If you believe the talking heads out there, Penn State is going to be a top 25 team this year, but very few think the Lions could be a top 10 team.
The biggest issue, they cite, is the offense. While the defense is set to be a monstrous unit, the offense is nothing but question marks - according to those talking heads anyway. I disagree!
Let’s take a quick glance at last year’s offense by the numbers.
They averaged 423 yards per game (45th in the country), 218.1 passing YPG (77th), and 204.9 rushing YPG (29th). This is fairly obvious, but the lack of execution in the passing game directly resulted in the rushing game being used more - whether by design or by quarterback scrambles. But in general, this offense was around the top third of the country in yardage.
However, the team actually scored 33.8 points per game, good for 32nd in the country. So they actually outperformed themselves in the point-to-yardage comparison. Hard to believe, given how much the offense seemed dysfunctional at times, that they nearly averaged five touchdowns per game.
Now, let’s take a look at this year’s offense.
First, at QB we have Sean Clifford, backed up by Will Levis. This should be a sizable paradigm shift in how the QB position operates, going from the slippery McSorley to the more stationary Clifford, who will rely more on the pass than the QB sneak.
Second, we have a good mix of returning reliability and fresh talent in the receiving corps. Pat Freiermuth and Nick Bowers could be one of the best TE combos in the conference, KJ Hamler is a human joystick, and Justin Shorter and Jahan Dotson bring some serious skill. The combination of skilled, reliable receivers and a pinpoint accurate QB should be deadly.
Third, we have, like, all the four star running backs. The depth chart will be something like Ricky Slade - Journey Brown - C.J. Holmes - Noah Cain - Devyn Ford. Those five players combine for 20 stars, which is a lot. Without a true feature back a la Miles Sanders, the running backs should stay much fresher as the season wears on, and they share the load via rotation.
Fourth, we have some new faces on the offensive line, but they’re über talented and carry mean streaks. Rasheed Walker and C.J. Thorpe figure to be the two new big uglies up front, and they’re good. Really good. The biggest complaint for the OL last season was pass protection and an uptick in sacks - I can’t help but think at least some of that had to do with the issues McSorley and the passing game went through. Again, I can’t help but think a new QB and receivers will have an impact here.
And fifth, Ricky Rahne now has a full season as offensive coordinator under his belt. While his play calling often seemed stale, I also can’t help but wonder about some of the player execution that went on during the season. If you’re worried that a trickier play won’t work, wouldn’t you stick with a more vanilla approach?
All of this to say, I think the offense is going to catch more than a few people off guard. Even one to two fewer dropped passes per game probably leads to more points per game. Supposing, just for a second, that the team can rack up just one more touchdown per game. Going from 33 PPG up to 40 PPG moves the offense from 32nd all the way up to 13th.
A top 15 offense paired with what should be a top 10 defense? Uh, yes please. In fact, in 2018, only two teams managed to couple a top 15 offense with a top 10 defense - Alabama and Clemson.