Editor’s note: Our Crystal Ball series continues in the Big Ten East with Penn State. Coming Wednesday: Michigan and Michigan State.

This was supposed to be Penn State’s year.

The Nittany Lions had it all lined up with a returning starter at quarterback, talent at wideout, the best tight end in the country, a stable of running backs as deep as anywhere and a very talented defense. Ohio State, which is Penn State’s biggest obstacle to reaching the College Football Playoff for the first time, would come to Happy Valley and have to deal with 110,000 fans.

When offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne left to take over at Old Dominion, not to worry — one of the most successful offensive coordinators over the last 6 years was hired to replace him. When former 5-star recruit Justin Shorter transferred and KJ Hamler left early for the NFL, it wasn’t ideal, but the Nittany Lions have enough weapons for a very good offense.

But the hits keep coming. The Ohio State game will be played without fans, negating a big advantage. All-everything linebacker Micah Parsons opted out (and isn’t coming back, unlike other B1G stars), while Ohio State will have its full roster and seems to be focused on winning a national title. Nothing has broken right for Penn State.

Still, the Nittany Lions can make a run and make this their year. It’s just going to be a lot more challenging.

2019 record: 11-2 (7-2), 2nd in B1G East

Can defense survive without Micah Parsons?

The loss of Parsons is two-fold. For one, he is arguably the top defensive player in the country and without him, Penn State’s defense is weakened. But he is also regarded as one of the team’s hardest workers and leaders. He is someone who could’ve been a shining example in the weight room and the meeting room to the younger players. It’s unfortunate for Penn State on many levels considering how much of an impact he would’ve had this season.

So, what does this defense look like without him? The linebacking corps was already thin on experience as Parsons was Penn State’s only returning starter. But Penn State didn’t get the reputation as “Linebacker U” for nothing. Sophomore Brandon Smith, a former 5-star recruit, was already slated to start. Ellis Brooks, Jesse Luketa, Lance Dixon and Curtis Jacobs are all former 4-star recruits who will be in the mix for playing time. That’s to say, Penn State is going to be mighty talented yet again — it’s just that those players now may be asked to do a little more earlier in their careers. That’s especially true of Jacobs, who was the No. 35 overall recruit (and No. 3 OLB) in the 2020 class.

There is still a ton of talent up front in Shaka Toney, Jayson Oweh and P.J. Mustipher. The secondary has a lot of prove but is also one of the best in the conference on paper with Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade.

The defense can survive — it just needs an inexperienced linebacker crew to deliver on its potential.

Kirk Ciarrocca’s impact

Maybe after what Joe Brady did at LSU, Kirk Ciarrocca’s arrival in Happy Valley is being a bit overhyped. Especially with limited offseason practice time. But there’s no denying the success Ciarrocca had in maximizing Minnesota’s potential and QB Tanner Morgan’s ability.

In the 6 years before Ciarrocca arrived at Minnesota, Minnesota’s average national ranking in yards per play was 94th. The Golden Gophers were 118th in his first year in 2017, then improved to 67th in 2018 and all the way up to 23rd in 2019. In Ciarrocca’s final three seasons at Western Michigan (2014-16), the Broncos average national ranking in yards per play was 16th. Penn State was 49th in yards per play last season and 38th in 2018. There is definitely room for improvement.

In 2019, Morgan was fourth nationally in yards per attempt. Under Ciarrocca, Western Michigan QBs finished third (2014), sixth (2015) and fifth (2016). Last year, Sean Clifford finished 22nd. Can Ciarrocca help Clifford reach that same level?

Just like LSU?

When I look at the current state of the Penn State program, I see a ton of resemblance to LSU pre-2019, before it broke through to win the national title. They are both the No. 2 program in insanely tough divisions, which means they are good enough to be relevant nationally and climb into the top 10, but ultimately their season comes down to that game against Alabama or Ohio State.

This 4-year run the Nittany Lions are on right now is eerily similar to LSU from 2015-18. Both programs in the preseason are typically ranked in the top 20, climb near the top 5 and ultimately finish near the top 15. LSU got that breakthrough in 2019 when a new offensive coordinator came in and elevated an above-average returning starter into a superstar. Is a breakthrough coming for Penn State, too?

In the table below, let’s compare the 4-year trajectories of both programs in terms of average preseason AP ranking, average highest AP ranking during the season and average postseason AP ranking. The 4-year period for LSU is 2015-18, which directly preceded its national title run. And the 4-year period for Penn State is 2016-19, since the Nittany Lions have gotten off probation and re-entered the national conversation.

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Heading into its national championship in 2019, LSU was ranked No. 6 in the preseason. In the newly released Coaches Poll, Penn State was ranked No. 7.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Indiana (W)

Penn State will definitely not be easing into 2020. Ohio State lurks in Week 2, but the opener against the Hoosiers is not one to be taken lightly. It has the potential to be a fun game with plenty of points. With that visit from Ohio State just around the corner, Penn State had better not overlook the Hoosiers, who are a program on the rise that has lost the last 2 years to the Nittany Lions by a combined 12 points. Let’s say Pat Freiermuth scores 2 second-half touchdowns to close it out.

Week 2: vs. Ohio State (L)

This game was supposed to be in Week 10, but the most interesting revelation of the third edition of the Big Ten schedule was this game coming so early. Is that a good or a bad thing for Penn State or Ohio State? I’m not really sure. It’s bad for fans, though, as it doesn’t allow the hype and excitement to build, like if both teams were 8-0 going in instead of 1-0.

All things being normal, I would’ve considered picking Penn State in this game. With 110,000 fans yelling at former Penn State commit Justin Fields, Micah Parsons playing and a CFP berth likely on the line, I think the Nittany Lions could’ve gotten some revenge for those 1-point losses in 2017 and 2018. But with all of the Buckeyes playing, no fans and no Parsons, there’s no way I can pick against Ohio State.

Week 3: vs. Maryland (W)

Wait, I thought there weren’t bye weeks in 2020? I kid, I kid. Sorry, Maryland. Anyways, I can remember how excited I was to watch Penn State and Maryland play on a Friday night last year (remember, Maryland looked pretty good in starting 2-1), and the Nittany Lions absolutely blew the doors off the Terps. This year could be more of the same.

Week 4: at Nebraska (W)

I originally thought this was going to be a trap game as Penn State would have been coming off Iowa with Ohio State waiting the following week. But the newest version of the schedule puts Nebraska after a game in which Penn State should be able to rest its starters in the second half. And poor Nebraska will probably be beaten down after opening the season with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern. With either version of the schedule, though, it’s hard to envision Penn State stumbling.

Week 5: vs. Iowa (W)

This has the potential to be a great game, just as the last three in this series have been. Penn State has won all three, but by a total of just 8 points. It won’t have the same atmosphere as some of those great games, most notably the Saturday night game in Iowa City in 2017 when Trace McSorley found Juwan Johnson for a TD on the final play of the game. Ah, those were the days. Did we even realize how good we had it? I think Clifford makes the plays down the stretch to help Penn State win by 10.

Week 6: at Michigan (W)

While the Ohio State game likely being without fans is a bummer, Penn State is helped out big-time for this game. Penn State has lost three straight at Michigan, and the last two have been by a combined 74 points. I think Penn State’s experience should pay off in a big way here as Michigan has a first-year starter at QB, lost Nico Collins and Ambry Thomas to opt-outs and is breaking in four new starters on the offensive line. Advantage, Penn State.

Week 7: at Rutgers (W)

Penn State has beaten Rutgers 13 times in a row dating to 1988, and I don’t think that streak ends in 2020.

Week 8: vs. Michigan State (W)

James Franklin won’t be overlooking this game, not when his team has lost twice as a top-10 team to Michigan State in the last 3 years. The Nittany Lions have so much more talent than the rebuilding Spartans that it would be an embarrassment if this game were even close.

2020 projection: 7-1 (2nd in B1G East)

Penn State has one of the 10 best programs in the country, and this season will do nothing to alter that perception. It will be hard for Nittany Lions fans to look past what might have been had things broken Penn State’s way in 2020, but it should still be a great season.

The running back trio of Journey Brown, Noah Cain and Devyn Ford is going to be a ton of fun. Sean Clifford could make a leap. Pat Freiermuth should be in a battle with Florida’s Kyle Pitts to see who the top tight end in the country is (early advantage Pitts). There should be a ton of talented players establishing themselves for the first time.

If a successful season is beating Ohio State and winning the Big Ten, fans may be let down. But there’s nothing wrong with going 7-1 and using that momentum to continue bringing in top recruits.