Penn State Nittany Lions
2017 Record: 11-2 (7-2) – Won 2018 Fiesta Bowl
2018 Coaches Poll Top 25 Rank: No. 9
Oh, what could have been. The Penn State Nittany Lions were a ferocious bunch in 2017, offering explosive offense and stifling defense alike in head coach James Franklin's fourth season with the team.
Penn State scored 534 points last season, which is the most the team has scored in a single season since the undefeated team of 1994. And for the most part, last year's team boat-raced the competition. That is, of course, except for a two week stretch in late October and early November.
First, the #2 Lions dropped a 39-38 decision to the (then) #6 Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus, a game that Penn State led by as many as 18 in and saw a 15-point 4th quarter lead melt away as the Buckeyes ran off 12 unanswered in the final 4 minutes of the game.
The very next week, Penn State, who had slipped to #7 in the polls, lost another 4th quarter lead to (then) #12 Michigan State in East Lansing and lost 27-24 when the Spartans kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired.
Just like that, National Championship and Big Ten Championship aspirations were up in smoke. The team rebounded against Rutgers, Nebraska, Maryland and Washington in the final four games of the season, but the bitter taste of what could have been should still sit poorly with those left from the 2017 campaign.
Gone are all-world RB Saquon Barkley, mismatch weapon TE Mike Gesicki, leading receiver DeaSean Hamilton, all of the team's top five leading tacklers from last season and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead (who bolted for the head coaching gig at Mississippi State).
That's a whole lot of change. Key contributors along the offensive line and QB Trace McSorley are back, offering hope that this team can minimize the personnel changes across the two deep. Explosive plays should continue to be a fixture of the Lions' offensive attack, given the presence of WR Juwan Johnson and a promising back in Miles Sanders.
Defensively, senior LB Koa Farmer and CB Amani Oruwariye lead the unit, who will have a tough time meeting the 16.5 ppg standard set by last year's team. That figure is the lowest the Lions have allowed in the last 7 years.
Looking at the schedule, Penn State does have some fortune on their side. Key match-ups against Ohio State (September 29th), Michigan State (October 13th), Iowa (October 27th) and Wisconsin (November 10th) are all home games. The lone road test is an early November date in Ann Arbor, where the rejuvenated Wolverines will be coming off of a bye week.
All things considered, this Penn State team will be good. But matching the 11-win total of each of the last two years is a tough, tough task.
Top 5 Draft-Eligible Prospects
1. CB Amani Oruwariye
What a delight it was to watch Amani Oruwariye's film from the 2017 season! A 2nd-team All-Big Ten player last season, Oruwariye is a long, fluid corner who certainly fits the mold of what NFL teams fall in love with in today's landscape.
Oruwariye's best trait? He's got explosive click and close ability, especially for a 6-foot-1 cornerback. Pair that with excellent ball skills and the Lions should consider themselves lucky that they have him for another season, especially considering the exodus of CB Christian Campbell, S Troy Apke and S Marcus Allen this offseason (all starters).
2. WR Juwan Johnson
Speaking of mass exodus, Johnson is primed to be a key fixture in the Penn State offense thanks to his status as the only returning receiver out of the the four most targeted players from 2017.
Johnson has a huge catch radius and is a very impressive open field athlete for such a large receiver (he's listed at 6-foot-4, 229 pounds). If Johnson can become a bit more polished as a route runner, this could be a riser in a very crowded wide receiver prospect pool.
3. DE Shareef Miller
Miller has got a lot of juice. It's hard to miss him on 3rd and long passing situations, as his first step grants him a ton of covered ground up the field and aided him to a team leading 5 sacks in 2017. Add in 17 tackles for loss in the past two seasons combined and Miller's explosiveness has led to some big plays in the backfield.
But Miller has yet to show signs of developing into a more polished, all-around player. That will be a key hurdle in deciding if this is a late-round flier worth targeting or if he can be considered as a possible starter at the next level.
4. OL Ryan Bates
Bates has been pin-balled around the Lions' offensive line the last two years, but he has some promising traits that can be harnessed on the interior. The odds are Bates will play tackle this season, but don't be surprised if injuries once again force Penn State to juggle their talent to find a suitable starting five.
Bates is a clean mover and has shown good hands to break down pass rushes when he's able to frame blocks cleanly in space.
5. QB Trace McSorley
Few passers have been able to lay claim to the kind of production McSorley has put on the football field the last two seasons. As a 27-game starter, McSorley has logged over 7,000 passing yards, 57 touchdown passes (75 total touchdowns), a completion percentage greater than 60% and just 18 interceptions.
Impressive stuff for a scrappy, undersized 3-star recruit. But the box score does lie. McSorley's game is currently predicated on taking vertical shots down the field and allowing his receivers to make plays on the football. Penn State has passed several elite athletes through the program during McSorley's time as the starter, which have allowed them to win contested targets and make elite adjustments to the football.
McSorley's ability to make more calculated decisions with the football and throw with more persistent accuracy will be key markers of his stock in 2018.
Others to Watch: RB Miles Sanders, WR DeAndre Thompkins, OL Connor McGovern, OL Steven Gonzalez, LB Koa Farmer, DB John Reid (2017 medical redshirt)