Way-too-early 2016 look: Penn State
Who: Penn State
Coach: James Franklin (third year, 14-12 overall)
2015 record: 7-6 (4-4 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Carl Nassib, DE; Austin Johnson, DT; Christian Hackenberg, QB
Biggest returners: Saquon Barkley, RB; Jason Cabinda, LB; Chris Godwin, WR
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): No. 14 (4th in B1G)
Top committed recruit: Four-star OT Michal Menet
2016 strength: Running backs
Specifically, Saquon Barkley. Anybody that does the type of things that he did as a true freshman is going to get plenty of hype. Barkley is deserving of it. He possesses freakish athleticism in the open field and he has patience that few do for a back with his skill set. The Freshman All-American is going to be an obvious preseason pick to win the B1G rushing title working with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who figures to utilize a more spread-option attack. That’ll put less pressure on the offensive line to protect a first-year starting quarterback, whoever that may be. But the focal point of the offense will be on the tailbacks. We could see true freshman Miles Sanders carve out a role early, as could redshirt freshman Andre Robinson. There might not be a group in the country with three underclassmen running backs as talented as the ones Penn State has.
2016 weakness: Defensive line
The clear strength of the 2015 group is going to endure a major transition phase without the likes of sacks king Carl Nassib, underrated Austin Johnson, and veteran leader Anthony Zettel. Throw in the fact that defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for Tennessee and this group is going to receive a significant face lift. Garrett Sickels will be the leader of a unit that will feature three new starters. They’ll be replacing guys that accounted for 43 tackles for loss in 2015. Torrence Brown, Curtis Cothran, Parker Cothren and Antoine White could be the new faces on this line. They all got limited work rotating in for Penn State’s big three, but with a lack of depth at the position, they could all be asked to play the greater majority of the snaps. Lucky for Linebacker U, the linebackers should be some of the B1G’s best. They should help out an inexperienced group by putting pressure on the quarterback.
Way-too-early 2016 projection: 7-5 (5-4 in B1G)
There might not be a team tougher to forecast than Penn State. There are questions across the board. What kind of presence will the new assistant coaches have? Who will start at quarterback and will he be able to get the ball into the hands of Penn State’s dynamic receivers? Will the offensive line find its groove behind a run-first attack? Will James Franklin’s loaded 2015 class take off as redshirt freshmen? All of that remains to be seen. The Lions have two tough non-conference games that are huge for in-state bragging rights and recruiting. They do have the benefit of facing Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State at home. And outside of a B1G opener in Ann Arbor, PSU has to travel to Indiana, Purdue and Rutgers. It could be much worse for a B1G East team. But given all the change this team will deal with in Franklin’s third year, it’s hard to imagine Penn State getting over the seven-win mark and making a push into the upper echelon of the B1G.