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.