Second in a series

When James Franklin was hired at Penn State prior to the 2014 season, he vowed to make the Nittany Lions relevant again on the national stage. With back-to-back 11-win seasons that included a Big Ten championship in 2016 and a Fiesta Bowl win a year ago, he’s done exactly that.

Chasing conference titles and a playoff bid are clearly in the mix again this year, too. The benefit of having a talented senior quarterback like Trace McSorley makes all that possible, especially when the roster is loaded with talent up and down the roster.

RELATED: Predicting every game for Michigan in 2018

The Big Ten East is loaded and four-deep with contenders, so there are challenges ahead. But it’s going to be a fun season, with a ton of elite-level high-profile games.

Here’s a quick look back to last year’s Crystal Ball projections:

2017 Projection: 10-2 (7-2 in Big Ten)
Actual Record: * 10-2  (7-2 in Big Ten)

*regular season

And now, on to this year:

Coaching situation

Franklin has shown a lot these past two years, winning games and winning a ton of recruiting battles. He’s proved his mettle and takes a talented team into 2018. The biggest issue is the loss of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who’s now the head coach at Mississippi State. How the new-look but not that different offense plays under Ricky Rahne likely will determine how much success Penn State has this season.

Quarterback situation

Trace McSorley is the Big Ten’s veteran quarterback and a Heisman Trophy candidate, and he’s a smart kid, so adapting to the changes in Rahne’s offense, which likely will be minor, shouldn’t be an issue for him. The biggest thing is working with so many new faces at the skill positions, and how quickly they can all get on the same page.

Strengths & weaknesses

The strengths start with McSorley, obviously, and an offensive line that is the best at Penn Sate in years. That’s a lethal combination right there. Replacing Saquon Barkley, the No. 2-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, at running back might normally be a problem, but Miles Sanders is ready to be great, too. After all, he was the nation’s top-ranked running back in 2016 and could be a star himself. The concerns start at tight end, with Mike Gesicki gone, and with a defense that lost eight starters from a year ago. There’s plenty of talent ready to step up, but there’s plenty of questions to go along with it.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Appalachian State (W)
This is a good opener for Penn State, especially for a defense still searching for cohesiveness and consistency. This shouldn’t be a problem, and look for the offense to put up a ton of points.

Week 2: at Pittsburgh  (W)
Playing an in-state rival on the road is never easy, especially with a rivalry like this where there’s plenty of hatred and angst on each side. But this is a game where a veteran QB makes the difference and McSorley plays great to win a big one.

Week 3: vs. Kent State (W)
An easy win to finish the nonconference slate 3-0.

Week 4: at Illinois (W)
Even though it’s on the road, this is the perfect Big Ten opener because the talent divide is still huge between these two teams. Penn State wins easily.

Week 5: vs. Ohio State (W)
Primetime in Happy Valley, under the lights with a white-out. It’s the perfect scenario for Penn State to grab a huge win over Ohio State in a rare late-September showdown. The difference here is the experience at quarterback, and McSorley will play great against that tough Ohio State defense. Memories of two years ago will be fresh on the minds of all Nittany Lions fans.

Week 6: Bye 

Week 7: vs. Michigan State (W)
It could be easy to have a letdown after the big Ohio State win, but the bye week will help Penn State stay on track. This will be a physical game that will come down to the wire, but the Lions do what it takes to win.

Week 8: at Indiana   (W)
Winning on the road is never easy, and Indiana has scared Penn State plenty in the past. This one will be tough too, but Penn State stays perfect when Sanders and the running game goes nuts.

Week 9: vs. Iowa (W)

Iowa has been good at ruining seasons for people lately (see Ohio State in 2017 and Michigan in 2016), so be careful here. Home field makes a difference at Penn State wins a close one to move to 8-0.

Week 10: at Michigan (L)
This huge Big Ten East showdown becomes a late shootout between McSorley and Michigan’s Shea Patterson, but the difference is Michigan’s defense, which comes up with some big plays late in front of their home fans. This will be an instant classic.

Week 11: vs. Wisconsin (L)
Bouncing back from the Michigan loss proves to be difficult, and even at home there’s just not the right energy and Wisconsin takes them down in a sloppy game.

Week 12: at Rutgers (W)
Straightening things out against Rutgers is a college football tradition, and this year is no different. Five touchdowns before halftime leads to a blowout rout.

Week 13: vs. Maryland  (W)
This rivalry is still a bit lopsided, but Maryland plays them tough for a while before Penn State pulls away.

2018 Projection: 10-2 (7-2)
Final Standings: T-2nd in Big Ten East