In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 11 Penn State
Penn State lost one of the most talented running backs in college football history, an all-conference tight end, an explosive receiver, leading tackler, four starters in the secondary, and a coordinator that led some of the best offenses in program history.
Why is Penn State still a top-15 team and playoff contender? Trace McSorley, Shareef Miller, elite recruiting and one of the most talented rosters in the country.
2017 Record: 11-2 (7-2, Big Ten)
I still don't think everyone understands how close Penn State was to winning the Big Ten East and playing Wisconsin for a trip to the College Football Playoff. Heck, if they were 12-0 entering that game, they might've already secured a playoff spot.
The Nittany Lions were a blown 18-point lead at Ohio State and a weird delay-filled loss to Michigan State from an undefeated season.
Head Coach: James Franklin (5th Year, 36-17)
James Franklin is another 11-win season away from being the first-ever Penn State coach to win at least 11 games in three straight season. Just seven years removed from one of the worst scandals in American sports history, Franklin has the program in annual Big Ten and playoff contention.
Now it's about getting over the hump and actually making the playoff.
RB Saquon Barkley, WR DaeSean Hamilton, WR Saeed Blacknall, TE Mike Gesicki, DT Tyrell Chavis, LB Brandon Smith, LB Jason Cabinda, CB Grant Haley, CB Chris Campbell, S Troy Apke, S Marcus Allen
Saquon Barkley became Penn State's first first-round pick since 2010 (Jared Odrick) and the Nittany Lions' six selections were the most since 2010.
In addition to the headliners of that group — Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesiki, DaeSean Hamilton — they also lost three key defensive backs in Grant Haley, Chris Campbell, Troy Apke and Marcus Alllen, who led a passing defense that ranked 15th in average opponent passer rating.
Leading tackler Jason Cabinda is also gone, as are speedy receiver Saeed Blacknall and disruptive defensive tackle Tyrell Chavis.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Trace McSorley, RB Miles Sanders, WR Juwan Johnson, WR DeAndre Thompkins, OT Ryan Bates, OT Will Fries, G Steven Gonzalez, C Connor McGovern
Joe Moorhead's departure led to the promotion of tight ends coach (and former quarterbacks coach) Ricky Rahne to coordinator and quarterbacks coach. The 38-year-old first worked under Franklin at Kansas State in 2006 and has been with him since 2011 at Vanderbilt. He called this his "dream job."
The offense hasn't changed much and it's been a "seamless transition," according to quarterback Trace McSorley. Rahne leads a unit that ranked seventh nationally in points per game (41.1), third in third-down conversions (48 percent), 20th in red-zone conversions (90 percent) and 18th in giveaways per game (1.0).
McSorley was a more calculated passer a year ago vs. two years ago, his first as starter. His yards per attempt declined (9.3 to 8.4), as did yards per completion (16.1 to 12.6) but he didn't force as many balls and bumped his completion percent by nearly nine points.
McSorley won't have backfield mate Saquon Barkley but he does have Miles Sanders (below), who averaged 6.2 yards per attempt as a sophomore in limited action (31 carries). He's not as physically terrifying as Saquon Barkley (and won't top 200 carries, which Barkley did in each of his last two years) but Sanders has some size (5-foot-11, 209 pounds) and is a physical, shifty runner.
With three of the top six pass-catchers gone, all eyes are on upperclassmen receiver Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins. Johnson is a huge target (6-foot-4, 231 pounds) who missed time in the spring but will be fine for the season and is a big-time NFL prospect.
"Juwan's a guy we've had our eye on for a long time," NFL Draft analyst Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting said. "While the mock draft isn't going to be totally accurate in the preseason, that's the kind of talent that we expect. And teams I've talked to expect that kind of talent out of him. . . . The sky's the limit."
The offensive line returns four starters, including right tackle Ryan Bates, an All-Big Ten selection last year, and left tackle Will Fries, a nine-game starter as a redshirt freshman last year.
Returning Defensive Players
DE Shareef Miller, DE Ryan Buchholz, DE Shane Simmons, DE Yetur Gross-Matos, DT Keith Givens, DT Robert Windsor, LB Manny Bowen, LB Cam Brown, LB Koa Farmer, CB Amani Oruwariye, CB John Reid, S Nick Scott
Nine starters are gone from a defense that was dominant in the first half of games (7.5 points allowed per game), forced 1.9 turnovers per game and ranked fourth nationally in points per play (0.228) and eighth in yards per play (4.6). Only three seniors are projected to start and they could play several freshmen.
Twenty-one players recorded at least one-half sack last year. Twenty-one players!
That won't happen again, but, unlike last year, they will have multiple players record at least four sacks thanks to a loaded group at defensive end. Shareef Miller (below) is back for what could be his final season. He had 11.5 tackles for loss and five sacks as sophomore last year. In the middle, Keith Givens and Robert Windsor are ready for bigger roles on a unit that allowed 3.4 yards per carry last year.
The linebacker rotation won't be finalized until the final days of fall camp, though senior outside linebacker Koa Farmer, a converted safety, will occupy one of the spots. Junior Cam Brown played each linebacker position during spring camp and should start in Week 1. Also, senior linebacker Manny Bowen was dismissed from the team in December but, after months of rumors of a possible return, he was reinstated for fall camp.
“He’s going to test extremely well,” Franklin said of Farmer, referencing NFL workouts. “But I think he’s got a chance to have a real strong year this year and kind of have a coming-out-party type of deal.”
The staff has praised the leadership of senior safety Nick Scott, and corner John Reid is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Penn State allowed only 10.5 yards per completion last year.
WR Justin Shorter, WR Jahan Dotson, WR Daniel George, WR KJ Hamler, LB Micah Parsons, LB Ellis Brooks, DT P.J. Mustipher, S Jonathan Sutherland
Penn State has an embarrassment of youthful riches at receiver.
Three true freshmen who enrolled in June are competing for snaps, including Justin Shorter, the top-ranked receiver in the class whom Franklin called the best receiver prospect he's ever seen, and Jahan Dotson, a four-star prospect from Nazareth, Pa.
"The guy I think right now that there’s a lot of buzz in our program about is Jahan Dotson,” Franklin said in early August. “Very natural, fluid guy. The game comes easy to him. Nothing seems too big for him. He never gets rattled, he's got consistent hands. Everything is effortless for him."
True freshman Micah Parsons was a five-star defensive end when he arrived in January but was moved to middle linebacker because of depth issues at the position.
Four redshirt freshmen are in line for roles in 2018 as well, including middle linebacker Ellis Brooks, who's competing for the starting job, and defensive tackler P.J. Mustipher.
"He doesn’t look like a freshman, he’s physically developed right now, and it’s just about getting more reps," Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith said of Mustipher after a visit to State College.
Penn State doesn't have a brutal non-conference schedule (though a Week 2 trip to Pittsburgh will be tough) and they get two of the East's three best teams at home. However, they drew Wisconsin from the West.
|Saturday, Sept. 1||vs. Appalachian State|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||at Pittsburgh|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||vs. Kent State|
|Friday, Sept. 21||at Illinois|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||vs. Ohio State|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||vs. Michigan State|
|Saturday, Oct. 20||at Indiana|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||vs. Iowa|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||at Michigan|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||vs. Wisconsin|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||at Rutgers|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||vs. Maryland|