Penn State appeared to receive a better bowl opportunity Sunday than its fans may have expected when it was selected to play Arkansas in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 1.
The Nittany Lions finished their regular season with a 7-5 record (4-5 Big Ten), which was the eighth-best overall mark compiled by a conference team, but only four teams – Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa – will be playing in a more prestigious bowl than the Nittany Lions.
Speaking Sunday night on a Zoom call with the media, head coach James Franklin said he “didn’t spend a whole lot of time” thinking about what bowl game would invite his team.
“It’s not anything that we have control over,” he said. “The bowls pick what they perceive to be the most attractive teams and they have a pecking order, so I’ve been spending my time recruiting, spending my time on bowl practices, spending my time on trying to hire a defensive coordinator, and trying to spend a few hours with my family.”
Franklin has to find a replacement for Brent Pry, Penn State’s defensive coordinator for the last six seasons, who is the new head coach at Virginia Tech.
The bowl appearance for the Nittany Lions will mark the 51st in the history of their program, and seventh in the eight seasons that Franklin has been head coach. The Lions have 30 wins in bowls, tied for fourth on the all-time list, against 18 losses and two ties. They are 3-3 under Franklin.
Penn State will be playing in the Outback Bowl for the fifth time. The Lions won their first three games in Tampa but lost in their last appearance, 37-24 to Florida, following the 2010 season, the last bowl game coached by Joe Paterno.
Ranked No. 21 in the final College Football Playoff ranking and No. 22 by the Associated Press, Arkansas finished its regular season with an 8-4 record, 4-4 in the SEC. The Razorbacks’ only defeat in their last five games was a close 42-35 decision against Alabama on Nov. 20. They were 2-3 against opponents that were ranked at the time they played them.
Franklin said he respects what Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman did in his second season with the team.
“I’ve been able to catch a few games or scores on TV and things like that,” he said. “I haven’t really been able to dive into [studying the team]. But I’ve got a ton of respect for that conference, obviously I know it well, and I’ve got a ton of respect for what Sam’s been able to do in a short period of time.”
The Razorbacks have a strong rushing attack that averaged 217.3 yards per game, 13th in FBS, and had four players rush for between 498 and 554 yards. Quarterback KJ Jefferson, the team’s leading rusher, ranks sixth in FBS in passing efficiency, completing 66.9% of his passes for 2,578 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Jefferson threw just three interceptions in 275 pass attempts. Arkansas finished the regular season with nine turnovers, tied for sixth in FBS.
Defensively, senior linebacker Bumper Pool finished second in the SEC and tied for 10th nationally with 120 tackles.
After a 5-0 start in 2021, Penn State finished the season 2-5 capped by a 30-27 loss to Michigan State. The Nittany Lions had four players — wide receiver Jahan Dotson, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, safety Jaquan Brisker and punter Jordan Stout — named first-team All-Big Ten.