Finding The Best Penn State Football Team Since 1996

Which Penn State football team was the best to play the game but not win a national championship? It seems the Nittany Lions are annually on the doorstep of greatness, and without a national title since the 1980s, every new year brings new hope for a title charge.

When was that last best chance, though? Are the best days of Penn State football behind us or have modern times brought more opportunities to reach the promised land?

Using What If Sports‘ SimMatchup tool, we put the Nittany Lions to the test and found the best team since 1996. Seeded by record and recency, the teams are as follows:

  • 1. 2022 (11-2)
  • 2. 2019 (11-2)
  • 3. 2017 (11-2)
  • 4. 2016 (11-3)
  • 5. 2009 (11-2)
  • 6. 2008 (11-2)
  • 7. 2005 (11-1)
  • 8. 1996 (11-2)
  • 9. 2023 (10-3)
  • 10. 1999 (10-3)
  • 11. 2018 (9-4)
  • 12. 2011 (9-4)
  • 13. 2007 (9-4)
  • 14. 2006 (9-4)
  • 15. 2002 (9-4)
  • 16. 1998 (9-3)

Round Of 16

The tournament kicked off with a close matchup between No. 1 seed 2022 and No. 16 seed 1998. Kevin Thompson’s squad relied heavily on the running back tandem of Eric McCoo and Cordell Mitchell to give Sean Clifford and Co. a run for their money, but a last-minute touchdown from Nick Singleton sealed the deal for 2022.

The No. 2 seed 2019 team walked all over 2002, with Clifford tossing touchdowns to Pat Freiermuth and Noah Cain before Jake Pinegar knocked home five field goals to move through the first round unscathed.

2017 also had a blowout against No. 14 seed 2006 as Trace McSorley threw four touchdowns, two of which went to Juwan Johnson. Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders also punched in two scores in the second half to put away Anthony Morelli’s side.

In the fourth matchup, 2016 jumped in front of 2007 early with an 81-yard connection from McSorley to Chris Godwin and finished the half ahead 35-10. Morelli’s Nittany Lions mustered a comeback in the third quarter but failed a two-point conversion, falling too far behind to compete down the stretch.

The No. 5 vs. No. 12 matchup saw the first upset of the tournament with a hungry 2011 side trouncing Daryll Clark’s 2009 Nittany Lions. Matt McGloin threw three touchdowns on 24 completions, jumping to a 24-10 lead by the half. Silas Redd took the reins in the second half, racking up 106 yards and running out the clock to advance to round two.

The No. 11 seed 2018 team also upset its opponents, sending Clark home again with a fourth-quarter explosion from Sanders. His 121 yards helped 2018 complete a 14-point comeback and move forward in the tournament.

1999 moved forward in a low-scoring affair. The pre-millennium defense led by LaVar Arrington shut down Michael Robinson’s squad and held it to just two field goals.

Finally, the No. 8 v. No. 9 matchup closed the opening round with a close match between 1996 and 2023. Drew Allar’s 391 yards and two touchdowns just weren’t enough to overcome Wally Richardson as a late house call from Aaron Harris sent last year’s team packing.


With some experience under their belts and the rust shaken off (especially the 1990s teams), the Nittany Lions began the second round of the gauntlet. The first matchup saw Clifford’s 2022 team put away the 1996 squad with three first-half touchdowns to Jaden Dottin, Brenton Strange, and Parker Washington. Curtis Enis racked up 172 yards on the ground, but with no touchdowns, his side was eliminated.

2019 cleaned up 1999, eliminating the century’s last squad. Clifford and Dotson combined for two second-quarter touchdowns to go up 20-0 at halftime. On defense, Micah Parsons, Yetur Gross-Matos, Odafe Oweh, and Shaka Toney each picked up sacks against Thompson while Cam Brown, Tariq Castro-Fields, and John Reid made his day worse by forcing three interceptions during the steamrolling.

No. 11-seeded 2018 team continued its Cinderella run in a McSorley vs. McSorley matchup against the 2017 Nittany Lions. The more experienced quarterback won the day, coming up clutch in the fourth quarter. He took a quarterback sneak to the house and found Sanders in the air to go up by two possessions late.

Ending off the second round, 2016 and 2011 had a close matchup that went down to the wire. Both sides traded touchdowns throughout the game, with McGloin and Sanders carrying their sides through stifling defense. The score read 20-19 in favor of 2011 with just 1:23 in the fourth quarter after an Anthony Fera field goal. 2016 wouldn’t go down, though, and marched down the field for a 50-yard Tyler Davis buzzer-beater to advance.

Semifinals & Final

Two McSorelys, two Cliffords, and one simulated championship.

No. 1-seeded 2022 couldn’t handle 2016 Barkley on the ground, allowing two rushing touchdowns, a receiving touchdown, and 243 all-purpose yards. Clifford also tossed three interceptions, with Brandon Smith taking his pick 81 yards to the house, letting 2016 advance to the final unscathed.

Clifford had his revenge, though, returning fire with a dominant three-touchdown performance. McSorley’s two early interceptions set the tone for 2018, setting up a final of two juggernauts.

2016 and 2019 faced off in the final and fought a barnburner for the title of best Nittany Lion team of the last 25 years. McSorley won the quarterback battle, throwing three touchdowns in the air with a 75% completion rating on the day, but Journey Brown matched his tally on the ground for 2019, tying the match at 37-37 with 1:24 in the fourth quarter. Barkley had the final say, though, picking up 46 yards on the final drive to give Davis a 37-yard attempt with three seconds left. He drilled it, crowning 2016 the best simulated Penn State squad.


Each team in this tournament had a shot to win. Arrington, McGloin, Clifford, Allar, Robinson, Paul Posluszny, and Tamba Hali each gave their squads the x-factor to push the simulator in their favor, but 2016’s Nittany Lions had too much talent to handle.

McSorley, Barkley, Godwin, Mike Gesicki, Jason Cabinda, Marcus Allen, and countless others on the same field must have been something to watch in person. I’m jealous of you, 2016 Penn Staters.

They went 2-3 against the national champion Crimson Tide in the simulator, too.

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About the Author

Jack Scott

Jack is a junior industrial engineering major from Pittsburgh, PA. Sometimes, he enjoys the misunderstanding of his friends and family that Penn State Club Ski Racing may be a D1 sport and usually won't correct them. Jack is way too into Thundercat for his own good. Follow him on Twitter @joscottIV and Instagram @jackscott._iv

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