James Franklin and his staff are saying all the right things, admitting Penn State’s problems and promising solutions.

  • The offensive line will improve, thanks to changes and renewed focus in strength and conditioning, scheme, play-calling and commitment to the ground game.
  • More young players, including true freshmen, are ready to play early in their careers than in recent years.
  • The program’s depth across almost all position groups is better.

For Nittany Lions fans who believe the hype, it’s music to their ears. But for the pessimists, it’s the same old song.

Dream season or new disaster? Let’s project …

DREAM SCENARIOS

It’s 2016 all over again

Penn State enters this season as an unranked curiosity coming off 2 subpar seasons, just like it did 6 years ago.

Remember what happened? Comes back like a dream, doesn’t it?

Unburdened by expectations, other than their own, the Lions roared back to life that year as Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Joe Moorhead became household names — and not just in central Pennsylvania.

Maybe 5-star RB Nicholas Singleton, blazing fast 4-star WR Kaden Saunders and other young, unproven prospects rev up the sputtering offense. Maybe Manny Diaz is the new coordinator providing instant juice this time, doing for the defense what Moorhead did for the offense back then.

The program needs a jolt of adrenaline from its newcomers and up-and-comers, and ideally it’ll come without 2016’s early nonconference loss (Pitt) and 2-2 start. Knocking off Ohio State in late October in Beaver Stadium again? That would be a dream.

O-line becomes a strength

Four of the 5 guys Penn State is likely to line up in front of Sean Clifford rated as 4-star recruits coming out of high school. Two of them were top-100 recruits — returning right tackle Caedan Wallace (81st, 2019) and Landon Tengwall (54th, 2021).

It’s past time for 3rd-year line coach Phil Trautwein to reproduce the success he had at Boston College.

Youth should not be an excuse. Other than Tengwall, the projected starters have all been around since at least 2020. Juice Scruggs, who will anchor the unit from the center position, arrived on campus in 2018. Grad transfer Hunter Nourzad started the past 20 games at Cornell and earned Phil Steeleā€™s Ivy League Offensive Lineman of the Year honor in 2021. He’ll either be pushing Olu Fashanu and Sal Wormley for a starting job, or he’ll be a solid, versatile 6th man.

There are 13 other OLs on the roster, most of them going about 6-3 and 300+ pounds. Penn State has the bodies.

If conditioning, coaching and scheme adjustments get them on the same page, Penn State’s offense could hum.

Sean Clifford shines as leader and mentor

As a 6th-year senior and 4th-year starter, Clifford settles in behind center like never before. Finally playing for the same offensive coordinator in consecutive seasons, he runs Mike Yurcich’s offense flawlessly. He gets the ball to the new and returning playmakers in rhythm, allowing them to be the show and carry the load.

The offense hums so well that Clifford spends many a fourth quarter watching and guiding Drew Allar as the 5-star freshman gets his feet wet at the college level. By the end of the season, Clifford has surpassed Trace McSorley’s records for career passing yards and TD throws, and Penn State hits double-digits in wins. More importantly, Allar plays extensively in the Lions’ bowl game and proves he’s ready to take over in 2023.

Manny’s men make magic moments

New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz delivers on his training camp talk about producing more sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers. Though young and a bit small in certain spots, the defense thrives on its speed and athleticism. Brent Pry is remembered fondly, but his bend-don’t-break defense isn’t missed as much as some might have feared.

Related: Big Ten Championship Odds

The Lions’ spate of momentum-changing defensive plays more than makes up for a slight decline in red zone efficiency.

Freshman class begins its historic run

The 5-star recruits see enough playing time and show enough flash to get fans extremely excited about the future.

Nicholas Singleton becomes the primary ball-carrier almost immediately, leaving veteran Keyvone Lee as a solid No. 2 at best — much like Master Teague behind TreVeyon Henderson last year at Ohio State. Dani Dennis-Sutton proves too good to keep off the field as an edge rusher. And Allar, as mentioned above, gets eased in at quarterback.

It doesn’t stop there. Several top 4-star guys — WR Kaden Saunders, RB Kaytron Allen, DL Zane Durant, OL Drew Shelton — become significant parts of the rotation. Penn State wins and develops players at the same time, something that hasn’t happened enough the past couple of years.

DISASTER SCENARIOS

Offensive changes don’t work

The coaches’ plan to find balance by running the ball more often and more effectively doesn’t work. Instead, it just leaves the passing game with less margin for error.

As it turns out, further abandoning the run — ala Purdue — would have worked better. The 3 new starters on the line don’t make the intended strides, and the offense doesn’t improve much on last year’s 3.2 yards per carry and 108.0 rushing yards per game. Not improving on averages that ranked 12th and 13th in the Big Ten? That’s a disaster.

Lions remain soft at point of attack, both ways

In the trenches and up the gut, Penn State simply can’t match up with the Michigans of the college football world. We are talking about a team that couldn’t run on Villanova last year and couldn’t stop the run vs. Illinois. Until the Lions prove otherwise on both sides of the ball, it’s fair to question their strength and toughness.

Something seems to be missing. Grit? Fierceness? A little nastiness?

Do the players just not have it in them? Can the coaches just not get it out of them? Is this a culture issue?

If we’re asking the same questions next year, one thing will be certain: It’s a trend. And not a good one.

Youth movement at middle linebacker doesn’t go well

Supposedly, it’ll be either Tyler Elsdon or Kobe King manning the middle of the defense, handling the on-field communication, directing traffic. The camp battle rages on as you read this. Whether it’s 6-2, 233-pound sophomore Elsdon or 6-1, 245-pound redshirt freshman King, Penn State will have a new starter at a vital defensive position.

Facing Purdue and Auburn on the road in the season’s first 3 weeks, Penn State can’t afford the adjustment period that guy is probably going to need. It could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Special teams miss Jordan Stout, Jahan Dotson

Penn State didn’t have to worry much about kickoff coverage last year, because Jordan Stout regularly blasted the ball through the end zone. Stout also flipped fields with his punting. Now that he’s auditioning for the Baltimore Ravens, Penn State must move on. Whether it can seamlessly replace him is anyone’s guess.

Jahan Dotson also is no longer around to field punts. And even having someone who can reliably fair-catch the ball is a luxury that shouldn’t be taken for granted. On the punts he did return, Dotson ranked 6th in the Big Ten at 7.4 yards per attempt.

Penn State cements also-ran status in B1G

It’s easy to rationalize Penn State’s past 2 seasons. The coronavirus year, 2020, was just a strange aberration all the way around. And last year started 5-0 before Clifford got belted in the ribs.

But another season at only 1 game on one side or the other of .500? Michigan and Michigan State won’t be slowing down to let James Franklin’s squad catch back up. If things go bad enough, that projected top 10 recruiting class for 2023 — the one led by 2 top-100 offensive linemen — might fall apart.

The Lions start this season on shaky ground, unranked and uncertain. Games against Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota aren’t the sure victories they sometimes were in the past. And those aren’t the big boys of the B1G. Penn State could wind up looking up not only at the 3 other heavyweights in the East, but several teams in the West, too.

Middle of the pack in the ever-expanding Big Ten? That’s a big drop-off from being the clear No.2 to Ohio State just 2 seasons ago.

That indeed would seem like an ongoing disaster.