Penn State has a transcendent bowl game opportunity in front it.
The Nittany Lions will be playing in their third big New Year’s Six postseason game in the past four years. A victory would provide them with another 11-win season and a Top-10 finish under coach James Franklin — and a shot of momentum heading into 2020, which is expected to be his best team yet.
Then there’s this: Penn State has not played in a Cotton Bowl in 45 years. And it will be playing the Memphis Tigers for the first time ever.
How will the Lions handle it all?
Here are five things to know about Penn State heading into Saturday’s game.
James Franklin has Tennessee ties
Franklin earned his head coaching stripes at Vanderbilt, just a three-hour drive east from Memphis on Interstate 40.
He transformed the perennial bottom-dweller of the SEC into a formidable opponent in just three seasons. Twice, he led the Commodores to nine-win seasons and recruited at a stunning pace in Nashville.
He never faced the Tigers there, but his team did play in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis following the 2011 season — a 31-24 loss to Cincinnati.
One of the most consistent winners
Penn State has earned 15 straight winning seasons, the fourth-longest streak in the nation.
Only Oklahoma (21), LSU (20) and Wisconsin (18) have more.
That comes despite the Jerry Sandusky scandal, which led to harsh NCAA sanctions. That included a loss of of scholarships, open transfers and a bowl game ban.
Still, then-new-coach Bill O’Brien led the team to 8-4 and 7-5 records in 2012 and 2013 with Franklin earning seven-win seasons in 2014 and 2015.
Since, the Lions have gone 41-11.
The best part of the 2019 team
Their defense has been among the nation’s best all season at stopping the run.
They are No. 5 now, giving up 97.7 rushing yards per game.
The Lions’ front seven is a deep, fast and multi-talented group led by All-American linebacker Micah Parsons, a formidable tackle rotation and defensive ends who don’t sell-out to get the quarterback.
Penn State is No. 7 nationally in scoring defense (14.1 points per game) and No. 9 with 12 recovered fumbles.
On offense, a weak spot and a coaching change
For the second straight year, the Lions have little depth and consistency at receiver.
They’ve survived in the passing game with electric wideout KJ Hamler and ultra-reliable tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers.
But no one else averages more than two catches per game.
Also of note on offense: Penn State’s offensive coordinator, Ricky Rahne, left earlier in December to coach Old Dominion. Franklin has not yet named a replacement, but tight ends coach Tyler Bowen will serve as interim coordinator and call plays for the Cotton Bowl. Bowen previously coached the offensive line at Maryland and was offensive coordinator for Fordham in 2016.
Why so many running backs?
In case you haven’t noticed, Penn State has had four running backs share time in the backfield this season. The idea was to let a true No. 1 runner emerge from this talented but unproven quartet.
Injuries and inconsistency just made the proving last a lot longer than expected.
Original starter Ricky Slade didn’t produce before finding his niche in the passing game. Noah Cain looked to be the leader until he went down with a lower-body injury.
Finally, former state track sprint champ Journey Brown took over in November, improving by the week.
He finished leading the team in rushing (688 yards), average per carry (6.1) and touchdowns (10).
His most telling stat? He lost only 11 yards on 113 carries this season.