Penn State has gone to a New Year’s Six bowl game each of the last two years under James Franklin and last season’s Fiesta Bowl win represented just the second major bowl victory in two decades in Happy Valley. The losses the program faces this year are considerable, but so is the talent on hand as Penn State makes a run at another trip to college football’s national stage.
Saquon Barkley, the #2 overall pick in the NFL draft, is gone. So is offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who got the head job at Mississippi State. So is most of the defense. In spite of this, I think Lion fans should be optimistic about this year and here’s why:
*As talented as Barkley was and as worthy as he was of his draft status (I’d have picked him first), he wasn’t given the football enough. A friend of mine who’s a season-ticket holder at Penn State said that was something fans were often mystified by and it left me baffled. For our purposes here, it means his production won’t be as difficult to replace as might appear on first glance.
*On a directly related point, I don’t think Penn State is going to miss Moorhead, the man responsible for Barkley’s lack of touches, something I still think cost this team last year’s game in Ohio State, which in turn cost them the College Football Playoff. I believe Franklin’s recruiting is a far bigger reason for the Lion resurgence than the strategic work of any coordinator.
*Speaking of that recruiting—it’s been solid for four years now and the incoming freshman class went through the roof, ranking in the top five nationally. In the backfield and on defense, there’s plenty of talent to fill the holes in the lineup.
In that vein, let’s shift the focus away from what Penn State lost and on to the assets they have. Trace McSorley leads a passing game that was the best in the Big Ten last year. Juwan Johnson is a big and physical wide receiver, the kind that can consistently win battles for 50/50 balls over defensive backs down the field. That’s the offensive formula Penn State used to win the Big Ten title in 2016 and it’s there for them again this year.
Four offensive lineman return. One of last year’s highlights for Penn State was watching Barkley juke and shift his way to four-yard gains on plays that should have been two-yard losses. That’s a nice way of saying there’s room for the offensive line to get better and I fully expect a successful running back-by-committee approach to produce good results.
The Lions lack experience defensively, but they have playmakers on the edge. Shareef Miller is one of the Big Ten’s best defensive ends. The freshman to watch is Micah Parsons, a five-star recruit out of Harrisburg. Parsons will play some mix of defensive end and outside linebacker, but either way, he’ll get his chances to be on the field and pressuring the quarterback. How quickly he comes into his own will go a long way to determining Penn State’s success.
The schedule works out for the Lions. The Big Ten East is never easy, but two of the three big games (Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan) are at home. Wisconsin is one of the crossover games, but they go to Happy Valley. And Penn State also draws Illinois, the one team in the West it will be almost impossible to lose to.
Penn State’s path back to the New Year’s Six is simple—split the four games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin and win all the rest. 10-2 will put them in a big bowl again. The oddsmakers don’t see the Lions in a rebuild mode—the Over/Under on wins is 9.5 and the odds to win the conference championship are a fairly short 5-1, given how heavy a favorite Ohio State is. That’s how I see Penn State too. The only thing that can keep them from 10 wins is if the young players just have a lapse somewhere in a game they should win.