Right off the bat, I think Penn State loses to Ohio State and Michigan State. They're just two teams that are straight up better than Penn State, along with basically every other team in the country, and while losing will suck, going into those games with no expectations should make losing hurt less. Still, I expect the Nittany Lions to be competitive against Sparty, and while I don't think the game against OSU will be as close as last year's double overtime thriller, it should still be closer than 2013's 63-14 drubbing in Columbus.
This means that I think Penn State loses one more game over the course of the year. I am generally in the "Penn State will go undefeated in the non-con" camp, even if the games against San Diego State and Temple do scare me just a little bit. In the Big Ten, I think there's one loss in a game where Penn State just comes out a bit flat and an ostensibly inferior opponent is so amped up that it scores like 17 points in the first quarter and the Nittany Lions can't recover. I don't want to pick exactly what game that is – Michigan and, surprisingly, Indiana are the top contenders for that (I really, really like Nate Sudfeld) – but my general pessimism say that happens.
This leads to a Florida bowl against an SEC team on New Year's Day. Hopefully Georgia. That'd be fun and bloody.
Eli- 11 - 1.*
As the resident delusional optimist, I have to go with my gut. The similarities to 2005 are too great to ignore. Schedule sets up nicely, we return a ton of talent, we're coming off a year with an amazing defense paired with an awful offense, Ohio State is viewed as an unstoppable force that is just too unstoppable to stop, and last but not least, people just aren't expecting us to be competitive outside of the bottom feeders. As per how I think it will go down? We beat Ohio State, Ohio State beats Michigan State, Michigan state beats us, chaos ensues.
*I reserve the right to change this pick to 7-5 at any moment, without any prior notice.
Yes, the schedule is so remarkably easy that a 2-win improvement over last year's all-too painful season would be a major disappointment. But I simply can't buy that one offseason is enough to cure everything that maligned Penn State a year ago. Christian Hackenberg didn't just struggle, he was brutal. The offense wasn't just bad, it was genuinely among the worst in the entire country. And we lose the two best offensive linemen from quite possibly the worst in Nittany Lion history and expect massive, marked improvement, just because those same mediocre starters are now a year older? The receiving corps and backfield are absolutely stacked, but it's foolish to believe that John Donovan will unleash the full potential of a roster of skill players that deserves so much more.
As for the defense: Bob Shoop is a magician, and Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson are a terrifying pair of tackles. But nobody is obsessing over the losses of Mike Hull and Adrian Amos (and both starting defensive ends!), which leaves massive holes, especially in terms of depth, both are linebacker and safety--and even that assumes that Jordan Lucas won't be forced back to corner.
This team has a ton of talent, enough (especially on defense) to steer it through an embarrassing nonconference slate and keep it in almost every Big Ten game. But to expect a breakthrough is to bank on a whole mess of variables, and to extend to James Franklin an in-game benefit of the doubt that he didn't earn last year. We lose to OSU and MSU, and to either Rutgers or Maryland and never hear the end of it from that team's fans.
Nick M.: 11-1
11-1 seems plausible, assuming the offensive line can raise their level to above mediocre. Either Ohio State or Michigan State will win, odds are probably the Buckeyes in Columbus. The biggest issue with the offense last year was lack of consistent blocking in both the pass and run and it manifested itself in numerous ways beyond that, if that issue is resolved, there's really no reason the sky can be the limit with this team. If not, 8-4 is just as likely.
I'm of the oft-cited theory that they'll drop the two obvious ones (Ohio State and Michigan State) and one game they "shouldn't lose" (I'd guess Maryland or Michigan). Offensively, I see step forwards for Hackenberg, the running backs, and the wide receivers. I believe the offensive line and playcalling will be only slightly better and ultimately disappointing again. I'm not sure the defense can be quite as dominant as it was last year, but there's no question that it will still be the strength of this team. The special teams unit should be better as the team's depth has improved. Overall, that moves the needle by a couple of wins.
James Franklin posts the first double-digit season win total of his career in 2015. Buffalo, San Diego State, and Army are layups. Rutgers, Indiana, and Illinois are home games against lesser opponents. Temple (in Philly) and Maryland (in Balto) are "neutral" site games that closely resemble home games against lesser opponents. And just like that, we've already counted 8 games, and we have not yet played a true road game. Hooray, sanctions scheduling. Let's continue.
PSU plays jNW on November 7, by which point injuries are likely to have derailed another season for the Cats, because it never takes more than one or two injuries to ruin a season for the Cats. The odds are in our favor. Last, Michigan is at Beaver Stadium and they could be starting Iowa transfer Jake Rudock at quarterback. Let's repeat the most important aspect of that: Jake Rudock could be playing quarterback for Michigan. In other words, PSU will be favored, by legitimate bookmakers, in 10 of 12 games this year, frequently by 6 points or more. Our Lions stay healthy, gain confidence, cut mistakes in half, and win 10. We're ranked in the top 10 for the first time since..I can't remember when, but it's been a long time.
Someone has to do it. Penn State will find a way to win the games that it should win early in the year. Of the first six games, only Temple and Rutgers will hang in the balance until late in the fourth quarter. The Lions will get out to early leads and the defense will stymie the comeback attempt of the opposing team. OSU will be a tough opponent but karma will be on Penn State's side this year. The Buckeyes will spot Franklin's squad a quick ten points and then will not be able to make it all the way back for the win. Meyer will be seen, lonely and despondent, eating pizza on a golf cart at halftime and then once again following the loss. Only Michigan and Michigan State will prove to be a challenge in the final five games but the good guys will prevail. Toward the end of the loss, Michigan coach Harbaugh's thought-bubble that floats over his head will read, 'Maybe I should have worn my other khakis.' Mark Dantonio's thought-bubble will read, 'Pride came before the fall' as he watches his players exit the field after a losing effort.
PSU will roll past the fourth-best team in the Big Ten at the conference championship. America and parts of southern Canada will rally around PSU in the playoffs. The first game will be a tough win. The second game will be a four-hour coronation of Hackenberg, Franklin, and the entire Penn State fanbase. Following the game Daquan Worley and Grant Haley will hoist Hackenberg onto their shoulders, carrying him off the field even though his feet are still touching the ground. Order will be restored in the universe.
Last season, I took a close look at the offensive line and thought a 6-6 season was in order. Unfortunately, they proved me to correct. I certainly expect improvement up front this season, which should translate into a much more functional offense. The defense should be stellar once again. While they lose some key players, they could be even better than last year's unit that ranked second nationally in total defense, simply by not having to spend so much time on the field. Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson will be the main attraction, creating a season worth of highlights that garner plenty of attention and envy. On offense, the main story will be the emergence of the young and talented wide receiver and tight ends, as well as a much-improved Christian Hackenberg, who can hit the re-set button with better support surrounding him.
While this will be a much more enjoyable season than the mostly frustrating 2014 campaign, Penn State won't have what it takes to overcome Ohio State and Michigan State, and a sluggish day by the offense will cost them another to a hungry Northwestern squad. A 9-3 season that ends with a bowl appearance on New Year's Day will be a nice step in the right direction as the team builds for what could be a very memorable season in 2016.
Nick P.: 9-3
This is a good football team. They'll be called overrated all season long by everyone outside of Happy Valley, and it's possible that they will be, but this is still a very good football team. The defense loses some key pieces in Mike Hull, Adrian Amos and Deion Barnes, but they retained the most important piece in Bob Shoop. Wartman-White and Bell, along with a combination of Cabinda and Reeder should be just fine in the middle without Hull, thanks to the all-world defensive tackle combination of noted freak, Anthony Zettel, and human roadblock, Austin Johnson. Combining all of that with what is likely to be Penn State's best secondary in years, will lead to yet another year of an other-worldly Penn State defense.
Obviously, the offense is the side of the ball in question. Is the offensive line going to become a dominant force? Probably not. But that doesn't mean it can't improve on last year's effort. The receivers are still young, but now have an extra year of experience on their side. They seem ready to officially be labeled the best receiving corps in the Big Ten. Akeel Lynch, Mark Allen, Nick Scott and SaQuon Barkley will give the offense its most talented stable of running backs in recent memory. Christian Hackenberg seems primed to take what he learned last year and take the big step forward that everyone expected after his freshman campaign. All in all, there is plenty to like about the offense.
If everything goes as planned on both sides of the ball, this is a team that should easily be able to take the ten visible wins on their schedule, and could even go into Columbus or East Lansing and steal a victory. However, this is college football, and nothing ever goes as planned for a full season. Ohio State and Michigan State are not perfect teams, but they should both be able to handle the Nittany Lions. The third loss I have could come from anywhere. Temple, San Diego State, Northwestern (after what we saw last year) and Michigan all have potential to be tough games for James Franklin's squad. I see them tripping up in at least one of them, with the Temple and Northwestern games sticking out to me the most (Temple because of their defense, and Northwestern because it will be Penn State's tenth consecutive weekend on the field).
Really, all I want is to see Penn State either end up in a high-profile bowl game against an SEC team to see how our defense fares against them, or to see them play a fun Pac-12 team that will try to throw the ball 70 times on this secondary. Go State.
Penn State has the talent to win 10 games, but the stupidity of youth to lose 5 or 6. An exceptionally soft schedule, especially over the first half of the season should help PSU ease in their growing stable of young talent into the college game. The second half will be the trust test, with trips to Columbus and East Lansing standing out, but road games against Maryland and Northwestern, before hosting Michigan will not be easy either. It is one of those two I expect to trip up a young team later in the year. (Please don't be the Terps)
It won't be pretty at times, it usually isn't with so many young player in key spots. But, a revamped offensive line, with more defined roles, will allow Christian Hackenberg to look more like the 2014 version, than the 2015 version, and better open up holes for the Lions deepest stable of tailbacks in years. On the other side of the ball, Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel will again draw the attention of opposing offensive lines, allowing more 1 on 1 match-ups on the outside, and making life easier on the linebackers.
PSU is probably still a year away from truly contending for a B1G title, but a New Year's Day in Florida, against an overhyped SEC team, will be a perfect reward for a rapidly improving program.
Tim A.: 8-4
For the record, I think Penn State will win 9 games this season...I just don't think they will get that 9th win until whatever bowl game they play in (likely Outback or Taxslayer in this scenario). Yes, the O-line will certainly be an improvement over the Independence Day-style city fire that it was last season, but they will still have their frustrating moments and growing pains and are still one year away from truly becoming a quality unit. That being said, being merely bad or okay will still be enough to ensure that Hack will have more time to spend scanning the field for an open receiver than being forced to run away from an instantly-collapsing pocket (as you saw the in the Pinstripe Bowl, give him just 2-3 seconds and he will make something happen). More importantly, an improved O-line means better run blocking, which in turn will allow Akeel Lynch to build upon a solid second half of the season and also allow Mark Allen/Nick Scott/Saquon Barkley/whoever else may get carries besides Lynch to be productive. Oh, and I did neglect to mention the bevy of receivers? If Hack gets more time to throw like I think he will, look for that unit as a whole to take a great leap forward. Need I write a lot about the defense? I think we all know at this point, there isn't a whole heck of a lot to worry about with that side of the ball. I will be curious to see who steps up at defensive end and in the linebacking corps.
So, why 8-4? Obviously, I'm in "I'll believe it when I see it" mode with Ohio State and Sparty but let's also remember that despite returning a lot of starters, this is still a rather young team that is bottom-heavy on the depth chart. As a result, I do envision a WTF loss or two happening which will have Twitter and the message boards scrambling to find a member of the coach staff to verbally lynch. I don't see Temple, Buffalo, Rutgers, Illinois or even Maryland (especially after what happened last season) being among such losses, but overlooking San Diego State or a potentially hi-octane Indiana offense led by a healthy Nate Sudfeld would be a huge mistake and Northwestern always seems to give PSU a difficult time, no matter what the circumstances. Michigan is an absolute toss-up to me, at this point so losing to them would not scream WTF.
It may be bandwagony as it seems the safe, smart pick. But with two obvious losses on the schedule in Ohio State and Sparty, a propensity in past years for losing a WTF game (even in years like the magical one ten seasons ago), a soft schedule that sets up well in Franklin's sophomore effort and a ton of close losses that could have made last year look waaaay better record-wise, 9-3 seems like a pretty safe bet to me.
Last year's defense will be tough to match, let alone beat, but I bet Shoop's squad gets it done--according to Zettel at Big Ten media days, anything less than meeting 2014's stellar pace will be a disappointment. And if the offense is even slightly less than the dumpster fire it was last season, the D won't be put in as bad of a position and the strides will be much more obvious.
9-3 isn't too optimistic, or too pessimistic. Sounds about right to me.