The Cotton Bowl will be a final showing for Penn State’s small but powerful senior class.
All of these Nittany Lions playing their final college game, including junior defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos — and maybe one or two others we don’t know yet — have pushed Penn State to the edge of the College Football Playoffs.
But, probably more importantly, Saturday’s game against No. 17 Memphis will be a look into next season. Especially because of such high expectations already sparking.
Coach James Franklin and staff have been gradually rebuilding talent, depth and speed with their best product supposedly to come next fall. Their offensive line, for example, could be one of the best in the Big Ten after six years of rebuilding.
The Cotton Bowl will be the best look yet for key players and position groups that will decide if the Lions are ready to take that next crucial step.
In that regard, here are the most important things to watch from AT&T Stadium.
Defensive ends: Jayson Oweh, Adisa Isaac
You must have a dominating presence on the edge (if not two) to win the Big Ten and make a playoff run.
Penn State has owned that, in part, the past few years. But the effort was a bit underwhelming at times this season, when so much was expected.
Gross-Matos may be a high NFL Draft pick in the spring.
Junior Shaka Toney may leave early, too.
So focus on defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Adisa Isaac, both super-quick, physical freaks who flashed a bit this season. Many figured it would happen in bigger doses for them and others, such as Shane Simmons and Daniel Joseph.
They must at least begin to own the edge on Saturday.
Receivers: Jahan Dotson, anybody
The biggest disappointment, as a whole, the past two seasons.
How can you be a playoff team with only two reliable wideouts, both under 6-foot?
Possibly for a myriad of reasons, this group has been far too limited.
And if KJ Hamler leaves for the NFL, this will be the largest question mark going into 2020.
Rookie redshirts John Dunmore and TJ Jones are waiting a chance, but first crack goes to guys like Dotson, Daniel George and Cam Sullivan-Brown, all juniors next season. If they all stay in the program.
Jahan Dotson has shown the most big-play potential and reliability, but even he averaged less than two catches per game.
Linebackers: Brandon Smith, Jesse Luketa
Micah Parsons continues to pile up All-America honors and is sitting on a huge Cotton Bowl effort.
But we know where he’s headed. He’s building into the nation’s top linebacker, if not most dominating defender next season.
The others? This will be the Lions’ most talented linebacker group in a decade, even with the loss of senior starters Cam Brown and Jan Johnson.
Parsons, Brandon Smith and Jeese Luketa are all 6-foot-3 and more than 240 pounds. Their pursuit speed is elite, along with freshman Lance Dixon.
They will decide if Penn State truly owns the best front seven in the Big Ten.
Running backs: Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, Ricky Slade
The group is deep beyond compare with Ricky Slade, a 5-star recruit, running third or fourth string.
Again, though, do they all stay for 2020?
Penn State is bringing in two elite Florida running backs, 4-star prospects Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee.
Only so many high-end running backs can possibly hang around.
Journey Brown took over the position in the final month and may be the team’s most improved player. Slade already announced he is returning. Devyn Ford, arguably the most talented of the group, could re-define himself with a full year of college weight training. Noah Cain looked like the best of the group before an injury voided his last month.
At times, the rotation seemed clunky and ineffective.
The bowl game should show where each stands heading into the off-season and how they may tweak utilizing such a crowded room.