I. Case History and Opening Statement
A. Case History
The cocky and arrogant head coach James Franklin appeared to be on the outs after starting his career in State College with back-to-back seven-win seasons. Then he got blown out by Michigan early in year three and it really looked like the Big Ten might be finally rid of the villainous hype master. Something horrible happened next, though. New starting quarterback Trace McSorley and his outstanding backfield mate Saquon Barkley led the no good Nittany Lions on a nine-game winning streak that culminated with a victory in the Big Ten Championship Game. Suddenly, Penn State was back. The horror.
The blue and white wave continued to roll in 2017, as the explosive Penn State offense overwhelmed opponents and paved the way for a second straight 11-win campaign. This one ended with a big Fiesta Bowl victory over Washington.
B. Opening Statement
Fans who don’t believe in James Franklin have been left to grasp at straws. Right now the refrain is “He hasn’t beaten a ranked opponents on the road.” Whether or not the Lions defeat Michigan in Ann Arbor this November, I’ve already figured out the 2019 anti-Franklin line: “He can’t win without McSorley under center.” Sure enough, the coach had trouble bringing home the bacon when Christian Hackenberg was the quarterback, and if McSorley has a Heisman-worthy season in 2018, there will be fans who say that anybody can win with that guy.
We’ll cross that bridge next year, though. For now, Franklin has got to concentrate on two things. First, he’s got to find McSorley enough viable targets to throw to now that DeSean Hamilton, Mike Gesicki, and Saquon Barkley have moved on. It’s also important to note that the offensive coordinator of the past two seasons, Joe Moorhead, is now the head coach at Mississippi State. Second, the defense has got to get better while at the same time replacing key pieces at middle linebacker (Jason Cabinda) and safety (Marcus Allen). If that doesn’t happen, Ohio State and Michigan State could both prove to be problems like they were last year.
Will the offense struggle without Barkley and Moorhead? I’m not worried about the running game with Miles Sanders taking over, but it’s doubtful that the new starter will have a similar impact on the passing game. Incoming freshman Justin Shorter is a big target and someone who can help out in that regard. He’s talented enough to play immediately and could replace Gesicki as the guy who can catch the ball even when he’s covered. Still, Shorter is unproven, and with Juwan Johnson as the one reliable returning receiver, new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne might need to get creative to keep defenses from zeroing in on the hero from last year’s Iowa game.
The defense is a bigger problem with big holes to fill at linebacker and defensive tackle. Penn State catches all the breaks, though, so one of last season’s linebackers, Manny Bowen, is back on the team despite being booted off of it last December due to a violation of team rules. Bowen boosts the experience level at the position, and that should help a run defense that will be missing its top four tacklers from last season.
I wrote in the Cocktail Party Preview about how the secondary could improve despite losing all of the 2017 starters, but it’s not as though that’s a lock to happen. After all, John Reid is coming off of a serious knee injury and the rest of the new guys have only played on a limited basis.
Up front, there are a lot of pass rushers returning, but none of of them stood out as a particularly fearsome quarterback hunter. Hopefully either Shareef Miller or Shaka Toney break out this year now that they’re a little less green, but if not, Micah Parsons might make an instant impact as a situational pass-rusher.
III. Emotional Plea
Please keep rooting against Penn State. I’m a very bitter person and the schadenfreude I get from disappointed fans of other teams only makes the victories feel better. I want to read a story every week about how a new fan base is enraged with James Franklin because he had the wrong kick block team on the field and called a timeout while up by 63 points. I want McSorley to get so obnoxious with his baseball bat celebration that he gets a sponsorship deal from Louisville Slugger, but doesn’t get suspended because the NCAA is still figuring out what to do with Urban Meyer. Mostly, I want people to keep finding new ways to doubt Franklin, but if he turns into a dominant and demonic figure like Nick Saban, that wouldn’t be too bad either. It’s a shame Mark May isn’t with us anymore — it’s not like he’s dead, he’s just not on television.
2018 Penn State Football Schedule
|September 1||Appalachian State|
|September 8||at Pittsburgh|
|September 15||Kent State|
|September 21||at Illinois|
|September 29||Ohio State|
|October 13||Michigan State|
|October 20||at Indiana|
|November 3||at Michigan|
|November 17||at Rutgers|
Would you look at that schedule? Isn’t it beautiful? There are only four road games this season, but two of those are at conference heavyweights Michigan and Wisconsin. What also stands out are the home games against Ohio State and Michigan State that were both road losses last year. Fortunately, there’s a bye week in between those to, because they’re going to be vital in deciding whether or not the Nittany Lions are playing for a Big Ten title in December. Up until the Ohio State matchup, the September schedule is predictably soft. At least Appalachian State is predicted to win the Sun Belt this year.
|Average||9.6 - 1.6|
Everyone is expecting big things from the Nittany Lions this year, and it’s hard not to see double-digit wins with the way the offense has loaded up on talent. The backs and receivers might have a lot to prove, but with McSorley returning and the offensive line continuing to improve, we are looking at a unit that might be better than last year’s. I think the reloaded defense keeps Penn State out of the title picture, though.