Two years removed from a Big Ten title and coming off a year ending with a victory in the Fiesta Bowl, the Penn State Nittany Lions are looking to remain in the thick of the Big Ten championship picture in 2018. Doing so will come with a new batch of challenges for the Nittany Lions this season after losing offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to a head coaching gig at Mississippi State and dynamic running back Saquon Barkley to the NFL, but James Franklin's program brings back a number of reasons to be optimistic about the fate of the 2018 season.
For starters, having one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks coming back for a third year as the starter is a good place to begin the list of reasons why Penn State should feel optimistic about the upcoming season.
1. Trace McSorley
McSorley returns for his senior season at the helm of the Penn State offense after already establishing himself as arguably the Big Ten's top quarterback the past two seasons. Some have even drawn comparisons to Baker Mayfield's style of play, which is probably fair. McSorley is coming off a 28-touchdown season through the air after completing 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,570 yards.
McSorley also does some damage with his legs, proving a wrinkle to the Penn State offense that can keep defenses guessing. McSorley ran for 491 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, but how much of this will change now that Barkley is heading to the NFL remains to be seen. But with the experience McSorley has already racked up in the last two years, Penn State should feel extremely confident in having McSorley at quarterback.
2. New faces ready to step in
The amount of talent going out the door this season is significant — Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton leading the way — and cannot be overstated. But Franklin has done an exceptional job in rejuvenating the recruiting efforts at Penn State since his arrival and being able to work with a full slot of scholarship offers to hand out. This season may be the first chance we see just how well those efforts are paying off with some young faces potentially getting ready to step in and take on new roles.
The Fiesta Bowl served as a glimpse of things to come at Penn State, including getting running back Miles Sanders involved a little bit more as the likely successor to Barkley. Penn State played a bunch of younger players that have seen minimal roles in the bowl game, and with another spring and offseason to condition and work together, there could be a relatively seamless transition despite some turnover from last season on the roster and the coaching staff.
3. The schedule
Penn State had a brutal three-game stretch last season that included back-to-back road games against Ohio State and Michigan State. Those two games ended up costing Penn State a shot at a Big Ten title and, perhaps, a spot in the College Football Playoff. Next fall, despite drawing Wisconsin and Iowa in cross-division play, the Nittany Lions have a bit more of a balanced schedule to take on next season.
As long as Penn State can avoid an early non-conference upset to Appalachian State or Pitt, Penn State will close out September at home against Ohio State, a chance to take the lead in the Big Ten East early on. Penn State then gets a bye week before hosting Michigan State, and also get Iowa and Wisconsin at home. A road trip to Michigan in early November could be dangerous if the Wolverines have figured out their offense by then, but the schedule overall could be more of a benefit for Penn State than it was last fall if the pieces fall together with the offense.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.