Penn State remains weeks away from commencing spring practice sessions but program perceptions for 2019 are already taking shape.
The Nittany Lions largely lingered in the teens while assessing several “way-too-early” Top 25 rankings published in January after Clemson punctuated the college football season with a win over Alabama in the National Championship Game. This week, ESPN again placed focus toward the future by revealing its initial 2019 Football Power Index rankings.
According to ESPN, preseason FPI ratings are determined by evaluating four factors:
- Team performance over the past four seasons (most emphasis on last season)
- Returning starters at quarterback, on offense overall and on defense
- Whether a team has a returning head coach
- Recruiting rankings over the past four seasons
Using this structure, ESPN rated and ranked all 130 FBS programs. The list begins with Clemson (29 FPI) and ends with University of Texas—El Paso (negative-22.2 FPI).
Penn State (15.4 rating) lands at No. 12, sandwiched between No. 11 Texas A&M (15.9 FPI) and No. 13 Ohio State (13.8 FPI). The Nittany Lions, who finished 17th in the final Associated Press Top 25 Poll last season following a 9-4 campaign, rank second among Big Ten programs, trailing only No. 5 Michigan (21 FPI).
Other conference representation throughout this first FPI assessment of 2019 features the following: No. 14 Michigan State (13.8 FPI), No. 23 Wisconsin (10.9 FPI), No. 25 Iowa (10.3 FPI), No. 28 Minnesota (9.7 FPI), No. 35 Nebraska (8 FPI), No. 48 Indiana (4.4 FPI), No. 53 Northwestern (2.9 FPI), No. 60 Purdue (0.2 FPI), No. 61 Maryland (0.0 FPI), No. 78 Illinois (negative-4.1 FPI) and No. 87 Rutgers (negative-5.3 FPI).
ESPN also assigned rankings to each squad based on outlook for offense, defense and special teams. Penn State is one of only nine teams to earn top-10 distinction for two of those units.
The Nittany Lions feature college football’s eighth-best defense and fourth-best special teams, according to ESPN. Considering some glaring special teams issues that popped up last season — coordinator Phil Galiano is departing to become a New Orleans Saints assistant — the latter evaluation likely seems lofty to plenty of Penn State fans, though the program returns an established All-Big Ten candidate at punter (Blake Gillikin), one of college football’s most productive freshman kickers in 2018 (Jake Pinegar) and an electric return man (KJ Hamler).
It’s no surprise to see the Nittany Lions defense earn respect. Penn State led all FBS squads in sacks per contest (3.62) last season, and ranked fourth in total tackles for loss (91). Despite the departure of five defensive starters, this group is viewed as one on the upswing in Happy Valley.
Offensively, the Nittany Lions are listed 22nd. Penn State must replace a record-setting quarterback (Trace McSorley), an All-Big Ten running back (Miles Sanders), two three-year starters on the line and faces questions regarding an inexperienced collection of receivers. Former five-star recruits Justin Shorter (receiver) and Ricky Slade (running back) are candidates to step up, while Sean Clifford and Tommy Stevens are expected to compete for first-team QB duties.
ESPN’s full FPI Top 25 is below:
1. Clemson (29 FPI)
2. Alabama (27.6)
3. Georgia (22)
4. LSU (21.5)
5. Michigan (21)
6. Oklahoma (19.3)
7. Notre Dame (18)
8. Florida (17.4)
9. Auburn (16.6)
10. Oregon (16.4)
11. Texas A&M (15.9)
12. Penn State (15.4)
13. Ohio State (13.8)
14. Michigan State (13.8)
15. Tennessee (13.7)
16. Mississippi State (13.5)
17. Washington (13.3)
18. Utah (12.4)
19. South Carolina (12.1)
20. Missouri (11.9)
21. UCLA (11.7)
22. Florida State (11.3)
23. Wisconsin (10.9)
24. Stanford (10.3)
25. Iowa (10.3)