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Penn State headed to Cotton Bowl for first time since 1975, will face Memphis

STEVE HEISER
717-505-5446/@ydsports
Penn State head coach James Franklin celebrates a 27-6 win over Rutgers during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
  • Penn State will face Memphis in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 28.
  • The Nittany Lions will enter at 10-2, while Memphis is 12-1.
  • Memphis is the American Athletic Conference champion.

The Penn State Nittany Lions are going to the Cotton Bowl for the first time in more than four decades.

The Lions (10-2), ranked No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, will take on 17th-ranked Memphis (12-1). The game will be played at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 28, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which is the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

The Lions may be mildly disappointed that they aren't going to the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. PSU was considered a strong contender for the Big Ten's Rose Bowl berth. That spot, however, went to No. 8 Wisconsin (10-3), which has three losses and is coming off a 34-21 loss to Ohio State (13-0) in the Big Ten championship game on Saturday night. Wisconsin will face Oregon (11-2) in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.

Two pivotal points may have helped Wisconsin edge out PSU for the Rose Bowl.

One, Wisconsin won the Big Ten West and played in the Big Ten title game. PSU, meanwhile, finished second in the Big Ten East.

Two, Wisconsin pounded Minnesota at home, 38-17, while the Lions lost at Minnesota, 31-26. That was apparently enough to offset Wisconsin's 24-23 loss to a .500 Illinois team.

PSU's two losses came to Minnesota and Ohio State, which have a combined record of 23-2.

Despite getting aced out of the Rose Bowl, the Lions are still going to a New Year's Six bowl game against the American Athletic Conference champion. Memphis will represent the Group of Five conferences. The Tigers won the AAC title game over Cincinnati on Saturday, 29-24.

The Memphis head coach, Mike Norvell, officially accepted the Florida State head coaching job on Sunday, replacing Willie Taggert. Norvell, however, says he plans to coach Memphis in its bowl game.

Penn State head coach James Franklin had been considered a candidate for the Florida State head coaching job before he agreed to a contract extension that guarantees him $34.7 million through 2022.

According to terms released by Penn State on Friday, the deal is worth an average of $5.78 million annually and contains up to $1 million in incentive bonuses each year. The extension modifies the initial six-year contract Franklin signed when he was hired in 2014. That contract was to pay him $4.6 million this year.

Memphis and Penn State have no common opponents. The Tigers' only loss this season came against Temple, 30-28.

After the best four-year stretch in Tigers history, they are playing in their first New Year’s Six game.

Penn State is going to its fourth Cotton Bowl, but its first in 45 years: The Nittany Lions’ last Cotton Bowl was a 41-20 win over Baylor on New Year’s Day 1975, three years after they beat Texas in that bowl. There was a 13-13 tie with SMU in their only other Cotton Bowl appearance, after the Nittany Lions were 9-0 in the 1947 regular season.

This will be the first meeting ever between the Tigers and the Nittany Lions, who are 29-18-2 in bowl games.

The Lions have made it to a bowl in all six seasons under Franklin. This will be Penn State’s 50th bowl overall.

Memphis is in a bowl for the sixth year in a row, and 12th in school history, the longest stretch in school history. It is their 12th bowl overall, but the Tigers have lost the last four, including 37-34 to Wake Forest in the Birmingham Bowl last year.

The Tigers finished two spots ahead of Boise State in the final CFP rankings. Cincinnati was 21st. They were the highest-ranked Group of Five programs.

Memphis is led by quarterback Brady White, who has passed for 3,576 yards and 33 touchdowns.

Fries says he's staying: Penn State received some good news on Saturday when redshirt junior offensive tackle Will Fries announced his decision to forgo the 2020 NFL draft and return to the Lions for his redshirt senior year.

The Nittany Lions are now set to return four of their five starters on the offensive line in 2020.

Fries announced his decision via his personal Twitter account with a statement, citing personal and team goals as the reason for his return.

“There are some goals that were set for me and this team which have not been achieved yet,” the statement read. “We have more to accomplish and higher aspirations to strive toward. I know this team will do it and I want to be part of that success.”

The redshirt junior started all 12 regular season games for the Nittany Lions in 2019 and has appeared in 38 games in his career, with 32 total starts.

Fries is the second offensive lineman to announce his return after fellow redshirt junior Michal Menet, the team’s starting center, announced his decision to return Tuesday afternoon. Fries and Menet will join redshirt freshman offensive tackle Rasheed Walker as returning full-time starters. Redshirt junior co-starters at left guard, Mike Miranda and C.J. Thorpe, are also expected to return in 2020. Should Miranda and Thorpe also return, the 2019 unit will only lose redshirt senior guard Steven Gonzalez.

Sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth also announced his decision to return to Penn State after the Nittany Lions took down Rutgers in the regular season finale. The Nittany Lions will, however, be losing junior defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, who declared his intention to enter the 2020 NFL draft Thursday.

Reach Steve Heiser at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com. The Associated Press and the Centre Daily Times contribued to this report.