As is tradition in sports media, we can’t even let one season end without looking forward to the next season. So our friends over at Athlon Sports did just that, as they came out with their way-too-early Top 25 for 2017. The Nittany Lions checked in high on the list, being ranked as the No. 4 team in the nation, coming in just behind Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida State.
Here’s what Athlon had to say about next year’s squad:
The Nittany Lions were one of the nation’s most improved teams over the second half of 2016 and that momentum should carry into the '17 campaign. The defending Big Ten champions are loaded on offense with the return of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. Wide receiver Chris Godwin could leave for the NFL Draft, but tight end Mike Gesicki has already announced his intention to return to school for 2017. Even if Godwin leaves, Penn State should be fine at receiver with DaeSean Hamilton (34 catches), DeAndre Thompkins (27) and Saeed Blacknall (15). An improving offensive line loses only one starter (Brian Gaia), and there’s plenty of depth with the return of Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon after both players missed significant time this season. The defense gave up 5.04 yards per play under first-year coordinator Brent Pry and returns a good chunk of talent for 2017. Penn State’s toughest game is at Ohio State (Oct. 28), but Michigan (Oct. 21), Nebraska (Oct. 18) and Pitt (Sept. 9) all visit Happy Valley.
Depending upon how the depth chart shakes out, Penn State should be returning about 16 or 17 starters. And unlike past years, this won’t be the “second youngest team in the nation,” but actually a very experienced group. Only four of Penn State’s projected starters — Shareef Miller, Ryan Bates, Connor McGovern, and one of Menet/Gonzo/Fries — won’t have at least junior standing.
The schedule does look a bit more difficult in 2017, though. As highlighted above, the Nittany Lions will host Akron, Pitt, Georgia State, Indiana, Michigan, Rutgers, and Nebraska. But the road schedule looks brutal, with trips to Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Maryland on the docket.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, Ohio State checked in at No. 2, Wisconsin at No. 9, and Michigan at No. 10. Meanwhile, Michigan State, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Pitt all were categorized as “15 Others to Watch.”