Penn State playing for the Big Ten championship in 2016 caught many by surprise, but this season will see the Nittany Lions as the most viable threat to Ohio State in the conference. While head coach James Franklin has said last year was last year and this year is this year, there is no question his team will begin the season with a renewed sense of confidence that has long been missing from the program.
And with playmakers like running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley following up a frantic run to the Rose Bowl with plenty of offseason buzz, complete with an offensive line that finally looks like a Big Ten front and coordinator Joe Moorehead back to call the plays, Penn State could have one of the most entertaining offenses in college football this fall. The defense has some room for improvement, but the Nittany Lions have what it takes to give any team on the schedule some nightmares if things go according to plan in Happy Valley, and that includes Ohio State and Michigan.
One quick glance at Penn State's schedule reveals a few games of note. The big one, of course, will be the late October road game at Ohio State. A revenge game for the Buckeyes after last year's stunner in Beaver Stadium comes a week after the Nittany Lions hope to score revenge against Michigan for the most lopsided and demoralizing loss of the 2016 season. Ohio State will be coming off a bye week too, which does not appear to bode well for Penn State. The Wolverines come to Happy Valley this fall as does in-state rival Pitt. Michigan and Pitt were the only two teams to defeat Penn State before USC in the Rose Bowl last year, but this Nittany Lions team looks to be more equipped for revenge against the Wolverines and Panthers.
But what about the other tricky spots on the schedule? Nebraska pays a visit and Penn State has yet to defeat the Cornhuskers since they ditched the Big 12 for the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions do have to go on the road to play at Iowa and Northwestern, and neither of those games are automatic wins.
Is there another run to Indianapolis in the fold for Penn State? Athlon Sports polled a few writers for their take on the Nittany Lions’ realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Penn State Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Penn State's offense will be very good this season, but it also will no longer be catching anyone by surprise. If offensive coordinator Joe Moorehead can stay ahead of the opposition and continue to find ways to adapt and change the game plan when needed, Penn State's offense should be difficult to stop. Ohio State and Michigan managed to clamp down on the offense last season, which leaves some room for improvement.
Teams will probably be able to move the ball on Penn State's defense too, but there are not too many offenses the Nittany Lions will face where that should be a huge concern. In the end, Penn State's season comes down to a few things. Can the Nittany Lions win in Columbus? If not, can they run the table in the Big Ten outside of the Ohio State game and make a case for a College Football Playoff bid at the end of the season? As pretty as Penn State's offense will look at times, it may still have to win a couple of games in ugly fashion. I have the Nittany Lions winning a few of those ugly games and scoring revenge against both Michigan and Pittsburgh. But getting past Ohio State this year seems unlikely.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
I’m tempted to take Penn State to finish 11-1 but it seems like this team might slip once on the road at Iowa, Michigan State or Northwestern to get the second loss. Coach James Franklin’s team should pick up where it left off at the end of 2016 and challenge for a College Football Playoff bid, provided the right answers are found on defense. The Nittany Lions need to restock at defensive end, and there are a few concerns in the secondary after starting cornerback John Reid was lost for the year due to injury. While the defense enters 2017 with question marks, the offense should be dynamic. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquan Barkley headline the attack, but the offensive line also is the deepest of Franklin’s watch. If Penn State avoids a road upset loss, the Oct. 28 game at Ohio State should decide the winner of the Big Ten East.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Last year saw the transformation of Penn State from mid-level prey in the Big Ten to a group of hunters, ultimately leading to a surprising conference title. Now James Franklin's squad will have to deal with being the ones who are hunted as the reigning champs and the kind of pressures that brings with it. Luckily the Nittany Lions have a team capable of making a run at Indianapolis with one of the best backfields in the nation between Saquon Barkley at tailback and quarterback Trace McSorley. If the defense makes a jump, there's no reason why PSU can't make the playoff and take that next step.
J.P. Scott (@TheJPScott)
I'm all in on the Nittany Lions in 2017. With 10 starters returning on offense – including the conference's best running back and arguably best quarterback – Penn State should have little trouble putting points on the board. Defensively, this unit is a good enough combination of veteran leadership and young talent to slow down most teams it will face. Couple that with a rather easy schedule outside of the trip to Columbus in late October to face the Buckeyes, and I can realistically see James Franklin's squad running the table. That said, road trip to Iowa and Northwestern in the first half of the season do stick out to me as trap games to keep an eye on.
Chip Minnich (@ChipMinnich)
Penn State returns Saquon Barkley, arguably the best running back in college football. The heart and soul of the Penn State offense, Barkley will be the primary focus of every defense that the Nittany Lions face this season. Even with defenses focusing upon Barkley, Penn State's offense, quarterbacked by Trace McSorley and augmented by stellar tight end Mike Gesicki, will be very difficult to stop.
Looking at Penn State's schedule, the Nittany Lions should get off to a great start with non-conference games against Akron, Pittsburgh, and Georgia State. Even with potential land mine games on the road at Iowa and at Northwestern, I like Penn State's chances to remain undefeated. I also like the Nittany Lions having a week off to prepare for Michigan in October. Penn State may have to outscore its opponents in 2017, as the Nittany Lions will have to replace several starters on the defensive side of the ball.
The biggest game on Penn State's schedule is the Oct. 28 road trip to Columbus. Ohio State has a bye before this game, and Penn State will be coming off what should be a physical contest with Michigan. Look for Ohio State to avenge its 2016 loss in this one. Penn State will be in a New Year's Six bowl, but I don't see the Nittany Lions in the College Football Playoff this season.