The Nittany Lions are a team to watch this year.
The Big Ten’s new 14-team alignment brought another shift in the divisions for 2014. Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State and Michigan headline a strong East Division, with the Spartans and Buckeyes expected to be the class of the Big Ten this year.
In addition to the changes at the conference level, for the second time in three years, Penn State will have a new coach roaming the sidelines. James Franklin comes to Happy Valley after three years at Vanderbilt and is one of the top coaching hires of the offseason.
Franklin inherits a team with nine returning starters and question marks regarding the depth on the roster due to NCAA sanctions.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is one of the best in the Big Ten, but he will need help from an offensive line that is the team’s biggest question mark in 2014. How high can Penn State finish in the Big Ten East Division this year? Athlon polls a few experts to predict the Nittany Lions' 2014 record.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), AthlonSports.com
Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina), BTN.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), AthlonSports.com
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), AthlonSports.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
David Fox (@DavidFox615), AthlonSports.com
Early Penn State Game-by-Game Predictions for 2014
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Penn State’s hire of James Franklin was one of the best of the coaching carousel for 2014, and the Nittany Lions should improve off last year’s seven-win mark. Franklin got everything he could out of Vanderbilt’s roster over the last three seasons, taking the Commodores to three bowl games and back-to-back nine-win campaigns. Franklin inherits a Penn State roster that has talent but is short on depth. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is a rising star, and the defense will take a step forward under new coordinator Bob Shoop. The schedule isn’t daunting, which sets up Franklin to have a fast start. The Nittany Lions host Ohio State and Michigan State and won’t play Wisconsin, Iowa or Nebraska from the West. If the offensive line holds together, and the overall depth concerns don’t become an issue, Penn State will have a chance to get to nine or ten wins in 2014.
Brent Yarina (@BTNBrentYarina) BTN.com
When it comes to the Big Ten East in the first year of the new alignment, things don’t get much more favorable than Penn State’s draw. The two cross-division foes are Illinois and Northwestern, teams that combined to go 2-14 in the Big Ten last season; the toughest divisional tests come at home, with 2013 Big Ten title game participants Ohio State and Michigan State both coming to Beaver Stadium; and the road conference games are at Rutgers, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois, all winnable matchups. Pretty favorable, right? Still, Penn State has depth issues that could keep it from capitalizing on this draw.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Penn State has a superstar at the two most important positions in any football program: Under center and on the sidelines. The combination of Chrisitian Hackenberg and James Franklin is sure to be magical in Happy Valley, however, the rest of the roster needs to develop quickly. The offensive line is the biggest issue as the Lions are likely to lose one or two games they should not due to poor play in the trenches. The schedule isn't overly taxing but playing in the tougher division won't help. That said, a third straight winning season in the face of sanctions would be considered a huge success, in my opinion.
Brandon Cavanaugh (@EightLaces), HuskerCorner.com
James Franklin walks into a rough situation politically, but a fantastic one when it comes to what he's being paid for. While the Sandusky controversy and sanctions still loom, Penn State has plenty of talent to make noise in the Big Ten and Franklin is one of the best coaches in the country to lead this team in doing so.
In terms of talent, the offensive duo of quarterback Christian Hackenberg and running back Zach Zwinak's one to be feared. Bill Belton's a great compliment to Zwinak. If the offensive line and wide receiver corps can be solidified, this could be one of the most damaging offenses in the conference.
Defensively, Franklin has plenty of talent up front such as defensive end Deion Barnes. The linebacker slots don't appear solidified yet, but the royal blue and white defensive backs are nasty.
The schedule sets up wonderfully as the Nittany Lions should be 5-0 heading into their game against Michigan. I'll take Franklin over Hoke, so chalk that game up as a win. I can't see this team topping either Ohio State or Michigan State as both are the power schools in the entire conference right now.
Look for Franklin to silence any critics with a nine or ten win season.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
This was the first time I ran through the 2014 schedule for Penn State and picked wins and losses. Using just my gut instinct, I came up with 10 wins but even the most optimistic of Penn State fans would realize this has to be the ceiling for this team this fall. The concerns about the stability of the offensive line have been an annual tradition for as long as I have been covering the team just as white outs and tailgates, but this season could be the most alarming simply due to the impact of the recruiting sanctions the past few years. Bill O’Brien opted to pursue playmakers over line depth, but James Franklin and his staff will be prepared to handle the situation as best they can. Fortunately Penn State has one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten in sophomore Christian Hackenberg, and I think there is some great potential for the running backs to do some damage a variety of ways. As was the case last year though, Penn State’s defense has to clamp down on opponents for Penn State to win some games. The schedule is somewhat favorable, with bye weeks before primetime games at Michigan and at home against Ohio State. Odds are Penn State will drop a game they shouldn’t along the way, but if healthy they will have a chance to steal one they shouldn’t have either.
Mike Fiammetta (@B5Q), Buckys5thQuarter.com
The common thread with Penn State is easily identifiable: James Franklin was a home-run hire, and his staff is off to a blazing start on the recruiting trail. Pairing him with Big Ten Freshman of the Year quarterback Christian Hackenberg is an enticing match, though ongoing concerns about the offensive line might limit the Nittany Lions' offense this year. Between Hackenberg and running backs Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, there is enough firepower to expect Penn State's offense to be in the upper half of the conference. Defensively, Franklin inherits a strong front and secondary. The schedule is generally favorable, though a tough two-game stretch of at Michigan and then vs. Ohio State could alter the course of Penn State's season.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR)
James Franklin was the perfect fit to take over for Bill O'Brien in Happy Valley, no argument there. And Franklin's indoctrination to the Big Ten is not my biggest concern when it comes to the Nittany Lions this season. Nor is it quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Instead my primary fears for Penn State in 2014 have to do with an overall lack of starting experience and depth, especially on the offensive line and at receiver. Hackenberg can't win games by himself, not with a Big Ten schedule that includes Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions get a break in crossover action with Northwestern and Illinois, but that doesn't take away from a bruising East Division slate. Franklin did more with less at Vanderbilt and I have little doubt he will have similar, if not greater, success at Penn State. It just may take him a year or two to get the roster to where he wants it to be. Not that there's anything wrong with an eight-win season in the Big Ten mind you.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Penn State’s probably not good enough to “go chalk,” as in beating the teams they should beat. Somewhere the Nittany Lions are going to get bit by an offensive line that will be a liability all season and a front seven with some questions. That pretty much gives Penn State little chance against Ohio State and Michigan State. The scholarship limitations mean this team will be unpredictable even if it has one of the best passers in the country. We saw it last year when Penn State lost by 20 to Indiana and needed overtime to beat Illinois. That’s why I’ve put in another head-scratching loss to Northwestern