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Conference realignment: How would Penn State football fare in a jumbling of conferences?


Since joining the Big Ten in 1993, Penn State has been one of the top teams in the conference year in and year out.

But it’s only won one conference championship in the past decade and hasn’t been able to get over the hump consistently in a stacked division.

With their inability to consistently rise to the top of the Big Ten, would a conference realignment help the Nittany Lions get back to being the national powerhouse they once were?

Prompted by the coronavirus pandemic, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde created a new system for FBS teams that scattered teams into different conferences, while also developing new rules for the regular-season schedule and the College Football Playoff.

Forde’s realignment includes Penn State in the Yankee conference along with Army, Boston College, Buffalo, UConn, Maryland, UMass, Navy, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse and Temple.

In the realignment, the Nittany Lions would only play one nonconference game during the regular season and would play a round-robin schedule to face each team in their conference.

After the regular season concludes, a conference champion would be crowned without a championship game and the champion would advance to the College Football Playoff, where 10 conference champions and two at-large teams would battle for the national championship.

In the playoff, teams would be seeded by a committee. The first four seeds would receive first-round byes while the No. 5 through No. 8 seeds would host the No. 9 through No. 12 seeds in the first round.

With all the regulations out of the way, here’s a hypothetical season for Penn State in the Yankee conference during the 2020 season.

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Nittany Lions lose its one nonconference game

For the sake of randomization, I assigned each FBS team a number and used a random number generator to give Penn State its sole nonconference opponent and then flipped a coin to decide who’s home and who’s away.

The random selection ended up being an opponent that the Nittany Lions are pretty familiar with all-time — the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

The coin flip decided that the game would take place in Lincoln, an unfavorable venue for a Penn State team with a tough season-opener against Scott Frost and company.

James Franklin led his team to the midwest where it prepared to take on one of the projected top quarterbacks in the country for the season in Nebraska field general Adrian Martinez.

The Nittany Lions got out to a quick start with their first possession, eventually getting on the board with a 52-yard field goal from Jordan Stout.

That was about all the success Penn State had in the first half, though, trotting into the locker room with a 14-3 deficit in the first game of Franklin’s seventh season as head coach.

Down 11 at the break, the Nittany Lions just couldn’t claw back and ultimately lost 34-23 with 127 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns from Journey Brown on an otherwise quiet day for the blue and white.

Franklin becomes a conference champion for the second time

Although it lost its first game of the season, Penn State knew it still had a shot at making the College Football Playoff as long as it ran the table in a weak Yankee conference.

The Nittany Lions outscored its first four in-conference opponents of Navy, Rutgers, Buffalo and UMass by 62 points and didn’t win any of the four games by any less than two touchdowns.

Midway through its conference schedule, however, Penn State encountered a bump in the road against Pittsburgh in Beaver Stadium.

The rivalry revived, the Panthers came back to State College with a vengeance and bolted out to a 17-3 lead by the end of the first quarter.

Seeing Pittsburgh break down in crunch time before, though, Sean Clifford kept his wits about him and led a Nittany Lion scoring run only paralleled by its barrage against Buffalo in 2019.

Led by Clifford, Penn State went on a 35-10 run in the last three quarters to win by a score of 38-27 and get to 5-0 in the Yankee conference standings.

In the last six games of their conference schedule, the Nittany Lions again dominated their opponents. The team coasted to a Yankee conference championship and was the only team in the conference to secure at least eight in-conference wins.

The 11-1 regular season allowed Franklin to receive his second conference championship title and make his first College Football Playoff appearance.

Nittany Lions bounced in first round of College Football Playoff

When seeding the playoff, the committee wasn’t too keen on Penn State’s season-opening loss against Nebraska, a team that eventually lost four games in a difficult Great Midwest conference.

Thus, the Nittany Lions received the No. 5 seed in the bracket and were forced to host a first-round game against the last team that made it into the playoff — the North Carolina Tar Heels.

North Carolina lost just two games in the Mid-Atlantic conference, losing to Virginia Tech and South Carolina while beating eventual conference champion Clemson on the road.

Headlined by Heisman finalist Sam Howell, the Tar Heel offense led a potent attack against the stout Penn State defense in a game with plenty of back-and-forth action.

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The first-round affair was all tied up 17-17 at halftime, but North Carolina coach Mack Brown had a leg up on Franklin in the second half.

Brown had been on the biggest stage before.

In the second half, Brown and his Tar Heels fought against the Nittany Lions and their 110,000-plus fans in Beaver Stadium to pull out a 30-24 win over Penn State to leave the blue and white thinking about what could have been.

Micah Parsons finishes second in Heisman voting

At the start of the season, Micah Parson strived to accomplish a feat no defensive player had done since 1997 — win the Heisman trophy.

It didn’t take long for Parsons to find his groove on the defensive side of the ball in 2020, as the linebacker tallied a career-high 20 tackles in the Nittany Lions’ opening loss to Nebraska.

And he didn’t look back.

Parsons led the FBS with 141 total tackles while also picking up 14 sacks.

The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, native was named a finalist for the prestigious award prior to Penn State’s playoff game against North Carolina and traveled to New York to partake in the festivities a few days after his season ended.

It didn’t end the way he hoped, though, as he finished second in the voting behind only eventual national champion Trevor Lawrence, who won his sole Heisman trophy before heading to the NFL.

Like Lawrence, Parsons also declared for the NFL Draft following his junior season and was selected with the second overall pick.

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