Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions' Big Ten title hopes hinge on several high-profile home games
The past two seasons have seen James Franklin and Penn State roar back to prominence. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten championship two years ago and saw its College Football Playoff hopes dashed by a combined total of four points in back-to-back losses on the road. With a new offensive coordinator and having to replace some studs on offense, can Trace McSorley carry the load enough to keep things moving for the Nittany Lions?
Competition in the Big Ten East is tough by default, but Penn State gets some key division games at home with Ohio State and Michigan State early in the schedule. November poses a difficult back-to-back combo with a road trip to Michigan and a home game against Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin the following week. The Nittany Lions will have opportunities to prove whether they will be a playoff contender or a pretender, and we may know which side they fall on early on.
Here is how Athlon Sports writers are weighing in on Penn State for the 2018 season.
Penn State Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2018
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
James Franklin has Penn State trending up entering 2018 and there’s no reason to expect a significant drop-off from a program that has earned back-to-back New Year’s Six bowl trips. But there are a couple of obstacles this team will have to overcome this fall if it wants to win the Big Ten. Former play-caller Joe Moorhead had a huge impact on the offense over the last two seasons, and it’s up to Ricky Rahne to keep this unit performing at a high level. Running back Saquon Barkley will be missed, but Miles Sanders is a breakout candidate, and senior quarterback Trace McSorley ranks among the nation’s best. Penn State has also made significant strides up front.
Franklin’s biggest concern might rest with a defense that returns only three starters. Each level was hit hard by departures, but thanks to standout recruiting classes in recent years, the drop-off could be minimal. Additionally, the fall return of Manny Bowen gave the linebacker unit a boost. How far Penn State climbs in the Big Ten is likely to be decided in a pair of brutal back-to-back contests. The Nittany Lions host Ohio State and Michigan State in the first half of the season, followed by a matchup at Michigan on Nov. 3 and a home date versus Wisconsin on Nov. 10.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Penn State's 2018 schedule is challenging. In addition to the usual slugfests with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions play both Wisconsin and Iowa, the two top teams in the Big Ten West, and also visit rival Pittsburgh in non-conference action. Penn State catches a break early, with a trip to Illinois before the Ohio State game and a bye before the Michigan State game. But later in the season, the Lions play three very physical teams in back-to-back-to-back weeks -- Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Saquon Barkley was a heck of a player for the Nittany Lions but the drop off shouldn't be too bad for James Franklin and company as there's still a lot to like about the roster and contending for the division. The losses on the back end of the defense are a little concerning and might keep them from really ascending into the Big Ten elite but another New Year's Six bowl wouldn't be surprising at all for this team, which might have one of the Heisman favorites at quarterback too.
Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB)
Penn State will not be the best team in the Big Ten this season. That will be Ohio State. However, Penn State gets the favorable schedule that brings Ohio State to Happy Valley in late September (and one extra day to prepare after playing at Illinois on a Friday night the previous week), along with Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin. It's possible Penn State, even with the losses on offense, can win all of those games. Do that, and a road loss at Michigan may be a mere stumbling block on the way to a Big Ten Championship Game opportunity. Put Penn State on the playoff radar to start the year and Trace McSorley in the Heisman spotlight if he leads Penn State to a win over the Buckeyes.