The 2016 Penn State football season ended with last-second heartbreak in the Rose Bowl, but left the blue and white faithful with plenty of optimism heading into the 2017 season.
September is a long way off, though, and we’re hitting that point where your post-college football depression sets in and you start fantasizing about Saturday’s in Beaver Stadium again.
Right now, there’s a lot to be optimistic about after a season like this past one, especially when you consider the return of the majority of the roster. The future looks bright even with key losses like wide receiver Chris Godwin, defensive end Garrett Sickels, linebacker Brandon Bell, and safety Malik Golden because Penn State has plenty of talent to fill their spots.
With the experienced combining with the young and skilled, the Nittany Lions are likely to begin the 2017 season inside the top 10. So how did this team go from competing for bowl eligibility at the beginning of last year to one that stands a chance in the College Football Playoff next season?
It all starts with two Heisman contenders leading the charge.
Trace McSorley stepped in as the starting quarterback at the beginning of 2016 with few expectations, but many questions from outside the team. Heading into 2017, he’ll have a new set of expectations coming off a Penn State singe-season passing yards record campaign in his first year.
What allowed him to succeed at times was the equally dangerous Saquon Barkley keeping defenses split on whether to focus on the run or McSorley’s dangerous passing game. Barkley and the backfield core — Andre Robinson, Miles Sanders, and Mark Allen — all will return following a season where the team rushed for a combined 34 touchdowns and an average of 171.9 yards a game.
What else could help out one of the nation’s potential top quarterbacks in 2017 is a solid receiving core. Despite losing leading receiver Godwin, Penn State returns the bulk of its options including tight end Mike Gesicki, Christian Hackenberg’s top target in 2015 DaeSean Hamilton, and Big Ten Championship star Saeed Blacknall — all of who could end up on an All-Big Ten team next season.
Keeping both Barkley and McSorley safe will be the offensive line, which returns nearly all of its starters minus center Brian Gaia. After making large strides in 2017 compared to years past, the offensive line could play a critical piece in the team’s success next season with the experience that the core group got this season.
Now on the defensive end, safety Marcus Allen and linebacker Jason Cabinda are emerging as the senior leaders who need to help improve a unit that surrendered 30 or more points in five games during the 2016 campaign.
Veteran corners John Reid and Grant Haley hope to put the pieces back together after getting toasted by Sam Darnold for 453 yards and five touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. The defensive line will be anchored by young studs Shane Simmons, Ryan Buchholz, and Shareef Miller — all entering their sophomore seasons.
Even the special teams looks promising, which had a major upswing in 2016 following its Achilles’ heel nature in 2015. Kickoff specialist Joey Julius, All-Big Ten honorable mention punter Blake Gillikin, and All-Big Ten first team kicker Tyler Davis will hope to improve on an impressive 2016 season for themselves.
With kickoff still more than seven months away, let’s take a look at the upcoming schedule.
September 2: Akron — With the Nittany Lions leading the all-time series 5-0 and Akron missing out on a bowl game in 2016, there is no reason to believe that Penn state should fall to the Zips at home to open a hopeful season
September 9: Pitt — The following weekend Penn State finally gets its rematch with Pitt. With the Panthers losing both quarterback Nathan Petterman and running back James Connor, their offense will take a major step backwards and in a game at Beaver Stadium, will struggle to keep up with the surging Penn State offense.
September 16: Georgia State — Georgia State has fewer wins in four years as an FBS school than Penn State did last season. Next.
September 23: at Iowa — There are no easy games in Kinnick Stadium, ask Michigan. After a drubbing against the Nittany Lions this season, expect a real test from the Hawkeyes hoping for revenge.
September 30: Indiana — After a difficult battle on the road last year, Penn State gets a shot at hosting a team that nearly derailed its Big Ten Championship season, this time at home. With starting quarterback Richard Lagow, 1000-yard rusher Devine Redding, and a veteran defense returning for the Hoosiers, this could be a tricky test for the Nittany Lions, but very winnable in Beaver Stadium.
October 7: at Northwestern — Another young team with room to improve, Northwestern will host the Nittany Lions in their return to Ryan Field where James Franklin suffered one of his harshest losses as Penn State’s coach. For a middle of the road team that struggled to defend the pass in 2016, this is a very doable road victory.
October 21: Michigan — The Wolverines are losing many key pieces and heading on the road to Beaver Stadium. Even though there’s so much uncertainty surrounding Michigan, Jim Harbaugh’s team will never be a walkover.
October 28: at Ohio State — Conceivably the toughest game of the 2017 regular season and so many starters returning for the Buckeyes, this is the game that you have to have your eye on if Penn State is to have any title hopes.
November 4: at Michigan State — A tough road environement with a team that will try to build on a disappointing 2016 season, the game against the Spartans will wrap up the three-game stretch from hell for Penn State.
November 11: Rutgers — Finally some good news.
November 18: Nebraska — Nebraska made some 2016 Penn State-like decisions this offseason — changing up its system on offense and hiring a new defensive coordinator — but will it be enough to revive the Huskers to their prime and challenge the Nittany Lions in Beaver Stadium?
November 25: at Maryland — Whatever the situation is at this point, Penn State at least gets to end its season against a perpetually-struggling program, even if it has to be on the road.
Postseason: ??? — Could the Nittany Lions return to the New Years’ Six? Well, after the season they had last year and the potential they have this year, anything less would be a disappointment.
But what about another Big Ten title or a spot in the College Football Playoff? The road leads through a brutal test in Columbus. Without a win there, it’s hard to believe a Big Ten Championship is in the cards, but possibly a playoff spot. If there’s one thing Penn State fans know after 2016, it’s probably not best to leave it up to the results of the other teams or the decisions of the committee.