I have no idea what to expect from Penn State in 2019, and neither do you.

Quite frankly, I don’t think James Franklin does, either. Forgive that awful pun and think about the massive transformation this program is set to experience.

I could go on for days about how valuable Trace McSorley was, and I could actually make a decent case that he was more responsible for the resurrection of the program than Saquon Barkley. I’ll save that take for another time and instead just praise the fact that McSorley was the most prolific quarterback in Penn State history.

Anytime you have to replace someone of his caliber, it’s a bit of a mystery. It’s an even bigger mystery when we’re talking about doing so with someone who has yet to start a college game.

But Penn State is the B1G’s biggest mystery in 2019 because of all the other pieces it has to replace, and the coach who has to pick up the pieces.

The amount of atypical departures (early NFL draft entries and transfers) is well-documented. By the latest count, 15 Penn State players either announced their intentions to forgo their senior seasons or transfer.

Here’s a list of the 5 players who declared for the 2019 NFL Draft:

  • Miles Sanders, RB
  • Kevin Givens, DL
  • Ryan Bates, OL
  • Connor McGovern, OL
  • Shareef Miller, DL

And the list of 10 players who are either transferring or have put their names in the transfer portal:

  • Ayron Monroe, DB
  • Alex Gellerstedt, OL
  • Danny Dalton, TE
  • Dae’lun Darien, LB
  • Juwan Johnson, WR
  • Zech McPhearson, CB
  • Brandon Polk, WR
  • Sterling Jenkins, OL
  • Isaiah Humphries, DB
  • Brelin Faison-Walden, LB

You’ve got former players wanting to know what’s going on. It’s a fair question to ask when you lose that many players when the head coach and each of the top 2 assistants are still on staff.

That’s why it makes the Lions so difficult to project. If there are some major internal issues that aren’t seeing the light of day, that can overshadow any on-paper analysis. Right now, the projections for the Lions still look somewhat favorable.

Here’s where Penn State ranks in some of the major way-too-early top 25 rankings for 2019:

Publication
Penn State’s preseason ranking
ESPN
17
Sporting News
12
Sports Illustrated
14
The Athletic
21
Athlon
13

That’s an average ranking of 15th. Technically, that would be an improvement from the Lions’ final 2018 Associated Press Top 25 ranking of No. 17.

To be fair, a lot of those rankings came out before we learned that a crazy amount of Penn State players were leaving in atypical fashion. I wonder what those rankings would like if they were done today. Shoot, I wonder how different they’ll be come fall camp when we’re getting into the nitty gritty of projections.

We’re talking about a Penn State team that’s entering spring camp with 10 scholarship offensive linemen. Remember how that was the crutch Franklin leaned on when he couldn’t figure out a way to keep Christian Hackenberg upright? That’s a small margin for error this offseason.

Sure, the Lions will add some depth when the entire 2019 class arrives. Franklin is closing in on another top-10 class, which is a major plus for perception around the program as we make these 2019 projections. Returning a couple of dynamic freshmen skill players in K.J.Hamler and Ricky Slade helps, too.

But even though Franklin has 3 consecutive top-20 seasons with a B1G record of 21-6 during that stretch, Penn State isn’t at an Ohio State level when it comes to roster depth. There are very few teams nationally who can lose that many key contributors and not suffer a noticeable setback. I don’t think Penn State is one of them yet. The program which has only had 11 NFL draft picks in the Playoff era so far hasn’t developed talent at an elite level.

And as many Penn State fans would tell you, the program was less than elite in 2018. After the 4-0 start against some rather pedestrian competition, the Lions finished the year 5-4. They only beat 1 team that finished ranked, and it was a home win against No. 25 Iowa.

The 0-3 mark against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State reeked of pre-2016 Penn State under Franklin. Go back to 2017 and the Lions have actually lost 5 in a row to their 3 division rivals.

Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

That’s the thing that would worry me if I was a Penn State fan. The margin for error in the B1G East is small. It wasn’t that long ago that the Lions looked like a team that was destined for mediocrity in that division on an annual basis. Will they revert back to that in 2019? I’d argue avoiding that dip is Franklin’s biggest challenge yet.

Great coaching can overcome a lack of returning production — the Lions are 100th in FBS in that — or a daunting schedule. After what we saw from Franklin in 2018, I’m not of the opinion that he’ll ever get back to that 2016 National Coach of the Year level. If he can overcome all of this preseason turmoil and get the Lions back to the B1G Championship, he can prove me wrong.

But I just have a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to Franklin.

Maybe it was being at the Citrus Bowl and witnessing him blow another late-game decision that cost Penn State another big-time win. I hated the fact that when I asked him about why he made the call to not go for it on fourth down and how not giving McSorley the ball would sit with him, he cited receivers dropping passes. The very next day, Franklin fired receivers coach David Corley after 1 year.

Whether the move was justified or not, it served as a reminder of how Franklin can get defensive and lack accountability when things don’t go Penn State’s way.

Things haven’t gone Penn State’s way the last couple months. Franklin is being paid $5 million a year to figure out how to change that. That won’t come down to his ability to recruit or his ability to sell the program. It’ll come down to how he can handle his quarterback battle and how he can develop his team after a mediocre finish to 2018.

Can he do that? Time will tell.

Right now, though, 2019 Penn State is one big mystery.