After nine long months of waiting, the Penn State football team is just one day away from kicking off the 2014 season.
The team ended last season with momentum after a big win over Wisconsin, and looks to carry that into this year. James Franklin has created a huge amount of buzz surrounding the program, and will make his home debut next week against Akron. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg is coming off a stellar freshman campaign, and will lead his team into a new chapter of Nittany Lion football history.
Here’s our breakdown of the upcoming year:
August 30 vs. UCF (Ireland), 8:30 a.m.
Sept. 6 vs. Akron, 12:00 p.m.
Sept. 13 at Rutgers, 8:00 p.m.
Sept. 20 vs. UMass, TBD
Sept. 27 vs. Northwestern (Homecoming), 12:00 p.m.
Oct. 11 at Michigan, 7:00 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. Ohio State (Whiteout), 8:00 p.m.
Nov. 1 vs. Maryland, TBD
Nov. 8 at Indiana, TBD
Nov. 15 vs. Temple, TBD
Nov. 22 at Illinois, TBD
Nov. 29 vs. Michigan State, TBD
Key Losses: WR Allen Robinson; OL John Urschel; DE DaQuan Jones; TE Adam Breneman (injury); OL Miles Dieffenbach (injury); LB Ben Kline (injury).
Key returners: QB Christian Hackenberg; RBs Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, and Akeel Lynch; OL Donovan Smith; DL Deion Barnes; LB Mike Hull; CB Jordan Lucas; S Ryan Keiser; K Sam Ficken.
Final record: 9-3
Thoughts: Penn State Football is back, and the James Franklin era is underway.
There is a lot to be excited about in the Penn State program right now. Christian Hackenberg is no longer a hyped-up freshman full of promise, but a proven sophomore who will be counted on to be a leader of a very young offense. Allen Robinson is gone, but Geno Lewis, Jesse James, Kyle Carter, and a whole crew of young freshman step in to make up for the lost production. The running back stable remains unchanged, and will be a big part of James Franklin’s offensive plan. The unit that either allows the offense to reach its potential or aids in its demise will be the young, unproven (not counting Donovan Smith) offensive line. It will be tested early against UCF, and even more so against conference foes. I anticipate the Nittany Lions will start off the year confidently, winning their first slew of games. I also anticipate the defensive unit to play the role of tone setters, with players like Adrian Amos and Mike Hull leading the way.
The team’s biggest test will come during a daunting three-game gauntlet, starting with a home matchup versus a talented Northwestern team, followed by a visit to the Big House against Michigan, and concluding in Happy Valley against Ohio State. Despite Braxton Miller being sidelined, OSU boasts talent across the board, especially on a defensive line that could produce two first round picks. The Nittany Lions must play consistent and mistake-free in order to win these three, but if the team gets hot, anything is possible. A season-ending matchup against the reigning Rose Bowl champs in Michigan State will be a physical trench war, won by the team that can out-muscle the other.
Bold prediction: My bold prediction for the year will be that Geno Lewis breaks out and evolves into a game changing receiver, aided by Christian Hackenberg’s Big Ten Player of the Year-caliber season. There will be some tough stretches for the Nittany Lions in 2014, but I truly believe that this is a team capable of surprising a lot of people around the Big Ten.
Final Record: Best-case scenario for the Nittany Lions is 9-3, worst case is 6-6. I’m gonna guess right in the middle: 8-4.
Thoughts: There is so much unknown for the Penn State football team this year. The biggest question marks are on offense. On the offensive line, only one player remains from the 2013 season, left tackle Donovan Smith. This group of young guys who have never played with each other may not be prepared for this season. How they manage is going to be crucial for the success of Christian Hackenberg this season.
Realistically, the Nittany Lions’ success rests in the hands of Hackenberg. He impressed in his debut season, throwing for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns. For Penn State to be successful, Hackenberg needs to have another record-setting season — a feat that may not be as difficult as it seems, as Hackenberg could become the program’s all-time touchdown leader late in the season. He’s only 24 touchdowns shy of Matt McGloin’s career record.
The issue is that Batman has no Robin. With last year’s leading receiver Allen Robinson gone to the Jaguars, and tight end Adam Breneman out indefinitely, the Nittany Lions need to find production from someone new. I think Geno Lewis will embrace his role as the No. 1 wide receiver, and tight end Jesse James will show that he’s one of the best tight ends in the country with a breakout year.
The defense came under fire last season, but I think new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will infuse new vigor into the group. Besides the new leadership, the defense has the least amount of question marks for the Nittany Lions in the 2014 season. Returning key players in the secondary such as Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos will make it difficult for opponents to get past the Lions.
Bold prediction: James Franklin will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Bill O’Brien, and win the Big Ten Coach of the Year award. He’ll then bring that momentum into recruiting, where he’ll create the No. 1 group of recruits in the Class of 2016.
Final record: 8-4
Thoughts: With the optimism that James Franklin has brought back to Happy Valley, I think the Nittany Lions will retain the momentum with which they finished 2013.
Penn State is young across the board, and Franklin has stated numerous times that he expects immediate contributions from true freshmen on both sides of the ball. That’s no easy feat, especially with the season opener overseas against a formidable Central Florida opponent.
Hackenberg, Zwinak, Lynch and Belton all return to form one of the most threatening run-pass attacks in the Big Ten. However, an inexperienced offensive line may limit much of this firepower. Franklin has suggested that his big men up front will have to learn all five offensive line positions, simply because he doesn’t have enough depth for a backup at each spot.
Defensively, look for Jordan Lucas, Adrian Amos, and Ryan Keiser to patrol the secondary. Early last season, this was a weak spot for Penn State. But progression was noticeable – especially in Lucas – as the season progressed. True freshmen Jason Cabinda, Grant Haley, and Marcus Allen should all see the field early in the season, providing experience that will render the Lions a very strong team in 2015.
The schedule doesn’t set up too difficultly for the Nittany Lions, and I think they will win one more game than last year. I think UCF and Ohio State should beat the Blue and White for the second consecutive season. Michigan State at home and Michigan in the Big House at night will both be difficult, but manageable, games. Be prepared for Nov. 8, when Penn State returns to Bloomington, Ind., for what could sneakily be one of the best games of the year against a high-powered Hoosier offense.
Bold prediction: Look for freshman Daniel Pasquariello to be the primary punter by season’s end. The Australian comes from Prokick Australia, a Melbourne punting program. In a practice I attended two weeks ago, Pasquariello was bombing kicks down the sideline.
Final record: 10-3 (yes, 10-3)
Thoughts: This is the fourth football season I’ve been in State College for, and I’ve never felt a level of excitement leading up to a season quite like this. What James Franklin is doing off the field is remarkable; he’s brought in recruits at a level never before seen in Happy Valley, and he’s turned a once-divided fan base into #107kstrong. I just hope that momentum continues onto the field this year.
He’ll have help on offense with Hackenberg leading the way, three backs that could all start on most teams in the country, and a tight end group that is truly #PSUnrivaled throughout the nation. The offensive #LionOfScrimmage, however, could pose a problem for Franklin and coach Herb Hand. The group will have to take its play to the #NextLevel in the trenches for this team to have success. On the other side of the ball, the defense could be one of the better units in recent memory. Led by CJ Olaniyan, Mike Hull, and Jordan Lucas, if the team can overcome depth issues, it should reverse the downward trend started by last year’s coordinator unit and #DominateTheB1G.
Let’s be real, there are going to be growing pains under Franklin. The team is going to lose a game or two that it probably shouldn’t lose, but I think it will also win at least two #FamilyReunions against the three biggest opponents it will face (Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State.) I think the bowl ban will be lifted, allowing Penn State to play in a New Year’s Day game for the first time since the 2011 season, and the Nittany Lions will end James Franklin’s first year with a win over #OneTeam from his former conference, the SEC.
Bold prediction: Defensive end CJ Olaniyan will win the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. The front four on defense is filled with talent, but Olaniyan will stand out more than anyone else. He ended last season with his first career interception against Wisconsin, and will continue that momentum into this year and wreak havoc on the rest of the Big Ten.
Final record: 8-5
Thoughts: By the nerdy statistics to which I subscribe, Penn State was about as average as can be in 2013 (you’ll find it ranked 65th on Football Outsiders’ Fremeau Efficiency Index, which is a stat I highly recommend reading up on). And though it lost some big pieces, I was real high on Penn State for some time this summer. Its 2014 schedule is easy and it didn’t suffer enough losses to seriously hurt it, but I’ve tempered expectations somewhat due to both injuries and closer consideration of the Big Ten. Sure, I still think going over the 7.5 season win total set by bookmakers is a very safe (hypothetical) bet. But the losses of linebacker Ben Kline and offensive lineman Miles Dieffenbach — who still might see a bit of playing time — are tough blows to the team’s most shallow pair of position groups.
Penn State’s schedule doesn’t exactly incite trembling. Only three games on it are probable losses in Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State. The UCF and Northwestern games could go either way, while the remaining seven are probable wins. Let’s take some liberties and make some concessions: Say Penn State wins one game from its tough trio, takes one of two from UCF and Northwestern, and loses one of the remaining seven. That’s an 8-4 record. That’s obviously just one way of looking at it, but I don’t think there is a logical combination of scenarios from those three game clusters to predict anything less than 8-4. So, that’s what I’m going with, and I think it’s more likely Penn State finishes better than that if 8-4 isn’t the final mark. And despite my explanation…accusations of homerism probably have merit.
Bold Prediction: Penn State loses to South Carolina in the Gator Bowl.