JACKSONVILLE, FL – JANUARY 02: Saquon Barkley #26 of the Penn State Nittany Lions in action during the TaxSlayer Bowl game against the Georgia Bulldogs at EverBank Field on January 2, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

TSS Top 50: No. 48 Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State Nittany Lions
2015 Record: 7-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten (lost 24-17 to Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl)

1 Burning Question: Can Penn State Break into the Top of the Big Ten East?

The Big Ten East might not be the best top-to-bottom division in college football, but heading into the 2016 season it definitely looks like it is the strongest at the top. Ohio State and Michigan are presumed to be contenders for the College Football Playoff, and Michigan State has been a staple in the Top 10 for the past few years. That is a daunting trio for any team to break into.

Penn State has been tearing up the recruiting rankings since the hiring of James Franklin before the 2014 season. From 2014 to 2016, Penn State’s recruiting rankings (according to Rivals) were 25, 15, and 23, respectively. Unfortunately, that has not translated into on-field success, with the Nittany Lions finishing 7-6 in each of Franklin’s first two years at the helm.

Maybe expecting Penn State to break into the top of the Big Ten East is too much to ask at this point, but it has to happen eventually. The school has a very proud history and a fanbase that has been searching for success ever since the NCAA came down hard after the Sandusky scandal became national news. The Nittany Lions need success…soon. While it may not happen this year, Franklin will be on a seriously hot seat in 2017 if the team doesn’t at least come close this season.

A national ranking might be too much to ask for from the Nittany Lions this year, though with a weak cross-divisional schedule and three winnable non-conference games, 9-3 might not be out of the question. But, Penn State is 0-6 against the trio of Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State over the last two seasons. If that number becomes 0-9 next year, fans will start wondering whether the team’s current direction is one that will lead to competing for conference or national championships in the future.

2 Key Stats to Pay Attention To

83 – The number of sacks Penn State gave up the last two years. The Nittany Lions have had one of the most porous offensive lines in the country for two years running now. They ranked third-to-last in the nation two seasons ago and improved slightly to 113th last year. The offensive line needs to improve drastically or more embarrassing losses like the 2015 season opener against Temple will be in store for them this fall. A weak offensive line hurt Christian Hackenberg’s draft stock, and unless it’s better next year, Penn State’s next quarterback won’t have much fun in the pocket, either.

4.1 – Penn State’s yards per carry last year. Despite all of their weaknesses on the offensive line last season, the Nittany Lions had a strong rushing attack. A large part of this was due to true freshman Saquon Barkley, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry. He will be even better in 2016, making him arguably the best raw running back in the Big Ten (but don’t tell that to Wisconsin’s Corey Clement). If the offensive line can give him room to run, the Lions might actually be a real force in the Big Ten this season.

3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season

9/3  —  Kent State
9/10  —  @Pittsburgh
9/17  —  Temple
9/24  —  @Michigan
10/1  —  Minnesota
10/8  —  Maryland
10/22  —  Ohio State
10/29  —  @Purdue
11/5  —  Iowa
11/12  —  @Indiana
11/19  —  @Rutgers
11/26  —  Michigan State

Saturday, September 10, at Pittsburgh
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 4-1
Last Year’s Result: Did not play. Pittsburgh beat Penn State 12-0 in the last meeting, which was in 2000.

Why it Matters: One of college football’s oldest rivalries took a 16-year hiatus when Penn State joined the Big Ten and decided that continuing the series wasn’t in the school’s best interests. The teams have met 96 times, with Penn State holding a slight 50-42-4 advantage in the series. Not only are Pennsylvania state bragging rights and a recruiting advantage on the line, but both squads have the potential to be a top 25 team this year. A victory in this contest would put the winner in prime position for the rest of the season.

Saturday, October 22, Ohio State
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 1-4
Last Year’s Result: L, 38-10

Why it Matters: Penn State will most likely enter this game with a 2-1 Big Ten record (with a loss to Michigan) and could be nationally ranked if they go 3-0 in non-conference play. Although no one will expect the Nittany Lions to win, it would be a major step in the right direction if they do. A victory would certainly put Penn State’s name in the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff conversations. On the other hand, a loss would be expected and would not be the end of the world. However, a defeat at the hands of the Buckeyes would show stagnation and a lack of progress. In order to make the jump from mediocre to very good, the Lions need to come up with a big “W” at some point. This contest represents the perfect opportunity.

Saturday, November 26, Michigan State
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 55-16

Why it Matters: This will be the Nittany Lions’ last regular season game and, as of now, it seems very unlikely that they will follow it up with a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game. It will be a home game and almost certainly a “white out.” The Nittany Lions will want revenge after last year’s shellacking and facing a rebuilding Michigan State team in Happy Valley just might be the best chance that PSU has to earn a victory against the Michigan/Michigan State/Ohio State trio.

4 Key Players

Saquon Barkley, RB  —  Let’s be honest, he’s going to be the driving force for this team. Barkley is a raw athlete, who is incredible in the backfield and would be getting some Heisman buzz if he was on a higher-profile team. Although fixing up the offensive line will be a priority this season, Barkley is more than capable of carrying the team, if it struggles in the trenches. He didn’t seem to have any trouble doing it last year.

Trace McSorley or Tommy Stevens, QB  —  Coach James Franklin has not yet decided which of these two will be the starting quarterback, but both of these dual-option threats will have a real chance coming into August camp. The offensive line being fixed will be paramount, but having a good scrambler behind them might take off some of the pressure that a pocket passer like Hackenberg forced on his line. While we don’t know which of these two it will be  —  though McSorley seems to be the leader for now  — whoever wins the job will have some pretty big, if not so mobile, shoes to fill.

Matt Limegrover, Offensive Line Coach  —  He’s not a player, but if you noticed a trend throughout this preview, you would see that the offensive line has been a major weakness of Penn State’s for the past few years. New offensive line coach Matt Limegrover is inheriting a senior and veteran offensive line, but one that doesn’t have a good track record of success. This team, with nine returning offensive starters, has the potential to be one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten. It all starts with the offensive line, which falls directly on Limegrover’s shoulders.

Brandon Bell, LB  —  Penn State returns only five starters on defense, with Bell being the best of them. The fate of the Nittany Lion defense historically follows its best linebacker and that is exactly what Bell should be this year. Bell had 12.5 tackles for a loss last season (65 tackles overall) and looks to be a solid NFL draft pick. He will have this season to lead Penn State’s defense and possibly bump that draft stock up even higher.

5 Bold Predictions

5. Penn State will win at least five conference games 

The Nittany Lions have not posted a winning record in the Big Ten since 2012. They will be favored in five conference games this year (Minnesota, Maryland, Purdue, Indiana, and Rutgers) and winning all five of those should be the absolute minimum requirement for the team this year. Penn State will notch that winning record, as well as a winning regular-season record. This will stave off any possible calls for James Franklin’s job, even if other goals aren’t met.

4. Saquon Barkley will generate Heisman buzz

I’ve mentioned him a lot in this preview, but Barkley is looking like Penn State’s best running back since Ki-Jana Carter over two decades ago. The team probably won’t have enough success and he won’t have the raw stats to win the award, but Barkley will generate a lot of hype and receive plenty of votes.

3. The offensive line will be much improved

There are two benchmarks that the offensive line needs to hit. First, the team must reach its average of 4.1 yards per carry from last year (even if the number was so high because of Barkley’s average of 5.9). The other stat — and this is the big one — is the 39 sacks given up last year (and the 44 the year before). Lowering that number will absolutely be the goal of the O-line and new coach Matt Limegrover. Having a mobile quarterback will help keep the sack numbers down, but any real improvement in that stat will fall on the big guys in the trenches.

2. James Franklin will be a contender for Big Ten Coach of the Year

This one would be a shock, honestly, but it is not outside the realm of possibility. The Big Ten is notorious for giving COTY honors to someone who does a better-than-expected job at a school that doesn’t finish near the top of the standings. A 6-3 conference record for Penn State could be enough to win the award. Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Iowa are all expected to be top teams, so unless one of those squads does something really superlative, we won’t see Harbaugh, Dantonio, Meyer, or Ferentz winning the award. Without a surprise contender from the West (likely Nebraska) it would not at all be surprising to see an overachieving Penn State team win the award for James Franklin.

1. Penn State will score at least one major upset in 2016

Yes, this is called a “bold” prediction, but I’m not that bold. I’m hedging a little here by including Iowa as one of the wins that could constitute a major upset. Penn State can have an 8-4 or 9-3 season by winning all the games it should win and pulling off one big upset. Ohio State and Michigan are probably too good this year for Penn State to beat, but defeating either Iowa or Michigan State in Happy Valley should be doable. Winning any of these four contests against likely top 10-15 teams, would transform the 2016 season from a good one to an successful one.

About Yesh Ginsburg

Yesh has been a fan and student of college football since before he can remember. He spent years mastering the intricacies of the BCS and now keeps an eye on the national picture as teams jockey for College Football Playoff positioning.