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Penn State Football: 2017 Nittany Lions Preview and Prediction

James Franklin, Penn State Football

James Franklin, Penn State Football

Penn State may have been a surprise Big Ten champion last year, but the Nittany Lions aren’t sneaking up on anyone in 2017. The offense returns every starter but one while the defense brings back plenty of experience as well. Ohio State will get its shot at revenge against Penn State at home but Michigan, Nebraska and in-state rival Pitt all come to Happy Valley. The pieces and the schedule are in place for the Nittany Lions to repeat 2016’s success.

Previewing Penn State Football’s Offense for 2017 

The Nittany Lions enjoyed an offensive breakthrough in 2016 and return a pair of Heisman hopefuls in quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. McSorley threw for a school-record 3,614 yards in his debut season, with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His average of 16.1 yards per completion led the nation.

Barkley appears poised to pick up where he left off after gouging USC for 194 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. The junior already ranks 12th in school history with 2,572 career rushing yards, including 1,496 last year.

The Lions also have a marvelous pass catcher in Mike Gesicki, whose 679 yards as a junior were the most ever by a Penn State tight end. The team will definitely will miss NFL-bound receiver Chris Godwin, but with DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins and three other scholarship players back, there’s depth at wideout. 

It also helps that the line is no longer a liability. The Lions return four Rose Bowl starters up front and two other players with extensive starting experience. 

Previewing Penn State Football’s Defense for 2017 

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has some holes to fill at defensive end and outside linebacker. But due in part to a wave of injuries, the Lions used a lot of players last fall, so while they’re still fairly young, they aren’t inexperienced.

Torrence Brown, Shareef Miller and Ryan Buchholz are vying for the starting end spots, with seniors Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran back at tackle. Manny Bowen and Cam Brown were both thrust into the starting lineup last year at outside linebacker (Brown as a true freshman), and they’ll be back this fall. So will senior Jason Cabinda, a two-year starter who ranked third on the team in tackles last season despite missing five games with a wrist injury. 

The secondary got a big boost when free safety Marcus Allen announced that he would not be leaving early for the NFL. He’s been a starter since the seventh game of his true freshman season, and he was the third-leading tackler in the Big Ten last year with 110 stops. 

But the Lions suffered a major loss when standout cornerback John Reid went down with a potentially season-ending injury this spring. Penn State is deep at cornerback, but Reid won’t be easily replaced. The other back-end vacancy is at strong safety. Senior Troy Apke is the most experienced contender, but he’ll get a challenge from sophomore Ayron Monroe.   

Previewing Penn State Football’s Specialists for 2017

Penn State returns nearly every noteworthy specialist from last season. Tyler Davis hit 22-of-24 field goal attempts, and Blake Gillikin averaged 42.8 yards per punt. If there’s an area where PSU still needs to improve, it’s on kickoff and punt returns. The Lions finished 10th in the Big Ten in the former (19.7 yards per attempt) and 11th in the latter (6.5) last season. 

Final Analysis

College Football Top 25: Penn State

Penn State appears to have the potential, particularly on offense, to approach or maybe even surpass last year’s stunning 11–3 finish. Barkley and McSorley are the headliners, but the supporting cast, especially the offensive line, has made major strides, and those players are now versed in the intricacies of coordinator Joe Moorhead’s offensive system.

On defense, the losses are more significant, but there, too, the Lions have an abundance of young talent. So while they may not have re-established themselves as perennial powers, they’re trending up. Says coach James Franklin: “I think we can continue to build this thing and continue to do special things.”  

NATIONAL RANKING: 6

BIG TEN EAST PREDICTION: 2

Don't forget to check out Athlon Sports' entire college football Top 25.