James Franklin took over a Penn State football program in the midst of difficult times. His predecessor, Bill O’Brien, managed to keep the ship floating in spite of massive scholarship reductions and a four-year postseason ban for the program with a bitter taste attached to it in the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal that rocked State College and the nation in the fall of 2011.
It has been decades since Penn State last played a factor in the national championship hunt, but the seeds of a potential College Football Playoff contender in Happy Valley have been planted and are now ready to start blossoming under Franklin’s leadership.
Penn State will not be a Playoff contender in 2015, or possibly even in ‘16, but the Nittany Lions will be a tough hurdle for potential Playoff hopefuls Ohio State and Michigan State in Big Ten East division play. From that, the measuring sticks will be used to show just how far Penn State has to go.
Related: Big Ten 2015 Predictions
In the meantime, Franklin and his staff continue to grind on the recruiting trial in hopes of establishing depth across the roster as the program still crawls out from the sanction phase of the last few years. Not every position can be addressed in the blink of an eye, so multiple recruiting classes will be put together with the intent of getting Penn State up to speed with being a Big Ten championship program once again. Given how well the program has recruited since Franklin made it a mission to “dominate the state,” it looks as though there is a bright future ahead for a program that could very well be a sleeping giant ready to be awakened.
The upcoming 2015 season will be crucial for the development of those championship aspirations in Happy Valley, and protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg will be essential. This was an area Penn State did not thrive in last year, but one that should see some noticeable improvement in the fall.
The additions of Stanford offensive lineman Kevin Reihner and junior college transfer offensive lineman Paris Palmer will, if nothing else, add some depth in the trenches. They join a group of linemen that are able to flex at multiple positions on the line, something that has been a necessity at times given the shallowness of the depth chart in recent years.
A reduction in scholarships meant fewer scholarships to hand out to top linemen in order to bring in players at skill positions like Hackenberg, running back Akeel Lynch, tight end Adam Breneman, and receivers like DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall. All could play key roles in the offense this season, if Herb Hand can coach up the offensive line to take some steps forward. Given Hand’s track record, that seems likely to happen.
Last season saw Penn State give eventual national champion Ohio State all it could handle in a primetime game in Beaver Stadium. If not for a couple of officiating errors, who knows how the result may have been different form the overtime loss at the hands of the Buckeyes.
This season Penn State travels to Ohio Stadium in Columbus, a venue that has traditionally been unkind to the Nittany Lions since joining the Big Ten except for a few occasions. Penn State could also very well make its arrival in Columbus without a defeat if things go well early on. So could Ohio State, which will provide Penn State another opportunity to see just how close they are to being able to make a push for the College Football Playoff.
— 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 writes for CollegeFootballTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.