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College Football Preview 2018: 11. Penn State Nittany Lions

11. Penn State Nittany Lions

Losing do-it-all Saquon Barkley hurts, but Trace McSorley should be able to keep PSU in the Playoff hunt

DeAndre Thompkins
Offense: Penn State's offense has been among the most explosive in the Big Ten the last two seasons, but there are some significant changes entering 2018. Chief among them is the loss of running back Saquon Barkley, who accounted for 23 total touchdowns (including special teams) and was a Heisman frontrunner for a decent chunk of last year. The Nittany Lions also have to deal with the loss of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who took the Mississippi State head coaching gig. Moorhead engineered a massive turnaround of the unit when he arrived prior to 2016, leaving new play-caller Ricky Rahne with big shoes to fill. Despite these losses, there is ample back on this side of the ball for PSU to still be pretty potent.

The big returnee to the unit was senior quarterback Trace McSorley, who returns for his third season as starter. McSorley is small in stature but is a big-time playmaker, throwing for 3,750 yards and 28 touchdowns. Moorhead loving to throw deep, and it will be interesting to see whether Rahne uses the veteran QB the same way. Either way, McSorley is one of the best in the conference, and should put up pretty impressive numbers in his final season in Happy Valley.

McSorley should also have the distinct advantage of throwing to a group of receivers that are extremely talented. The No. 1 option at this point has to be junior Juwan Johnson, who morphs defensive backs with his size, 6'4", 230 pounds. Johnson will be joined by senior DeAndre Thompkins, who is more of a possession receiver that does his damage in space. The pair combined for over 1,000 yards receiving last season. Junior Brandon Polk looks like he could be the guy in this group ready to breakout. Polk has shown flashes, but he hasn't got the targets to make a huge difference. He'll get significantly more in 2018, and should be able to showcase his blazing speed and agility. Big things are expected of another wide out, newcomer Justin Shorter. Shorter has the size, route running ability and athleticism to be an absolute beast. It wouldn't be too surprising to see him make a big impact in his first season with the Lions. The tight end position will have to be figured out, as All-Big Ten talent Mike Gesicki is gone.

Filling Barkley's shoes completely will be near impossible, as the playmaking back accounted for nearly 33 percent of Penn State's yards in 2017. Yet, junior Miles Sanders seems ready to become this team's feature back. Sanders was a former high profile recruit who has shown serious upside in the short moments we've seen him. He could explode onto the scene, with senior Mark Allen adding a solid weapon as a backup.

The offensive line should help out Sanders and this maturing ground game, with four starters returning. Center Connor McGovern is the real anchor of the group, with a chance to earn All-Conference honors in his junior season. 

It is easy to expect Penn State to possibly take a slight step back from the 41.1 PPG they averaged in 2017, as Moorhead and Barkley have played such pivotal roles in this team's success. However, McSorley has all the tools to step up and lead the impressive talent head coach James Franklin has assembled. It should still be one of the best in the Big Ten, and perhaps in the country.

Defense: There are more questions on the other side of the ball, where coordinators Brent Pry and Tim Banks must rebuild a group that was very good in '17. Just two starters are back, defensive end Shareef Miller and linebacker Koa Farmer, but this unit does have plenty of potential.

Miller will play an important role as the leader of a youthful defensive line. Miller has proven he can get after the quarterback, with five sacks and 11.5 TFL a year ago. It isn't unreasonable to think teams might double team him, opening up lanes for this team's other pass rushers. Juniors Keith Windsor and Kevin Givens aren't super inexperienced, as they saw a healthy dose of action as backups last year. They appear to likely be the starters at the heart of this D-Line. Franklin seems to like the freshmen he brought in here, and they could make an early impact, particularly tackle P.J. Mustipher and end Jayson Oweh.

Despite the return of Farmer, who has been a longtime contributor to this defense and is now a senior, the linebacker corps is incredibly thin. Penn State has been touted as "Linebacker U" for their long-running ability to develop the position, which they hope holds true in '18. Junior Cam Brown is the likely starter on the opposite of Farmer at outside linebacker, but middle linebacker is very unsettled. This group was so thin high profile newcomer Micah Parsons was moved from end to Will outside linebacker, where he spent the spring. Parsons is a real special talent, and it seems like he should be able to see plenty of snaps.

The defensive backfield is going to be fascinating to watch. All four starters depart, including All-Big Ten safety Marcus Allen, but there is still some experience and depth. Allen really is a massive loss, as he recorded 71 tackles and was really the heart and soul of the back-end of this defense. Sophomore Lamont Wade has impressed coaches during his time with the Nittany Lions, and he could step up and replace Allen. The cornerback situation is actually fairly good, with senior Amani Oruwariye and junior John Reid returning. Oruwariye saw lots of snaps last year and showed he could hang with Big Ten receivers, while Reid was a starter in 2016 before losing last season to injury.

There are going to be some real growing pains on this defense, and not a lot of proven depth. With that being said, there is some still good experience in some places, and Miller and Farmer should be able to step up as leaders. If some youngsters can learn quickly, this could still be a good, likely not great, group.

Special Teams: The Nittany Lions have a possible All-Big Ten candidate returning at punter in junior Blake Gilikin who has a career average of 43 yards per punt, second in school history. The same can't be said at placekicker, where PSU where there are a group of walk-ons fighting for the job, which is far from promising.

Many considered James Franklin on the hot seat entering 2016, but he has cooled things down with two consecutive New Year's Six Bowl berths. Now, the big question is whether this program has the continuity to overcome some real heavy losses on both sides of the ball. Having a veteran QB who knows how to win in the Big Ten will be critical, but the Nittany Lions may have to lean on some unproven talent in some areas. Despite this, the schedule is very favorable, even if PSU has to play in the Big Ten East, which has four teams with serious Playoff aspirations. It may be tough for this to be the year the Nittany Lions get over the top and into the four-team field, they still look like a threat. Another New Year's Six Bowl seems like a real possibility for Franklin and staff.

Team Projections
Team Record: 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Offensive MVP: QB Trace McSorley
Defensive MVP: DE Shareef Miller
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Brandon Polk

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