It’s not how you start, but how you finish. That’s something of a new truism at the top of college football, but Penn State proved it in 2016. After back-to-back 7-6 seasons in years one and two under Coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions started 2016 2-2 but ran off nine-straight wins to win the Big Ten and played right with a USC team that was playing its best ball at the end of the year. With 16 starters back, expectations are high in the Happy Valley.
One doesn’t often associate Penn State with high-flying football, but this was the most explosive offense in the Big Ten in 2016. Nearly 10 percent of the Nittany Lions total plays went for 20-plus yards and most of that damage was done through the passing game. Top receiver Chris Godwin is off to the NFL, but quarterback Trace McSorley returns to play bombs away downfield. Running back Saquon Barkley enters the season as a Heisman contender and may actually disguise the one shaky part of the foundation here. Penn State’s offense line gave up a bunch of negative plays in 2016. If that continues and the explosive-plays pendulum ticks back even slightly, it could be enough for what looks like a 10- or 11-win season to fall just short of those totals.
Penn State’s 2016 defense served as the perfect complement to its explosive offense. The Nittany Lions kept the majority of its opponent passes in front of them, avoided the big play and then racked up a ton of their own on offense. The secondary is a strength and should be capable of keeping the lid on, so to speak, again. Teams that could run the ball against Penn State, however, fared better. The Nittany Lions gave up 60 percent of their total rushing yards allowed in losses to Pittsburgh, Michigan and USC. If Penn State is to repeat as conference champions, gains against opposing ground games is probably the key.
It certainly looks like a schedule built for a championship run. The three nonconference games, highlighted by a week-two matchup against Pitt, are all at home. The West draw features solid teams in Iowa, Northwestern and Nebraska — the first two on the road — but misses Wisconsin. The key swing is Oct. 21/Oct. 28 when the Nittany Lions face Michigan (in State College) and Ohio State (road) in back-to-back weeks. Penn State could control its own fate or know it needs help at that point.
UP, clearly. Franklin recruited well from the get-go at Penn State and Nittany Lion fans were rewarded in year three. The 2017 season looks like a way for Penn State to clear some more elbow room for itself at the Big Ten table. Right now few dispute the standing of Ohio State, Michigan or Wisconsin in the conference. Another double-digit-win season puts Penn State in the same company.