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Why Penn State Will or Won't Make the College Football Payoff in 2018

Penn State Nittany Lions QB Trace McSorley

Penn State Nittany Lions QB Trace McSorley

Penn State has come close to making a push into the College Football Playoff each of the past two seasons but the Nittany Lions have not been able to get past the two-loss hurdle. Could this year be any different?

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin

The Nittany Lions may not be the prohibitive favorite in the Big Ten this fall, but there is enough in the cupboard to suggest Penn State is a team to keep an eye on this fall. With a couple of home games against some playoff-worthy opponents, the Nittany Lions will have opportunities to state their case as a viable contender for the four-team tournament in 2018.

Three Reasons Why Penn State Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018

1. Trace McSorley keeps the offense ticking

The loss of Saquon Barkley will have an impact on how different teams prepare for Penn State’s offense. McSorley did benefit at times by taking advantage of how teams were locking in on Barkley, but he has proven to be dangerous in multiple ways all on his own. That should continue this season as McSorley now becomes the primary star of the Penn State offense if he wasn’t already in that role.

McSorley’s return will help keep the offense moving after losing Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki, and wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton. Of course, Ricky Rahne takes over as offensive coordinator following the departure of Joe Moorhead to be head coach at Mississippi State. A lot has changed with Penn State’s offense, but McSorley putting up big numbers early on should show the Nittany Lions are still capable of doing some serious damage this fall.

2. Recruiting efforts provide stability on roster amid plenty of turnover

One area of the football program that has seen significant improvement under James Franklin has been in the recruiting game. With the Nittany Lions having sanctions and recruiting restrictions lifted from them by the NCAA, Franklin has gone on a great run of signing talent that will make for a smoother transition on both sides of the field.

The two most recent recruiting classes should really get a chance to shine this fall with players like linebacker Ellis Brooks, wide receivers KJ Hamler and Mac Hippenhammer and defensive prizes Lamont Wade and Micah Parsons potentially getting on the field. And the prized recruit form the Class of 2016, running back Miles Sanders, is expected to carry the football as Barkley’s heir to the starting running back position.

3. Key games played at home

Penn State has a schedule that is ripe with a few favorable draws. The conference schedule is highlighted by some key games being played in Beaver Stadium. The first big test is Ohio State coming to Happy Valley at the end of September. Penn State gets an extra day to prepare with a Friday night game the previous week, and then the Nittany Lions get a bye week to prepare for a revenge game against Michigan State. If Penn State gets wins in both of these games, then this team is suddenly a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.

Penn State draws Wisconsin and Iowa in cross-division play, but those games will also be played at home as well. If the Nittany Lions continue to be in the Big Ten title hunt with a possibility of making a playoff push, Beaver Stadium will be rocking for those two games.

Three Reasons Why Penn State Will Not Make the College Football Playoff in 2018

1. The defense has too many starters to replace

Not to suggest that Penn State’s defense will be weak this season, but there may be some moments that end up costing the Nittany Lions a play or a score here or there in crucial moments. This is because the defense returns just two starters, which means there are plenty of spots to fill.

Despite the upside potential for a number of defensive players brought into the program through fruitful recruiting, it takes time for those seeds to pay off. A team with the offensive power to expose a few cracks could be dangerous, such as Ohio State in September or perhaps like Michigan in November. Speaking of which...

2. Ohio State still the team to beat in Penn State’s division, if that even matters

The Buckeyes will likely be the runaway favorite for many to win the Big Ten this season, and that figures to make sense given where the Buckeyes program is sitting today. Penn State may have closed the gap some in recent years, and there is no question Penn State can play with Ohio State, but the Buckeyes have depth that is unrivaled in the conference.

If Penn State cannot land a home victory against the Buckeyes in late September, wiggling past them en route to a Big Ten Championship Game appearance remains unlikely. Penn State will likely have to beat Ohio State in order to have a shot at reaching the College Football Playoff. That is because...

3. Small margin for error means two losses could eliminate Nittany Lions

Penn State fans will be quick to point out that winning a conference championship may not be the most important ingredient to making the College Football Playoff, as the last two seasons have shown with Penn State winning a Big Ten title and being passed over by Ohio State two years ago and Alabama reaching the playoff (and winning the national title) without winning its division last season.

Because Penn State appears to lack a non-conference schedule that will provide any bonus points for winning, Penn State likely is in a position where it will need to take care of business in the Big Ten, which means winning games against Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Wisconsin during the regular season. Penn State may be able to afford losing one of those games, but a two-loss Big Ten champion could have a tough argument for making it into the College Football Playoff if you assume the champions of the ACC, SEC and Big 12 or Pac-12 end the season with one or fewer losses too.

Final Verdict

Penn State may not be a favorite to land a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the Nittany Lions will once again start the season on the radar. Despite the amount of roster and coaching turnover this season, there is much to like about Penn State this fall. Trace McSorley can be a difference-maker and if Penn State beats Ohio State, the season will quickly become playoff or bust. Penn State is talented enough but has to take advantage of the favors the schedule throws where applicable.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Penn State

Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 11

Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)

Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9.5

5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9.5

-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. 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.