After taking the Big Ten by storm and knocking on the doorstep of the College Football Playoff, Penn State looks to take the next step with one of the top offenses in the nation.
Finally back to full strength and catching up in a big way off the field with prep and training, the 2017 Nittany Lions look as close to a national title contender as they have been in a long time. But with success comes new expectations and now everybody will know just how dangerous James Franklin’s team can be.
Can Penn State follow-up a Big Ten championship season with a return to the conference title game, and perhaps make its case for the College Football Playoff more definitive than the Nittany Lions did last season?
Three Reasons Penn State Will Reach the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. The offense starts the season on the right foot
Year two with offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead coupled with starting the year with a confident Trace McSorley at quarterback and an improving offensive line should allow Penn State to be able to start the season on a more reliable footing with the offense than it did last season. If Penn State’s offense starts the 2017 season the way it ended the ‘16 campaign, watch out.
2. Revenge games at home
There were just two teams that beat Penn State in the regular season last year, and this year both must make the trip to Happy Valley. Pittsburgh ambushed Penn State early on last season in the revival of the in-state rivalry and had to hang on for a win. Michigan never let the foot off of the gas in Ann Arbor in a blowout. But this season both teams replace key players while Penn State is more experienced and confident. Getting Pitt early in the season and Michigan after getting a week off to prepare could lead to revenge wins at home for the Nittany Lions.
3. Saquon Barkley is a beast
If Penn State is going to thrive this season, it will be with Barkley continuing to show off how dominant he can be. Barkley came close to a 1,500-yard season last year after rushing for 194 yards and two scores in the Rose Bowl. Look for some more big performances from the potential Heisman Trophy candidate. However, he was held to just 59 yards on 15 carries against Michigan last season.
Three Reasons Penn State Won’t Make the College Football Playoff in 2017
1. Penn State’s biggest weakness: special teams returns
Having an offense with players like McSorley and Barkley and a tight end like Mike Gesicki can overcome some poor returns on kickoffs and punts, but a battle of field position can easily be flipped in the opponent’s advantage. Penn State will hope to get more out of its special teams this season after finishing toward the bottom in Big Ten in both kickoff and punt return averages.
2. The defense can be scored on
Despite a wildly successful season, Penn State’s offense managed to make up for some defensive shortcomings last season. Pitt exposed Penn State early on by marching down the field with ease. Michigan took advantage of an injury-depleted unit, while USC scored 52 points on the Nittany Lions. The key is having the right offensive weapons to catch Penn State behind a step or two.
3. The Ohio State Buckeyes
There are plenty of reasons why this game is not scheduled in Penn State’s favor this season. First, the Buckeyes have the previous week off while Penn State is looking for revenge against Michigan. Urban Meyer’s record in revenge games is an impressive 11-2 during his run as a head coach. Oh yeah, and Ohio State should be darn good this season and dominated the Nittany Lions’ offense for much of the game last year (take one look at the box score). Ohio State will be the biggest hurdle to clear this season.
Penn State absolutely has a chance, so long as the defending Big Ten champs can avoid a significant upset along the way. Beating Ohio State may be required, but do not overlook potential difficulties on the road in Big Ten play with games at Iowa and Northwestern. Either team could pull off the upset and put a dent in Penn State’s Big Ten and College Football Playoff hopes.
But having what could be the Big Ten’s top offense certainly helps. Getting some key games at home (Pitt, Michigan, Nebraska) also helps, but a three-game stretch of Michigan and back-to-back road games against the Buckeyes and Michigan State will be what makes or breaks Penn State’s season.
This also is a new test for Penn State as the Nittany Lions will not sneak up on any team after winning the Big Ten title last fall. They’ll start the year in the playoff conversation, but may end the season as the Big Ten’s No. 2 contender.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 6
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2 (7-2 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 and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. 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.