Our ranking: No. 15 PENN STATE
Coach: James Franklin (25-15, entering the fourth season; 49-30 overall)
2016 record: 11-3, 8-1 in Big Ten, tied for first in East Division/Big Ten Champions
Look back: Penn State struggled to find its offensive identity early in the 2016 season, with Nittany Lions dropping two of their first four games. But things began to click in the month of October and the team rattled off eight consecutive wins, earning a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game. Penn State defeated Wisconsin to claim its first conference championship and first trip to the Rose Bowl since 2008. Penn State fell to then-No. 9 USC 52-49 in a thrilling Rose Bowl to close the season.
Offensive starters returning: 9
Offensive starters lost: 2
Defensive starters returning: 7
Key losses: WR Chris Godwin, OL Brian Gaia, LB Brandon Bell, S Malik Golden, DE Evan Schwan, DE Garrett Sickels
Top returnees: QB Trace McSorley, RB Saquon Barkley, TE Mike Gesicki, S Marcus Allen, LB Jason Cabinda, LB Manny Bowen
Strengths: The offense delivered record-setting 2016 season under first-year offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, with the team setting single-season marks for total offense (6,056 yards), passing yards (3,650), points scored (526) and passing touchdowns (29).
QB Trace McSorley set school single-season records in passing yards (3,614), passing touchdowns (29) and total offense (3,973). RB Saquon Barkley set single-season school marks for a sophomore after rushing for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns. He has a chance to become Penn State’s all-time leading rusher and cement his status a potential first-round NFL draft pick if he can come close to duplicating last season’s rushing performance.
Barkley will play behind a veteran offensive line that allowed just 24 sacks in 2016. TE Mike Gesicki, who was a second team All-Big Ten selection is the top returning receiver on the team with 679 yards and five touchdowns. He leads a talented and deep group of receiving threats.
Weaknesses: Penn State’s secondary struggled last season, allowing opponents to record nearly 218 yards per game through the air and complete more than 60 percent of their passes. Marcus Allen returns as the team’s top tackler (110 tackles) and his presence provides a solid foundation for the unit to build upon this offseason.
The defense registered at least 40 sacks for the second consecutive season, but the team’s top pass rusher Garrett Sickels (6 sacks) is gone.
Outlook: Expectations are high for this Penn State team and James Franklin knows it.
“I think our guys embrace it. They embrace those type of things. It challenges them and motivates them. But for us we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about those things,” Franklin said during the Big Ten media day.
The offense could be better than last season as long as McSorley and Barkley don’t take steps back in their development. The key to this season is the three-week stretch starting on Oct. 21 when the team faces division foes Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State.