Skip to content
Penn State Nittany Lions
Link copied to clipboard

Is Penn State a top-five team? | Mike Jensen

Big plays make it possible to say yes, the Nittany Lions deserve the lofty ranking.

Penn State has jumped up to fourth nationally in the AP poll.
Penn State has jumped up to fourth nationally in the AP poll.Read moreScott Taetsch / MCT

The ball had come free, a Penn State fumble, as called at the scene. Villanova returned it for a TD … the Beaver Stadium scoreboard flashing 38-23 before the extra point, pending a review.

Nope, no fumble, runner clearly down. No cheap last-minute points for the visitors. Final score: 38-17.

An important turn of events, for only one reason: Would every poll voter across the hinterlands have taken the time to research how the Nittany Lions had been up 38-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, subs heading on to the field? Plenty, yes. Most poll voters take their toil seriously. (And their votes are public record, subject to public scorn.) But does everyone look at everything closely? A 38-24 final score may have cost Penn State a poll placing or two.

Which brings us to the bigger question: Is Penn State really the fourth-best team in the nation?

» READ MORE: Best symbol of Villanova's day at Penn State? The punter.

That’s where Associated Press media voters have the Nittany Lions, with the coaches poll going with a little more conservative sixth spot, Oklahoma and Iowa grabbing higher ground in that ranking.

In the long run, this all should sort itself out … especially with Penn State visiting Iowa next weekend after hosting Indiana on Saturday. If either Penn State or Iowa wakes up Oct. 10 with a 6-0 record, fourth might not be a high enough ranking.

By the end of the season, fourth will be so much better than fifth, as Penn State fans well know, since one is a playoff spot and the other is not. Way too early for such thoughts, though.

» READ MORE: A class action lawsuit by a former Villanova football player could change college sports

What the polls are really showing right now is that the whole FBS landscape is wide open right to the top to a degree not seen in recent years. Obviously, Clemson dropping out of playoff contention is something new. But Alabama is replacing so much key personnel, the top-ranked Crimson Tide are barely holding on to even a top five spot, virtue of stopping a Florida late two-point game-tying conversion inside the Swamp. How good is Alabama? To be determined, real soon.

Georgia and Oregon earned their places just ahead of Penn State by beating Clemson and Ohio State, respectively. The Nittany Lions have an impressive win over Wisconsin that got a little less impressive Saturday when the Badgers were drubbed by Notre Dame, and an impressive win over Auburn, which otherwise has only played Akron, Alabama State and Georgia State. The Tigers had to come from behind Saturday to beat Georgia State, so who knows there.

How good is Penn State? Plenty good on the first play from scrimmage Saturday, with Jahan Dotson, no doubt salivating at the one-on-one coverage he saw from Villanova, going 52 yards for an easy pitch-and-catch score.

Villanova’s defense did a big job stopping the run, but even a good FCS team has to pick its poison against a top FBS outfit and those big plays Penn State kept finding were completely poisonous to any Villanova upset dreams. Those plays may not be available in the next couple of weeks. Catching an underthrown pass, changing directions on a dime, taking it to the house. Can’t count on that.

“I think they are reading articles, and we’ll make sure that there’s no leftovers of that come Sunday,’’ Penn State coach James Franklin said after Saturday’s game. “I’ll make sure that we clear all those things out of the fridge.”

It was a little stunning that Penn State only averaged 2.4 yards a rush against Villanova. There’s nothing fourth-ranked about that. The Nits are currently 13th of 14 in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game, while seventh in rushing defense. They were only 3 of 12 on third-down conversions, made a little better by going 2 for 2 on fourth-down conversions.

They’re also in the bottom half of the league in committing penalties. So statistically, no, this doesn’t quite add up to a top five team, not yet. But when you have seven TD pass plays of over 20 yards, that makes up for so many sins. That’s a top five stat.

“We got big-played to death,” Villanova coach Mark Ferrante simply said Saturday.

Dotson is a big player. Why didn’t Villanova just throw all its resources at him? Those other PSU receivers all had matchup advantages, too. Sean Clifford knew what he was looking for and kept finding it, a virtuoso day for the QB.

What you see across the FBS landscape is that few teams are simply able to walk out there and beat other ranked teams on talent alone. This is a fun season merely for all the uncertainty.

» READ MORE: James Franklin wants to see improvement from Penn State’s offensive line and running backs

Of the 62 AP voters, four had Penn State ranked as high as third, with 15 saying fourth, 19 going fifth, 14 voting PSU sixth, five seventh, three eighth, one ninth and one tenth. That kind of sums up how wide open it all is right now, with seven different schools getting at least one fourth-place vote. (We know, we know, it’s early.)

While 38-24 would have been a misleading score if poll voters hadn’t dug into the game, a cursory look at highlights went the other way, in Penn State’s favor. Took eight seconds to score? Look at those big plays. The rest barely matters.

Does Penn State deserve to be ranked fourth?

Somebody has to be.