Fourth year coach James Franklin has brought the Penn State football program back to prominence, and this 2017 team has the talent and drive to be even better than the 2016 Big Ten Championship team.
In his first year, Franklin went 7-6. Year 2 was 7-6. But last year his plan came together as the Nittany Lions finished the season 11-3, beat Ohio State at home, won the BIg Ten Championship over Wisconsin, and played, what in my opinion, was the most riveting bowl game of the 2016 season, a heartbreaking 42-39 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl. That heartbreaker and the fact that the Nittany Lions were not selected for the college football playoff, even though they defeated Ohio State and won the BIg Ten championship, were painful but also motivating. Ohio State showed why they didn't belong in the playoff as Clemson blasted them in the Fiesta Bowl semifinal game, 31-0. Those two things have made this 2017 Nittany Lions team even hungrier for more. They've got to navigate some challenging opponents in the Big Ten, but they have a talented squad capable of putting together a terrific season.
The main guy for Penn State and the Rolls Royce of this football team is running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley is back for his junior season after putting up stellar numbers as a sophomore. Barkley ran for 1,496 yards on 277 carries, a 5.5 average, with 18 TDs, and an average of 106.9 rushing yards per game. Barkley is also a heckuva receiver out of the backfield as he caught 28 passes for 402 yards and 4 TDs in 2016. He's a stellar overall weapon. I don't like talking about the Heisman Trophy much in August, really not until late October-early November, but everybody else does, and this guy is certainly a main part of the discussion. He'll have to prove it this fall, but if his work in the offseason indicates what kind of player he'll be in 2017, he should have an outstanding junior season. Barkley dropped his 40 time to 4.33 and has gotten his weight up to 230. He's 5'11". For this team to really excel, Barkley needs to have another exceptional year. And that is expected. And there is good depth behind Barkley. Miles Sanders, 5'11", 215, Andre Robinson, 5'9", 223, and Mark Allen, 5'6", 180, are all excellent backups, capable of giving Barkley a breather, and churning out yards and getting into the end zone in their own rights. Sanders didn't play in the spring game, but the Nittany Lions are high on him. Allen, who's smaller stature-wise, was impressive with his quickness and his pass catching in the spring. He's a good player. Robinson caught a 10 yard TD out of the backfield in the spring game. All solid players.
Quarterback Trace McSorley, 6'0", 195, is back for his junior campaign as well. McSorley, a redshirt junior, is a super runner, solid passer and good leader for this offense. He started all 14 games last season, and completed 224-of-387 passes, 58%, for 3,614 yards, and 29 TDs against 8 interceptions. Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead want more improvement in his accuracy, but there's a lot to like about McSorley. Backup Tommy Stevens is outstanding as well. The 6'5", 228 pound sophomore, had a heckuva spring game, completing 17-of-24 for 215 yards and 3 TDs. He can really sling it around. His deep ball is very accurate.
The wide receiver and tight end positions are close to being totally loaded. Franklin may need to develop the 2017 signee to really solidify a full arsenal of playmakers, along with his 2018 class, which is ranked 3rd in the country by 247 sports, but he's got a pretty explosive group right now. Tight end Mike Geseki, 6'6", 250, caught 48 passes for 679 yards and 5 TDs last season. Jeff Holland, 6'4", 248, is another weapon at tight end. The Nittany Lions staff are also very high on sophomore wide receiver Juwan Johnson, who had a big spring and looks ready to break out. He is 6'4", 228, a big target who can run. Penn State did lose star Chris Godwin to the Tampa Bay Bucs; he was a third round pick. Godwin caught 59 passes for 982 yards and 11 TDs. But Johnson, along with DeAndre Thompkins, 5'11", 187, DeSean Hamilton, 6'1", 206, who caught 34 passes for 506 yards and a 7, along with Saeed Blacknall, 6'3", 217, Irvin Charles, 6'4", 217, and Brandon Poik, 5'9", 175, can all be very good playmakers in the passing game. McSorley has a lot of weapons to work with. Franklin brought in 3 pretty highly rated incoming freshmen receivers, so they could add to the talented group he'll put on the field this fall.
The offensive line returns 6 of 7 players who started at some point last year including 4 starters. Connor McGovern will be the leader at center. He's a returning starter and stands at 6'5", 312. Left guard Ryan Bates, 6'4", 312, left tackle Brendan Mahon, 6'4", 318, and right tackle Andrew Nelson, 6'6", 305, are all returners for an offense that averaged 380 total yards and gave Barkley and McSorley plenty of space to work with. Right now, the starter at right guard is sophomore Steven Gonzales, 6'4", 341, and there looks to be pretty good depth overall up front. Not super depth, but some that can be developed. Franklin brought in 3 linemen, including high 4 star C.J. Thorpe, a 6'3", 318 pound guard, so he and the other 2 guys may be able to provide some more depth. Franklin is in his 4th year, and I always think it takes 5 years to really get your program in place unless you're Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. But Franklin looks to be in pretty good shape with the group he has on offense this season.
Free safety Marcus Allen led the team in tackles last season with 110 and added 6 tackles for loss. That's not always a good sign when your safety leads your team in tackles- you want your linebackers to- but they return some other solid players on the defensive side of the ball. Middle linebacker Senior Jason Cabinda, 6'1", 234 is the leader of the defense. He registered 81 tackles last year, 4 for loss and a sack. He was one of the stars of their spring, and he is a really solid guy personally as I heard him in an interview and he was impressive. He will be quite a player this season. Defensive tackles Curtis Cothran, 6'5", 301, and Robert Windsor, 6'4", 303, are 2 cogs in the middle of the defensive front. Defensive end Shareef Miller, 6'5", 257, will be counted on to get to the quarterback and affect him this season. Penn State recorded 40 sacks last year and 10 ints, which are decent numbers, but as Coach Saban says, 'sacks don't win games, affecting the quarterback does.' I thought that was an interesting comment by S. The secondary looks pretty solid with Allen, 6'2", 207, and corner Grant Haley, 5'9", 190, leading that group. They will need to jell in time for the season opener which is just a week and a half away from starting. But there is good personnel to work with on the back end.
Penn State opens with 3 out of conference home games. Akron and Terry Bowden come to Happy Valley on Saturday, Sept. 2nd, for an 11 AM CT kickoff on ABC. Then the Pitt Panthers are at Penn State on Sept.9th at 2:30 PM CT on ABC. Pitt defeated Penn State, 42-39 last year, so the Nittany Lions will be looking for some retribution. Georgia State on Sept. 16th is the third straight at home, then they hit the road where they are @ Iowa to face the Hawkeyes, a pretty good, under the radar team in the Big Ten. That should be a competitive game. Indiana comes to Happy Valley on Sept. 30th, then the Nittany LIons are @ Northwestern Oct. 7th. Northwestern defeated them soundly at Happy Valley 2 years ago. The teams didn't play last year. The Wildcats are a perennial bowl team and always field a solid team under Pat Fitzgerald.. Northwestern defeated Pittsburgh 31-24 last year in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium, and they have a good amount of players back. That'll be a challenge. After an off week on Oct. 14th, Penn State hosts Michigan, Oct. 21. Harbaugh has a young team, but he's recruited well, and the Wolverines embarrassed the Nittany Lions last year at the Big House, 49-10. It was the fourth game of the season and dropped Penn State to 2-2. They won their next 9 before losing in the Rose Bowl. If it wasn't interesting enough, the Nittany Lions then play @ Ohio State. Could be pivotal there in the Big Ten, though there are a ton of big time games before that one. That game will be televised by FOX at 2:30 PM CT on Oct. 28. On Nov. 4th, the Nittany Lions are @ a usually good Michigan State team. Though the Spartans had an off year last year, Mark Dantonio usually fields highly competitive teams, and this year's team will most likely bounce back. So another tough assignment. On Nov. 11th, Rutgers comes to Penn State. On Nov. 18th, Nebraska comes to Happy Valley, and on Nov. 25th, the Nittany Lions are @ Maryland. The Big Ten Championship game is Saturday, Dec. 2nd, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy, with a 7 PM CT kickoff. FOX will carry the game.
So should be another riveting season in Happy Valley, and one that can possibly be elite. The pieces are in place for an excelllent year. Games with Ohio State and Michigan loom large, and they should be on alert for games @ Iowa, Northwestern and Michigan State. Nebraska at home is no picnic either. But it's a game at a time for every team nationally, and Penn State is no exception. I'm sure Franklin and his team have Akron squarely on their minds. Bowden took his 2015 team to an 8-5 record and a Idaho Potato Bowl victory over Utah State, 23-21. Last year they were 5-7, but they're competitive.
Penn State will be a national contender this year if their defense can develop well in game 1 and going further. The offense looks locked and loaded for a big season.