Welcome to Hype Week, our look at the teams fans and analysts seem to be especially excited about heading into the season. Some of these squads may turn out to be really good! Others, though, could drastically underperform expectations. Our goal is to examine why each of these teams is getting so much hype, and whether they can live up to it. First up is Penn State, which is ranked No. 8 in our preseason top 25.
The origin of the monsoon of hype surrounding Penn State entering this season is not difficult to identify. Less than a month after Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour issued a public vote of confidence for head coach James Franklin amid a dismaying 2–2 start that included a 39-point smackdown at the hands of Michigan, the Nittany Lions stunned undefeated Ohio State, 24–21, before a Whiteout crowd at Beaver Stadium in primetime. The upset marked the first time Franklin had beaten a member of the Big Ten East power trio (the Buckeyes, Michigan and Michigan State), and the dramatic nature of its conclusion—Penn State won thanks to a 60-yard touchdown return on a blocked field goal late in the fourth quarter—added to the feeling that something momentous was taking place.
The Nittany Lions followed that up by running off six consecutive victories, a streak which was facilitated by a pair of games against Big Ten dregs Rutgers and Purdue, but which also included a stirring comeback to edge then No. 6 Wisconsin, 38–31, in the conference title game. Penn State was flying high, but its glorious ride was about to hit two speed bumps. First, the College Football Playoff selection committee chose a team Penn State beat head-to-head, Ohio State, for the national semifinals and excluded the Nittany Lions. Then Penn State traveled to Pasadena for its first Rose Bowl since 2008 and gave 9–3 USC everything it could handle, but came up just short after Trojans kicker Matt Boermeester drilled a 46-yard field goal as time expired to complete a 14-point fourth-quarter comeback and win 52–49.
The playoff snub and the Rose Bowl loss were frustrating in real time, but they did nothing to change the outlook for this season. The latter development actually lent credence to Penn State’s status as a contender for the former in 2017. By going blow-for-blow with a scorching-hot Trojans squad led by a future top-10 NFL draft pick at quarterback, the Nittany Lions squashed any skepticism that may have existed about their ability to grapple with the cream of the Power 5 crop. For anyone reading this who still harbors such skepticism, here’s some bad news: Penn State is very much worth the hype. Not only do the Nittany Lions have a legitimate shot to notch consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since the latter part of Joe Paterno’s tenure, but they’re more than capable of taking the Big Ten crown again and claiming a spot in the CFP.
The most obvious rebuttal: Penn State plays in arguably the toughest division in college football! That’s true, but it also misses the point if the Nittany Lions are the best team in that division. Using our Top 25 as a guide, their chief competitors in the East project to be Ohio State (No. 3) and Michigan (No. 11).
Let’s start with the Wolverines. They bring back just six starters from last season, including only one on defense, as well as only 34% of their production, third-lowest in the FBS, according to SB Nation’s Bill Connelly. Michigan has recruited really well during Jim Harbaugh’s time in Ann Arbor, but he hasn’t earned the Nick Saban personnel-turnover benefit of the doubt yet. This program isn’t quite ready to sustain so much attrition without taking a step back. As for the Buckeyes, a host of NFL-related departures this offseason will sting, particularly in the secondary, but new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson should quickly bury the memory of last season’s Fiesta Bowl debacle, a terrifying defensive line will head a reloaded defense and Urban Meyer’s track record is unimpeachable: He has lost two regular-season Big Ten games during his five-year tenure.
Of those two teams, the Buckeyes are clearly a bigger threat to steal the East from Penn State, and they’ll get a shot to avenge their loss in State College last year when they host the Nittany Lions in late October. Yet Penn State could make the CFP even if it loses that game. The Nittany Lions host Michigan, and their league slate is otherwise navigable, save for a pair of tricky-but-winnable road games against Northwestern and Iowa. Penn State need look no further than last year to see an example of the committee bucking its stated emphasis on league titles and head-to-head competition in the selection process. This time around, an Ohio State team with a regular-season win over the Nittany Lions could be left on the other side of the velvet rope, settling for a consolation bowl while Penn State heads to the Final Four.
Whether the Nittany Lions can actually pull that off will depend in large part on their ability to surmount significant talent disparities to Ohio State and Michigan. The Nittany Lions seem well on their way to closing the gap with their 2018 recruiting class, but those prospects won’t be eligible until next season. This fall, the picture is pretty bleak for Penn State, at least as the major scouting services see it. Both the Buckeyes and Wolverines will have the Nittany Lions beat: According to Connelly, Penn State’s two-year recruiting average ranks 18th in the country and their five-year average ranks 21st. Ohio State’s two-year and five-year averages both come in second, behind only Alabama on both counts, and Michigan’s checks in at fourth and 19th with its two-year and four-year averages, respectively.
What those rankings don’t account for is the way Penn State’s players have developed since arriving on campus. Nor do they have anything to say about the arrival of a former FCS head coach with a devastatingly effective uptempo scheme and a plan to unlock the full potential of a world-beating bellcow back. In his first season as Penn State’s offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead turned Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley into the nation’s most lethal backfield tandem, lifting the Nittany Lions from 62nd to 18th on offense, according to Football Outsiders S&P + ratings. Those two will be back in 2017, and so will Moorhead after he was mentioned in connection with multiple head coaching vacancies this offseason. It’s safe to assume Moorhead has come up with new ways to use McSorley and Barkley to torment opposing defensive coordinators.
Barkley and McSorley won’t be going at it alone. Even though Penn State loses top wide receiver Chris Godwin, every other player who recorded at least five catches last season is back, including stud tight end Mike Gesicki. A healthier offensive line would do wonders for Penn State’s offense more generally, and for Barkley in particular, and with former five-star recruit Miles Sanders available to take on part of the rushing workload, the Nittany Lions shouldn’t have to worry about Barkley wearing down over the course of the season. Penn State will have an easier time putting up points against opponents than preventing them, but a linebacking corps anchored by upperclassmen should be solid, and the secondary caught a break when playmaking safety Marcus Allen decided to return for his senior season.
Betting on a team coming off a major uptick in the win column to repeat it the following season almost always feels like a bad idea. And Penn State’s top-to-bottom talent deficit relative to East challengers Michigan and Ohio State can’t be glossed over. But those concerns shouldn’t outweigh everything the Nittany Lions have going for them. This is a team you can buy into without having second thoughts about falling for inflated expectations. Penn State deserves the preseason love it’s getting.