Clemson’s schedule was viewed to be much weaker than the Lions. At the same time, the CFP had Minnesota down at #17. Of course, the AP had the Lions at #5 and the Gophers at #13.
All of sudden, a game that wasn’t on anyone’s radar quickly became a potential Gameday site with the undefeated Golden Gophers hosting the undefeated Lions. Arguably the biggest home game in Gopher history. While the Rodents hadn’t had a big win yet this season, and they struggled against Fresno State and Georgia Southern, the home team was definitely motivated. The Lions couldn’t get much going early on but tried to come back late in the game before falling 31-26. Sean Clifford’s three interceptions in the red zone, including the final one with just over one minute to play spelled doom for their playoff chances. Penn State dropped to #9 while the Gopher sprung up to #8. Wisky and Michigan, both 7-2 were sitting at #14 and #15 respectively.
Back home again with Indiana, the Lions struggled to put away a 7-2 Hoosier team but held on for a 34-27 win. A Minnesota loss at Iowa (what did I say about Kinnick?) allowed the Lions to move back up to #8 and dropped the Gophers to #10. Meanwhile, the Badgers and Wolverines were sitting at #12 and #13 – with the Hawkeyes now #17.
A late-season showdown at the Shoe could put Penn State in position to win the B1G East. The Buckeyes were rolling over their opponents all season with transfer QB, Justin Fields earning his spot at the Heisman Dinner in New York along with Chase Young on the other side of the ball. Young had been caught taking money to supposedly send his girlfriend on the Rose Bowl trip last year. His penalty? Sit for two games, which just so happened to be against two of the worst teams in the conference – Rutgers and Maryland – and the same two weeks before the Penn State game. smh.
The Lions hung tough, but couldn’t take down the Buckeyes. Down 14-0 at the half and 21-0 in the third, they got a spark after Sean Clifford was knocked out of the game due to injury. Will Levis mounted a comeback with 17 unanswered points before the Buckeyes closed it out with another TD. Of course, the pundits chose to say that OSU didn’t play up to their standards – not giving Penn State any credit. Apparently, the 3 fumbles had nothing to do with Penn State’s ferocious defense – instead, they were mistakes by OSU. I just love how the media tries to shape the narrative.
With the loss, Penn State, now 9-2 dropped to #10 while MN jumped back up to #8 with Wisky and Michigan holding at #12 and #13, trailed by Iowa at #17.
The Lions closed out the regular season at home against Rutgers. A pedestrian 27-6 win had them limping into the Bowl Selection weekend. The same day, Wisconsin had a shot at Minnesota for the B1G West title. Bucky beat them convincingly, 38-17 in Minnesota to earn another shot at the Buckeyes in the B1G Championship Game the following week in Indy. Michigan meanwhile, got pummeled at home 56-27 by Ohio State.
The final regular-season poll had:
#1 Ohio State 12-0
#8 Wisconsin 10-2
#10 Penn State 10-2
#14 Michigan 9-3
#16 Iowa 9-3
#18 Minnesota 10-2
With Penn State’s season finished, they would now have to hope for a variety of scenarios to play out if they wanted a chance at a New Years Bowl. Minimally, they needed Wisconsin to lose to Ohio State in the B1G Championship. The conventional thinking was that a three-loss Wisconsin team would likely fall behind Penn State and make the Lions the 2nd highest-ranked team in the conference – making it easy for the Rose to set up a rematch of the 1994 Rose Bowl – Penn State vs Oregon!
In the B1G Championship Game, Wisconsin led at the half, 21-7, but the Buckeyes shut them out in the 2nd half scoring 27 unanswered points in the process – cruising to a 34-21 victory. During the broadcast, Joel Klatt couldn’t stop grandstanding for Wisconsin to go to the Rose Bowl. I really don’t know or understand his motivation, but it was over-the-top adoration. He claimed by giving the Buckeyes a scare in the first half, they deserve the opportunity to play in the Rose. He added that since the Lions and Badgers didn’t play head-to-head, he looked at the Minnesota game as a common opponent. Wisky beat them, and Penn State lost. How can you ignore the beat down Ohio State put on them twice – and a loss to a 6-5 team? No offense Wisconsin, I like the team and often root for them, but I really don’t think you’ve earned the right to play in the Rose Bowl, but we’d have to wait until the next day to find out the final pairings.
Ohio State was a lock for the CFP, but where would the Lions fall? There were four possibilities – the Rose, Orange, Cotton and even back to the Citrus Bowl. It all depended on the final CFP Rankings, the Bowl tie-ins and the Bowl Committee preference. After the Playoff was set with the Buckeyes paired against Clemson in the Fiesta and LSU pulling Oklahoma in the Peach, it was time for the other NY6 Bowls to select.
Saying it’s a convoluted process would be an understatement. There are Bowl Tie-ins that establish some guidelines, but it’s a fairly open set of rules after that. You would think the Bowls are encouraged to take the highest seeded team that is tied to the conference they support, but that’s not always true. For example, the Rose traditionally pits the highest-ranked Pac12 vs the highest-ranked B1G, but their official stance states “If the next-highest ranked team is in a ‘cluster’ of teams, meaning there is another team or teams from the same conference ranked within several spots of each other, the Tournament of Roses will select the team from that cluster that will result in the best possible matchup for the Rose Bowl Game,” Got it? Obviously, taking the highest seeded team is an easy decision, but they do leave the door open to take others.
The Sugar was set with automatic tie-ins to the SEC and B12 with Georgia vs Baylor.
Now, with Klatt’s words being parroted throughout the telecast leading up to the selections, his lobbying became reality. The Rose paired Wisconsin and Oregon.
Next up, was the Orange. Their selection process states that they take the highest-ranked non-playoff ACC team vs the highest-ranked SEC, B1G or Notre Dame. The Virginia Cavaliers were set as the ACC delegate, with Virginia, backing into the Bowl Season at 9-4. As such, the Miami-based bowl chose Florida as their opponent. Surprise, surprise. One could argue that Florida was the higher-ranked team, coming in one slot above PSU in the pre-bowl rankings, but you have to wonder. Did the CFP Selection Committee want to put the Gators in the Orange, so they ranked them higher? I don’t know how that process works and who has the final say on the invites.
With 5 of the NY6 set, that left the Cotton as the only other NY6 option. I didn’t realize this at the time, but the CFP actually set the matchup for the Cotton Bowl this year. Who knew? The G5 is guaranteed a slot in the NY6 games if they are not included in the Playoff. Memphis played their way in, even as #17 in the country. They were essentially a lock for the Cotton Bowl, and it made business-sense with the relatively short drive from Memphis. The CFP now had to choose between PSU or Utah. With Memphis already in, my thinking is, the Cotton needed a boost – so they selected the travel-friendly Lions, pushing the Utes to the Alamo Bowl against Texas and dropping the Wolverines to the Citrus against Alabama.
In the end, the Lions were the only B1G team to win their NY6 game. They (and I) made the most of their first trip back to the Cotton Bowl since 1975 and remain undefeated at the Bowl, owning a 3-0-1 record. The lone blemish coming from the famous Wally Triplett game in their first Cotton Bowl appearance in 1948.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes got eliminated by Clemson (again) (29-23), Michigan got rolled by the Tide (35-16), and the Ducks squeaked by the Badgers (28-27). Elsewhere, the Hawkeyes took down USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl, the Gophers beat the SEC and Aubrun 31-24 in the Outback Bowl and Michigan State beat Wake Forest in the Pinstripe, 27-21. On the losing end, Illinois fell to Cal in the Redbox Bowl 35-20 and Indiana dropped a close one to Tennessee in the Gator Bowl, 23-22. The net result, a 4-5 record for the B1G in the Bowl games this year.
The Lions finished off what many would consider an over-achieving year at an impressive 11-2 while adding another NY6 win to their record books. The AP had the Lions #9 in the nation trailing only OSU in the B1G.
As the year came to a close, it’s clear that winning has its downside. The Lions lose key coaches to promotions throughout football with OC Ricky Rahne leaving to take over the head coaching duties at Old Dominion (taking some assistants with him), DL coach, Sean Spencer stepping up to the bigs with the same role at the NY Giants and WR Coach Gerad Parker leaving to become the OC at West Virginia. In addition, Matt Limegrover didn’t have his contract extended and will join Michigan as an analyst. Of course, Penn State’s recent success has raised the level of visibility and prestige of coaching the Lions and they will undoubtedly backfill with quality candidates. The newly named replacements have big shoes to fill, but there’s no reason to doubt they aren’t prepared for the job.
Here we are. February 17th. Still 60 days out from the Blue/White Game and 201 days from the kickoff of the 2020 campaign – and all I can think about is tailgating in Happy Valley.