In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 26, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. You can find the Top 100 College Football team rankings and previews here.
No. 9 Penn State
Penn State lost a stud receiver and a few impact players on defense but they return most pieces from an 11-win team that nearly snuck into the College Football Playoff.
They have Heisman candidates in Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley; James Franklin is no longer on the hot seat; and the coaching staff is capitalizing on the success to recruit like a title-contending program.
2016 Record: 11-3 (8-1, Big Ten)
Penn State tied the program's highest win total since 1994 with an 11-win season that was deserving of a 30 for 30 film.
Not even the most optimistic Penn State fan could've predicted 11 wins or a Big Ten championship during the waning minutes of a 39-point blowout loss to Michigan on Sept. 24. After losing to Pittsburgh two weeks earlier, the Nittany Lions were 2-2.
Head Coach: James Franklin (4th year, 25-15 overall)
On Sept. 29, 2016, Paul Zeise of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote an article titled James Franklin may not be on the hot seat, but he's close.
He reacted to athletics director San Barbour's proclamation that Franklin was "not on the hot seat" and the national narrative that the third-year coach — who at the time had a 16-14 record and had not beat any good teams in two-plus years — was feeling the heat.
"Every football coach, unless he is egregiously bad — or gets into trouble — needs until the end of his fourth season before he can truly be evaluated just because turning over a roster and developing young players takes time," Zeise wrote. "However, the program under a new coach does need to show some tangible signs of progress by the end of the third season."
Yep, Franklin showed some tangible signs of progress and is now one of the most popular coaches in America.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Trace McSorley, RB Saquon Barkley, WR DeAndre Thompkins, WR DaeSean Hamilton, WR Saeed Blacknall, OT Brendan Mahom, G Ryan Bates
Penn State returns almost everyone from a balanced offense that averaged 37.6 points per game (third in the Big Ten). They rank 11th in the FBS (and first in the Big Ten) in offensive yardage returning with 89.9 percent and don't have a glaring — or even noticeable — weakness.
Trace McSorley is back at quarterback after leading the FBS in yards per completion (16.1) and ranking sixth in yards per attempt (9.3).
“On a personal level we don’t talk about goals, but I would love to see him throw for 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns,” his father Rick said recently. “It seems ridiculous, but last year 29 touchdowns seemed ridiculous. So why not? . . . His thing is 15-0, though.”
Though he has good zip and the arm strength to make every throw on the field, it was his touch and ball placement that helped him turn a corner in the second half of the season.
Running back Saquon Barkley is back after missing a 1,500-yard season by four yards, and while leading receiver Chris Godwin is in the NFL, the other top targets return, including under-the-radar senior Saeed Blacknall. He had six catches for 155 yards and two scores in the Big Ten Championship but was suspended for the bowl game for academic issues.
"It wasn't one of those things where I had a good time learning," Blacknall said in early August. "It was a tough time for me, most of all just watching them and not being able to help them out and play the last game."
Gesicki — the top-ranked tight end on our 2018 draft board — is also back after setting the program records for receptions (48) and receiving yards (679) for a tight end.
The Nittany Lions' offensive line was gashed in the scholarship-reduction years. They finally have the pieces to field one of the better units in the Big Ten. Tackle Brenan Mahon earned an All-Big Ten First-Team nod from Pro Football Focus after transforming into one of the best tackles in the nation in the second half of the season.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Parker Cothren, DT Curtis Cothran, LB Manny Bowen, LB Jason Cabinda, LB Koa Farmer, CB Grant Haley, CB Christian Campbell, S Marcus Allen
Penn State's defense was a mixed bag last year. They allowed 14 or fewer points five times but allowed 31 or more five times, including three games of 42 or more. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry is hoping a continued emphasis on positional versatility will lead to more consistency.
"You’re able to downsize and play with guys on the perimeter who maybe don’t have the size you used to want," he says of a faster front seven. "But at the same time, it’s more about techniques. You go back and watch our defensive ends on game film, those guys stood up [at the snap] a bunch. They’re playing on their feet [rather than with a hand in the dirt] And we’re not playing a 3-4."
Senior linebacker Jason Cabinda (below) — a two-year starter with 195 career tackles — missed five games last season with a wrist injury but is ready to go. Converted safety Koa Farmer is in line for a big role after playing well during his first year of significant time.
Parker Cothren and Curtis Cothran — no, that's not a misspelling; they're not related — will man the interior of the line. Cothran was a specimen in the Big Ten Championship, registering three tackles for loss.
"We've got pretty good front guys that are lining up toe to toe daily with those guys," Pry said of those two and others benefiting from practicing against against an improved offensive line. "Even going back to spring, just the movement and size and power and working together, it just — it's hard to find a weakness.
The secondary took a hit in the spring with the knee injury of John Reid, though they still return three seniors in corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell and safety Marcus Allen. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Allen is a tackling monster (led the team with 110 last year and has 249 in his career) who can run with tight ends or pick up running backs.
“My role on the team is to get everybody better, as best I can,” Allen said. “Because when a teammate lacks energy and you have that Energizer Bunny running around, yelling, getting people hype, that rubs off on people and that’s contagious.”
Notable Player Losses
WR Chris Godwin, G Brian Gaia, DE Evan Schwan, DE Garrett Sickels, LB Brandon Bell, S Malik Golden
Usually teams celebrate the large number of draft picks. While Penn State was unquestionably thrilled when receiver Chris Godwin was selected in by the Bucs in the third round of April's draft, they must have been equally thrilled that he was the only player selected. It was another reminder of how much talent the Nittany Lions had coming back.
Godwin — an All-Big Ten Third-Team pick last year — had 128 receptions for 1,983 yards and 16 touchdowns the last two years. Brian Gaia, a longtime starter at guard, is also gone.
Defensively, they lost two all-conference ends in Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, who combined for 12 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. Linebacker Brandon Bella and safety Malik Golden also graduated.
Notable Player Additions
CB Lamont Wade
With a billion returning experienced players, there aren't many opportunities for new players to break find a two-deep spot.
Cornerback Lamont Wade, a four-star early enrollee from Clairton, Penn., was already expected to see immediate time before the John Reid injury. Now he could be their starting nickelback.
"He's a different kid because he's already physical," Franklin said of Wade during spring practice. "He has tremendous confidence, but sometimes that goes away when you get to college. That hasn't gone away. He seems to learn well. He's made plays so far."
Penn State's Week 2 loss to Pittsburgh last season proved to be enormous in their playoff push. They would've made the field had they won that game — and the rest of the season went like it did. The Nittany Lions get a rematch at Beaver Stadium on Sept. 9.
Their Big 12 schedule is highlighted, unsurprisingly, with Michigan (home) and Ohio State (Oct. 28) in back-to-back weeks in late October.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Akron|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Pittsburgh|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Georgia State|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Iowa|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Indiana|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at Northwestern|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Michigan|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at Ohio State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Michigan State|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Rutgers|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Nebraska|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Maryland|