Saw this little factoid today and thought it was quite interesting:

In the final edition of the ESPN College Football Power Index of the 2020 season released this morning…a mathematical, formulaic look at who were the best teams in the nation last season…Penn State was ranked No. 24 based on the FPI, which ESPN insists “measures a team’s true strength on net points scale, expected point margin versus an average opponent on a neutral field.”

For those counting, that’s two spots ahead of the North Carolina team that went 8-4 and played in the Orange Bowl, and just four spots behind the Northwestern, which played for the Big Ten championship. If you look at the FPI number, Penn State (11.9) was actually closer to No. 6 (Texas had a 19.5) than No. 2 Ohio State (27.6) was to No. 1 Alabama (35.9).*

*I don’t know what that means, honestly. I just found it statistically fascinating.

Anyway, it occurs to me: Nobody knows quite what to make of Penn State right now. Not about what happened last year. Not about what to expect next year.

One of the things I really love the day after a major sports championship is decided is the “Way Too Early” “Who’s going to be good next year” polls and lists.

ESPN has their list out already: And Penn State is in the top 25.

CBS Sports has its “Way Too Early” Top 25…and while Coastal Carolina, Liberty and Louisiana all represent the Sun Belt Conference, Penn State is nowhere to be found.

And then you have Brett McMurphy, one of the really steady veteran reporters covering college football, who released his personal top 25 for 2021 on Monday night and actually ranked Penn State in the top 10.

Good news, everyone: I’m not going to do my own Way Too Early poll, because it’s way too early to do that. You know how I feel about polls. The preseason poll is actually a “way too early” poll for me.

But if you’re asking for a gut feeling, mine is that I can see where every one of these polls is coming from. The ESPN poll that has Penn State at No. 22 probably sees the Lions as a good bet to be in the poll at some point. The CBS poll looks at a team that started 0-5 and then ran off four straight wins to close out a part of their schedule that wasn’t the strongest. And McMurphy is looking at talent returning, at potential to make some early noise, at some of the moves the Nittany Lions have made this offseason to get better.

It’s mid-January. Penn State has a long way to go to get to September. Everyone else in college football does, as well. We all do.

But what’s fascinating about this team is that there’s still a ton of reason for excitement, along with pretty good cause for trepidation. There’s the bold move to improve the offense by bringing Mike Yurcich aboard as offensive coordinator, but there’s also the reality that he has to coach up Sean Clifford and/or Will Levis to get much, much better quarterback play than Penn State got in 2020. There is really good skill coming back at running back and receiver, but there are going to be concerns along the offensive line with center Michal Menet and guard/tackle Will Fries leaving for the NFL. There is plenty of hope in the secondary as safety Jaquan Brisker and cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, legit difference-makers, return; but Penn State’s front seven on defense was not good last year.

Bottom line is, this is a team with a lot of young, raw talent that needs to get a lot better, and frankly, a lot mentally tougher*, than it was at the beginning of 2020.

*Bring up the four-game winning streak after a five-game losing streak if you’d like, and I’d admit that was impressive. But the same group of players flat-out quit against Maryland and took weeks to recover from that. There’s no sense in having pride and fight if you don’t have it all the time.

Funny, but we’re looking at an NCAA landscape now that doesn’t promote parity all that well, and we’re all starting to wonder what a few more Alabama dominations in the championship game and some more playoffs that consist of four teams among the Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and Clemson pot will do to interest in the postseason. But Penn State, in itself, provides far more parity than its fans want. You just never know what to expect from those guys.

That makes them unpredictable and interesting, for sure.

The key is whether it also makes them somewhat dangerous.