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B1G 2016 // Penn State Nittany Lions Cocktail Party Preview

If you're not hyped, prepare to get hyped.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, it's time to start talking about the Nittany Lions again. I'll try to be optimistic this time around. Actually, I won't have to try, because the quarterback who was not fun to watch for the past two years is gone.

Last season

The good news...

With a 7-6 record, Penn State finished above .500 for the 11th season in a row. For some, that ought to be enough for Penn State fans considering where the program was supposed to fall once the NCAA levied heavy sanctions on it back in 2011. For others, the time for sanctions to be used as an excuse for Penn State has long passed and the time for head coach James Franklin to show off the skills he used to turn around traditional SEC doormat Vanderbilt has arrived.

The bad news...

Franklin finished with nine wins and a ranking in the AP Poll at the end of his last two seasons at Vandy, so common sense would dictate that he win at least that many games with a Penn State program that is brimming with fans, resources, and potential talent. Not everything has gone to plan during the first two years in Happy Valley, as the Nittany Lions have played below expectations, especially against their top competitors in the Big Ten East. At least in 2015 they found a way to defeat both Maryland and Rutgers.

On the offensive side of the ball...

The good news...

Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is finally gone and that means Franklin and his new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead can focus less on keeping the phenom inherited from former head coach Bill O'Brien upright and more on running an offense that can move the team closer to becoming a Big Ten title contender.

That offense will probably involve a lot of handing off, as last year's freshman sensation Saquon Barkley returns at tailback, and he could be paired with arguably the most talented ball carrier in the nation's 2016 recruiting class. That would be Miles Sanders, a tailback out of Pittsburgh who would probably start right out of the gate for most of the teams in this conference. The presence of both players should keep each guy fresh as well as take some pressure off of new quarterback Trace McSorley.

There's also some pretty talented wide receivers returning to Penn State in 2016. Chris Godwin emerged as a star in 2015 with 69 receptions and 1,101 yards, and he'll be joined by DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall, both of whom have plenty of upside left. Hamilton in particular is interesting because he had one of his best games of the season while catching passes from McSorley in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

The bad news...

Based on how the offensive line performed last year, there could be a lot of pressure on McSorley no matter how well the guys behind him perform. Hackenberg oftentimes was under siege from the moment he touched the ball in 2015, but fans sometimes forget how wishy-washy his accuracy was even with a clean pocket. With McSorley, Penn State is hoping it has a guy who can at least complete short passes consistently and escape pressure with his legs. That way, even if the veteran offensive line doesn't show improvement, the Lions can stay out of 3rd-and-long more easily than they did in 2015.

On the defensive side of the ball...

The good news...

Starting linebacker Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell return alongside Nyeem Wartman-White, who was injured in the first half of last season's opening loss to Temple and missed the rest of the campaign. The trio has the potential to form a linebacking corps as intimidating as those in the mid-2000s that sent players like Paul Posluszny, Sean Lee, and Navarro Bowman to the NFL.

The outlook is a lot less rosy in the secondary, where safety Jordan Lucas and cornerback Trevor Williams have exhausted their college eligibility. However, this is a unit that should remain strong thanks to increased contributions from cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley, as well as safety Malik Golden. All three guys are far from untested, but the fate of the secondary will depend on how they handle bigger roles. If they do so with aplomb, it will allow for returning safety Marcus Allen to play closer to the line of scrimmage do what he does best: hit people.

The bad news...

There are some pretty big shoes to fill on the defensive line as Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel, and Carl Nassib all prepare to play in the NFL this year. We all know that the battle in the trenches and defending against the run is more important in the Big Ten than in any other conference, so Penn State's success on defense could depend on how the replacements perform. Lone returning starter Garrett Sickels will be expected to take down opposing quarterbacks while Antoine White tries to make a name for himself on the inside. If the front four struggles early, fans will be calling for Shane Simmons, a freshman pass rusher who was the top-ranked defensive player in this year's Penn State recruiting class.

About special teams...

The good news...

Tyler Davis returns to handle place kicking duties. The redshirt junior was perfect after taking over for Joey Julius last year with eight field goals and 11 extra points.

The bad news...

Can you punt? Do you still have college eligibility left? If not, does the NCAA think you have eligibility left? Penn State needs a punter after both Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello averaged fewer than 40 yards per attempt last year. We're also due to see less of Julius, who became a sensation in 2015 due to his unique body shape. He might still handle kickoffs, though.

The schedule

Date Opponent
Sept 3 Kent State
Sept 10 at Pittsburgh
Sept 17 Temple
Sept 24 at Michigan
Oct 1 Minnesota
Oct 8 Maryland
Oct 22 Ohio State
Oct 29 at Purdue
Nov 5 Iowa
Nov 12 at Indiana
Nov 19 at Rutgers
Nov 26 Michigan State
The good news...

The conference schedule has five home games for what I'm guessing is the first time in history. That has to be a plus, but one that will only happen every other year from here on out. Even so, Penn State could win more road Big Ten games than home Big Ten games with the way the opponents are lined up.

The bad news...

You'd almost rather have Ohio State in Columbus because Penn State doesn't beat the Buckeyes at home very often.

If you're talking to a Penn State fan...

Do mention: Grilled Stickies, the Sheetz in downtown State College, Penn State's record against Rutgers and Maryland, how awesome the offense is going to be under Moorehead.

Don't mention: Hackenberg's draft stock, John Donovan's game plans, that game against Temple.