3 reasons Penn State will make the College Football Playoff in 2023

STATE COLLEGE, PA - APRIL 15: Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions interacts with players before the Penn State Spring Football Game at Beaver Stadium on April 15, 2023 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
STATE COLLEGE, PA - APRIL 15: Head coach James Franklin of the Penn State Nittany Lions interacts with players before the Penn State Spring Football Game at Beaver Stadium on April 15, 2023 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images) /

James Franklin was brimming with confidence during Big Ten media days — and rightly so — the Nittany Lions are entering 2023 with the most talented roster since he took over as head coach in 2014.

While the path won’t be easy, everything is in place for the Nittany Lions to make a run at one of the four College Football Playoff teams in 2023.

Here are the three reasons why:

The defense

Manny Diaz has developed a reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in all of college football — and his ability to maximize the talent he has at his disposal was on full display last season, when the Nittany Lions finished the year with a 11-2 record capped off with a Rose Bowl victory over Utah. Franklin himself has noted this may be the most talented roster he’s had in State College, and Diaz is the beneficiary of some of the top players on the squad.

Even with the loss of star cornerback Joey Porter Jr., Penn State has a defense loaded with All-Big Ten talent. Linebacker Abdul Carter is one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten and has proven he can do it all. Defensive end Chop Robinson and cornerback Kalen King are projected NFL first round selections.

At Big Ten media days, Franklin wasn’t shy about his expectations for the team this season, and he began with the strength on defense.

“I think we’re in a position to give us the best chance to compete in our conference as well as nationally. Just less question marks across the board,” Franklin said.

"You look at us on the defensive side of the ball, I think we’ve got a chance to be better up front with our defensive line. We are bigger. We are more athletic. We are physical. I think we have a legitimate three deep across the board. Linebacker was a big question mark coming into this season, a lot of unproven players. That is not the case anymore. I feel like we have a veteran linebacker unit that’s experienced and ready to play. Obviously the one question mark we have is in the secondary. When you lose a guy like Joey Porter and you lose a guy like Tig [Ji’Ayir Brown], who are tremendous players for us, that’s probably the one area of question marks. But we played a ton of players in the secondary with experience, talent, and depth. So I think we’re going to be in a good position there.”James Franklin"

Former UNC four-star corner Storm Duck joined Franklin’s group via the transfer portal and could help the void left by Porter and Ji’Ayir Brown,

Johnny Dixon, Daequan Hardy, and Cam Miller will rotate in the secondary each of them made their presence known during the 2022 season.

Finally, the safety group may not be filled with flashy names, but Keaton Ellis, Zakee Wheatley, Jaylen Reed, and Kevin Winston Jr are all capable of tackling and covering at a high level.

Franklin has stressed depth throughout the offseason, and Manny Diaz has plenty to build on last year’s impressive campaign.

247 Sports has the Nittany Lions defense ranked fourth, just behind their rivals from Michigan, in their list of the top defenses heading into the new campaign.

A dominant defense is expected. It will be necessary for Penn State to reach the College Football Playoff.

The offense

While Franklin and company haven’t officially named a starting quarterback yet, it would be a stunner if 5-star quarterback Drew Allar — the highest-ranked QB recruit in program history — doesn’t win the job. He has all the tools to thrive in an offense returning seven starters from last year’s group.

Allar is set up to succeed immediately. He has arguably the best duo of running backs in the country in the backfield in Nick Singleton (Big Ten freshman of the year) and Kaytron Allen. The run game will take the pressure off Allar and allow for big-chunk play-action opportunities.  The offensive line may be the strongest position group on the team that nobody is talking about.

Four of the five starters from last year’s team are returning.

Olumuyiwa Fashanu anchors the unit as the best left tackle in college football. Caedan Wallace or Drew Shelton right tackle are both viable options at right tackle.  Sal Wormley, Hunter Nourzad and Landon Tengwall should solidify the interior.

Sure, there are question marks at wide receiver with the two top pass catchers from 2022 Parker Washington and Mitch Tinsley — now gone. That position has the most question marks but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic. KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Harrison Wallace III have both shown promise, and the addition of transfer Dante Cephas from Kent State could be a major surprise for Penn State fans.

Allar has all the athletic tools to emerge as one of the top quarterbacks in the country but he wont be asked do carry the offense on his own. This is an underrated offense heading into 2023 that could end up being one of the best in the Big Ten.

The Path

Penn State’s path to the College Football Playoff isn’t a cakewalk, but it isn’t unrealistic by any means. If this team plays up to its potential, it should be (6-0) heading into a critical road test against Ohio State in late October. The Buckeyes too, are starting a new quarterback and have unanswered questions at multiple positions, but are still ranked as one of the top teams in the country for a reason. This is a winnable game, but even if Penn State falls to the Buckeyes, the Lions have a prime chance for redemption when they host Michigan on Nov. 11. Franklin’s 2023 group can’t lose both of these primetime Big Ten matchups and find a way to sneak into the four-team pool to compete for college football’s ultimate prize, but the path is there. This feels like a team that is capable of beating both of the Big Ten teams ranked ahead of it in nearly every poll, but finishing the year with one loss keeps hopes alive. In either situation, Franklin has his best chance to reach the College Football Playoff since he took over as head coach. Now we wait and see how it all plays out.