At the end of the 2016 season, Penn State found itself in a situation not many could have fathomed earlier in the year- in heavy consideration for the College Football Playoffs. Ultimately, the committee decided to go with Big Ten East Division runner-up Ohio State, who would go on to a humbling 31-0 defeat to Clemson.
With its central cast of characters returning, Penn State will have its sights set higher than just defending its Big Ten crown. But will this be the team that becomes the first in program history to be selected for the College Football Playoffs? Let’s take a look at six key factors that could determine if the Nittany Lions will be among the four teams looking to become national champions.
Improvement from the Offensive Line
After years of subpar, and at times, absolutely horrendous offensive line play, Penn State is finally looking strong in the trenches. Thanks to a full allotment of scholarships and a masterful job of recruiting by James Franklin since arriving in Happy Valley, the offensive line is stacked with young talent who have quickly proven themselves. They will now be joined by several highly sought-after true or redshirt freshman with sky-high potential who seem ready to step in and make an impact.
While everything is looking great on paper, the line now must live up to expectations. There was a vast improvement from the unit in 2016, especially considering all of the injuries at the tackle position. However, they still have a long ways to go in terms of run blocking, which still proved to be problematic despite the incredible numbers put up by the offense. If the offensive line can regularly win battles in the trenches and clear lanes for Saquon Barkley and company, Penn State’s offense could be next-to-impossible to stop.
Saquon Keeps Doing Saquon Things
This is far-and-away the most reliable item on this list. As long as the ball is in Barkley’s hands, there is always a chance he makes it to the end zone. And each time Barkley steps on the field, the defense must pay attention to his every move- making the rest of the offense, filled with highly-talented skill players in a high-octane system, that much more dangerous.
Barkley had another exceptional offseason, and enters the new season bigger, stronger and faster- clocking in 40 times as low as 4.29. The most dynamic player in the nation just may be leading the most potent offense in college football this fall.
Development at Defensive End
Penn State has loads of potential at the defensive end position that now must translate to productivity. Shareef Miller, Torrence Brown and Shane Simmons could all be on the verge of major breakout seasons, and players like Shaka Toney and Daniel Joseph are reportedly having outstanding camps as they prepare to see the field for the first time as redshirt freshmen. The Nittany Lions will feature a deep rotation at defensive end, and will need a few players to take a huge step forward in 2017. If you want to be one of the best teams in the nation, consistent pressure from a four-man front is an absolute necessity.
Finding a Successor for Chris Godwin
Penn State’s wide receiver situation is very similar to defensive end- loads of raw potential that must now translate to success on the field. There are high hopes for Saaed Blacknall after his incredible performance that helped propel Penn State to a Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin. However, an off-the-field issue led to a suspension in the Rose Bowl, not allowing him the opportunity to prove he could perform at a consistent level. Blacknall’s career at Penn State has included many big plays, but he also has a tendency to disappear. He has the size and speed to become a match-up nightmare, and the time has come for him to make a major step forward.
Speaking off a terrific combination of size and speed, Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson will be entering their redshirt sophomore seasons looking to take on a much larger role in the offense. Johnson was the talk of spring camp, and could very well be on his way to becoming Penn State’s latest breakout star. James Franklin has also speculated that Charles may be the most talented receiver he’s ever coached, which means he has sky-high potential for greatness. DaeSean Hamilton also received high praise from coaches and teammates for his productive offseason, and the recently named captain could be destined for a huge season after seeing his numbers dip the last two years.
While there is an outstanding collection of talent, someone must step up to become THE guy that McSorley looks to when a play is needed- much like he looked to Godwin when the team desperately needed a big play, or just converting a third-and-six to keep the chains moving.
The Linebackers Remain Healthy
This may be the one thing that could absolutely make or break Penn State’s season in 2017. Just like a season ago, the linebacker position has the thinnest depth on the roster- which played a huge role in all three losses of the season where the linebackers were forced out of action for injury (or suspension in the case of Manny Bowen in the Rose Bowl).
While Penn State may not have the desired experience at linebacker, it does have an incredibly speedy group. Manny Bowen, Cam Brown and especially Koa Farmer have tremendous speed on the outside. While Bowen is the only one with experience as an every-down ‘backer, all three could help Penn State’s defense reach new heights with proper development. But first, they must remain on the field. If not, Penn State will need to force several young linebackers into action prematurely, which could have dire consequences against a productive offense.
Consistent Play from the Secondary
Despite likely losing John Reid for the entire 2017 season, Penn State’s secondary has the potential to be outstanding, especially with a potential All-American in Marcus Allen lining up at free safety. Grant Haley and Christian Campbell are proven talents at cornerback, and thanks to the success on the recruiting trail during the past few years, there is loads of talented players itching to see the field throughout the secondary. Depending on the development of players like Garrett Taylor and Zech McPhearson, there may be no reason to worry. However, games against Indiana and USC last season showed that the secondary could struggle at times- something that can easily sidetrack the entire season should it cause the team to lose a shootout somewhere along the way.