It’s almost the college football offseason, which means it’s “Way-Too-Early” rankings season. As is becoming tradition, our friends at Athlon Sports were the first to release their 2018 rankings, and they slotted the Nittany Lions No. 11, behind Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Michigan State.
After winning 14 games in his first two seasons at Penn State, coach James Franklin has guided the Nittany Lions to 22 victories and back-to-back trips to New Year’s Six Bowls. In order for Penn State to reach that level once again in 2018, Franklin’s team will have to fill a couple of voids, none bigger than at running back in replacing Saquon Barkley. Former five-star recruit Miles Sanders should be a standout performer at running back, but Barkley’s all-around big-play ability will be missed. With Barkley off to the NFL, the offense will lean a little more on quarterback Trace McSorley. As a junior in 2017, he completed 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns and rushed for 491 yards and 11 scores. McSorley’s receivers will look a little different, as DaeSean Hamilton (53 catches) and standout tight end Mike Gesicki have finished their eligibility. In addition to the personnel turnover, this unit will be under the direction of a new play-caller in Ricky Rahne after Joe Moorhead left to be the head coach at Mississippi State. The defense only gave up 4.77 yards a play in 2017, but coordinator Brent Pry will have some key players to replace. Linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen and cornerback Grant Haley each expire their eligibility. The Nittany Lions should have a strong front with the return of Shareef Miller, Shaka Toney and Kevin Givens in the trenches. Additionally, cornerback John Reid is back after missing all of 2017 due to an injury suffered in the spring. Penn State has a road trip at Michigan but games against Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin take place in Happy Valley.
All in all, I think Top 15-ish is about where the Nittany Lions should be ranked. Penn State loses a lot of production offensively, as Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, and Daesean Hamilton take their talents to the NFL. But fortunately, just about everyone else returns. Trace McSorley is an early Heisman favorite, and he’ll be protected by an offensive line that returns four starters, headlined by bookends Ryan Bates and Will Fries. Miles Sanders and Juwan Johnson should see their production increase, while incoming freshmen Ricky Slade and Justin Shorter should get ample opportunities too.
Defensively is where Penn State will be questioned the most, as the Nittany Lions lose eight starters. Obviously, that number is a skewed a bit since players like Kevin Givens, Amani Oruwariye, and John Reid aren’t considered “starters”, but regardless of semantics, Penn State is losing a lot of experience defensively. The Nittay Lions will be depending upon some young bucks — Yetur Gross-Matos, Lamont Wade, and Micah Parsons — to fill the void.
Next year’s schedule is harder...or is it easier? Depends on your point-of-view. Penn State will have Ohio State (Sept. 29), Michigan State (Oct. 13), Iowa (Oct. 27), Michigan (Nov. 3), and Wisconsin (Nov. 10) on the schedule, but all of those games — outside of Michigan — will be played within the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium.