Penn State has historically been a national powerhouse when it comes to athletics.
All told, the Nittany Lions have won 67 total national championships, combining men’s and women’s sports. Cael Sanderson’s Penn State Wrestling team has become a juggernaut, and brought home the hardware most recently this spring, in 2022.
So, who are the programs best positioned to win a National Championship in Happy Valley?
Here are Penn State’s five best chances to win a National Championship in coming years:
No. 5: Penn State Men’s Ice Hockey
This is a dark horse team that could surprise some people heading into the season.
Penn State Hockey has already received a No. 16 ranking in ESPN and known college hockey fan John Buccigross’ preseason rankings.
There is a possibility the Lions are ranked in the actual preseason USCHO rankings that will be coming out at some point over the next month.
Penn State Hockey only had a handful of seniors last season and return key contributors such as Paul DeNaples, Kevin Wall, and Connor MacEachern.
The Nittany Lions have a relatively easy non-conference schedule, with most of the games at home. We will find out whether the Nittany Lions can make it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018, pretty early on.
Although Penn State Hockey did win the Big 10 regular season crown in 2019-20, this will be the most experienced team since then. Team chemistry matters in hockey more than almost any other sport, so returning just about the entire roster is huge.
While the Nittany Lions might not have the most talented team in the country, this team can win a lot of games with players who have played a lot of minutes together like those 2016-2020 teams.
One of the four regional sites this year is back in Allentown again this season. If Penn State has a good season and can generate some excitement that could be a huge opportunity to play in front of a charged home environment.
The path is certainly there for the Nittany Lions to take the next step and if they get back to the tournament, anything can happen.
No. 4: Penn StateWomen’s Soccer
The women’s soccer program under Erica Dambach has been one of the most consistent teams at Penn State in her 15-year tenure as head coach.
The Lions have had a 243-84-22 record during this time frame making the NCAA tournament all 15 seasons.
Penn State has dominated the conference winning 11 Big Ten regular season titles and four Big Ten tournament titles over that span.
The Nittany Lions have appeared in the College Cup in both 2012 and 2015, winning it all during the 2015 season. This year Dambach’s squad entered ranked No. 14 in the preseason polls.
Penn State tied No. 19 Georgetown 2-2 and defeated No. 21 West Virginia in the early big matchups and are off to a 3-0-1 start and have improved their ranking to No. 10, as of August 23rd.
The Nittany Lions next travel on a tough road trip to the west coast and will face tough opponents Stanford and Santa Clara and this will be a real test to see how much of a national contender the Nittany Lions are heading into conference play.
Penn State is led by a collection of returning experienced starters as well as highly ranked freshmen. This season is setting up for a possible top 10 finish and if things break right, another national championship.
No. 3: Penn State Men’s Volleyball
While the Men’s team doesn’t get as much publicity as the women’s team, they still find a way to compete for a national title every season.
That is partially because there isn’t nearly the number of schools who sponsor the sport.
There are only 29 Division 1 schools that compete for the NCAA championship, and they are joined by 21 Division 2 schools, bringing the total to 50. The NCAA tournament only has seven teams invited with five automatic bids, and two at-large.
This is part of the reason why the Nittany Lions had their title hopes dashed in 2022.
There are only two Big Ten teams that sponsor Men’s Volleyball (Ohio State & Penn State) and because of this the Nittany Lions compete in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (EIVA). Last season they were ranked No. 2 in the nation heading into the conference tournament and were upset by Princeton at home and ultimately left out of the 2 At-large spots.
It is certainly strange to think of a team being ranked No. 2 one day and then not in a seven-team field the next but that is the quirkiness of men’s volleyball.
A weak conference resulted in a poor strength of schedule and is the reason that Penn State needs to get an Auto-bid. Once in the field it isn’t deniable that the Nittany Lions can do damage as they defeated many of the teams who made the tournament last year in the regular season.
If Penn State can win the EIVA this season, look for them to get a top seed in the NCAA tournament and then have a high chance of bringing a championship back to Happy valley.
No. 2: Penn State Fencing
Anybody that has been around the Penn State athletic department has heard the jokes about the Fencing dynasty.
While not a revenue sport or even a large sport, the Nittany Lions have won 13 National Titles since 1980 when the NCAA introduced Co-ed championships.
It is important to note though, that Penn State hasn’t won a championship since 2014, but was runner up in ’15, ’19, and ’21.
Like Men’s Volleyball, there also simply aren’t as many teams that are competing for the National Title.
Many fencing programs only have a women’s team which makes them unable to acquire enough points to win the co-ed national championship.
There are six individual champions awarded with three on the men’s side, and three on the women’s.
It is this reason that of the 32 champions crowned, 29 of them were won by either Penn State (13), Notre Dame (8), Columbia (5), and Ohio State (3). There has been criticism of the Co-ed model in recent years and a movement to have both a men’s and women’s fencing NCAA championship.
Until that happens, expect around 10 teams to compete for the team title which gives the Nittany Lions pretty good odds to return to the top.
No. 1: Penn State Wrestling
This was the most obvious choice.
It is without a doubt the best chance for Penn State to add another national championship this season.
The Nittany Lions will return three two-time national champions in Roman Bravo-Young @133, Carter Starocci @174, and Aaron Brooks @184.
Defending National Champion Max Dean is also returning to the 197-pound weight class.
In addition to the four defending champions, heavyweight could also be another class in which Penn State could find itself on top by the end of the season.
Greg Kerkvliet is coming off a fourth-place finish during the 2021-22 season and will be one of the favorites in the heavyweight division, especially with the departure of superstar Gable Steveson from Minnesota.
While there are five classes that Penn State is considered a favorite to win the national title, expect Sanderson to have new faces of super talented freshman and sophomores who will look to break out on the national stage this season.
The Nittany Lions winning 9 out of the 11 team championships is a result of having a high quantity of individual national champions as well as highly ranked wrestlers throughout the lineup that can get points in the tournament.
Expect the Nittany Lions to start the year ranked No. 1 and if everything goes well, finish on top for the 10th time in the Cael Sanderson era by the end of the season.