Penn State’s opener on Sept. 2 is quickly approaching, and the hype surrounding the Nittany Lions’ 2017 season is palpable.
And with those lofty expectations come plenty of predictions, whether it’s a trip to the College Football Playoff or another Big Ten title. Here are three fearless predictions for Penn State’s 2017 campaign:
1. Mike Gesicki wins Mackey Award
In the 16-year history of the Mackey Award — given to the country’s best tight end — Penn State has never had a winner. That’s going to change in 2017.
Penn State senior Mike Gesicki is poised to be the nation’s top tight end this season. All signs point to it.
In 2016, Gesicki’s 679 receiving yards ranked eighth in the country among tight ends. Of the seven players ahead of him, five are now in the NFL.
Last season, Gesicki’s five catches of 40 yards or more was tied for the most by a tight end. The guy he tied with — Miami’s David Njoku — is on the Browns.
With 48 catches, 679 yards and five touchdowns, Gesicki was the second-most prolific pass-catcher Penn State had last season. With Chris Godwin making plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it’s not crazy to think the tight end will lead the Nittany Lions in receiving.
Gesicki is the No. 1 tight end draft prospect, according to CBS Sports, with reason.
As a focal point in one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, Gesicki is going to see the ball thrown his way — and Penn State fans are going to see him hoist the Mackey Award trophy.
2. Penn State is top-10 nationally in tackles for loss
On the surface, this prediction may not seem fearless. Penn State ranked sixth and seventh in tackles for loss per game in 2015 and 2016, respectively, so a top-10 finish would be more of the same.
But losing three starters on the front-seven have many worried about Penn State’s defense. Some believe it’ll be a liability.
Replacing defensive ends Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels and linebacker Brandon Bell won’t be easy, but the Nittany Lions still shouldn’t lose a step in getting after opponents’ backfields.
A combination of Torrence Brown (6.0 tackles for loss in 2016), Shareef Miller (5.5) and Ryan Buchholz (4.5) — as well as redshirt freshmen Shane Simmons and Shaka Toney — should be more than enough to replace Sickels and Schwan’s production (20.5 combined tackles for loss).
Losing Bell’s 7.5 tackles for loss hurts for sure, but the Nittany Lions survived for four games in his absence. The emergence of Brandon Smith, Koa Farmer, Manny Bowen and Cam Brown throughout the linebacker injury issues can only help moving forward.
John Reid, who’ll reportedly miss significant time, also chipped in five tackles for loss. However, expect freshman Lamont Wade and redshirt junior Amani Oruwariye to help fill the void.
It’s not the first time Penn State has reloaded. The Nittany Lions lost consensus All-American defensive end Carl Nassib and defensive tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel after the 2015 season and did just fine in 2016.
Look for Penn State to do the same in 2017.
3. Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley finish top 8 in Heisman voting
Again, this is one that may not jump out and scream “fearless.” But historically speaking, it is.
The odds of Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley both finishing in the top 8 in the Heisman Trophy voting doesn’t play in their favor.
Since 2008, only one same-team duo landed in the top 8: Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook in 2016.
The last time a quarterback and running back from the same team landed in the top 8? Southern California’s Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush in 2005.
Simply put, it’s really, really rare for teammates — let alone a quarterback and running back — to be that highly considered by Heisman voters.
This season’s crop of potential Heisman winners is strong, too.
Seven players have better odds than Barkley to win the Heisman, per Westgate Sportsbook. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won in 2016, and three others — Mayfield, Washington’s Jake Browning and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett — have landed in the top 6 in voting at least once in the last three years.
Still, with the way Joe Moorhead’s offense clicked as 2016 rolled on, that sets up Barkley and McSorley for seasons worthy of Heisman consideration.
Barkley’s 306 all-purpose yards in the Rose Bowl was a reminder to some and revelation to many about what he can accomplish in Moorhead’s system. McSorley’s 1,014 passing yards and 13 touchdowns to three interceptions in his final three games established him as one of the most explosive quarterbacks in the country.
Heading into 2017, McSorley and Barkley aren’t learning Moorhead’s offense anymore. They’re fine-tuning it.
That, combined with an improved offensive line, means that Barkley and McSorley can do what Bush and Leinart did in 2005.