Penn State’s football season finally kicks off Saturday, so we thought now would be the perfect time to release our season predictions.
How will the Nittany Lions finish the regular season? And will they make the College Football Playoff? Here’s what beat writers John McGonigal and Josh Moyer are projecting:
Josh Moyer: 9-3
This team has the talent to win the Big Ten, garner Heisman votes and make the College Football Playoff. The problem is that the same can be said of four other teams in the conference.
This could be the most dangerous defense that Michigan has ever fielded. Ohio State has become the Alabama of the Midwest. Michigan State returns virtually everyone. And Wisconsin might have the best offensive line in the country.
My 9-3 prediction, which would be seen as a disappointment by many, has less to do with the Nittany Lions and more to do with their opponents. Not only does PSU have to deal with the Big Ten’s four other ranked teams, but it also has Iowa — the giant-killer that took down the Buckeyes last season and nearly upset the Lions.
And Penn State will be counted on to win those games without last season’s best offensive player and with technically just three returning starters on defense. Last year’s secondary has four players competing in the NFL — three as drafted athletes — and no one would blame assistant coaches Terry Smith or Tim Banks if these DBs took a step back, even with John Reid back from injury. Linebacker is a huge question mark, and the defensive tackles are unproven. On offense, Joe Moorhead’s departure might be more costly than anticipated.
Ricky Rahne may have called good plays in the Fiesta Bowl, but can he adapt when the initial gameplan falls flat? When Moorhead spotted a weakness in the Minnesota defense back in 2016 and targeted it en route to a comeback, could Rahne make that very same read? We just don’t know yet. This isn’t Rahne’s offense; the student has been thrust in the teacher’s role. Rahne may turn out to be a very, very good offensive coordinator — but I still can’t label that a certainty. Not yet.
This team has obvious talent and its depth has grown immensely over the last few years. The future is clearly bright — but, between the uncertainty elicited by unwanted changes (i.e. Moorhead) and the difficult slate of opponents, I think Penn State falters.
John McGonigal: 9-3
When speaking with Penn State fans throughout the offseason — when asking them what their expectations for the 2018 season are — one self-assurance popped up time and time again: “We play our tough teams at home.” That is true. The Nittany Lions host Ohio State on Sept. 29 before welcoming Michigan State and Wisconsin on Oct. 13 and Nov. 11, respectively. Don’t get me wrong, it’s beneficial that James Franklin’s squad plays those three potential College Football Playoff teams at Beaver Stadium. But here’s the deal: The Nittany Lions still have to play the games.
Home or not, Penn State has to face Ohio State, coached by Urban Meyer and led by potential No. 1 overall pick Nick Bosa and a sophomore quarterback drawing comparisons to 2014 national champion Cardale Jones. It has to take down Michigan State, a team that killed Penn State’s playoff hopes last year and returns 21 starters. And it has to handle Wisconsin, the Big Ten West juggernaut with Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor and three preseason All-American offensive linemen.
Trace McSorley, Penn State’s talisman, owns a sterling 14-0 record at home. That undefeated mark won’t make it through the 2018 season.
Like Josh, my prediction is more indicative of Penn State’s brutally top-heavy schedule than the team’s collective talent. McSorley will put up Heisman-contending numbers, Miles Sanders will have Doak Walker buzz this time next year, Juwan Johnson could secure himself a first-round NFL grade, and the offensive line should finally be a strength. Defensively, there are question marks at linebacker, defensive tackle and even the secondary without Marcus Allen, Grant Haley, Troy Apke and Christian Campbell. You can’t discount the Nittany Lions’ incoming talent, though, with freshmen like wideout Justin Shorter, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher and, of course, Micah Parsons ready to make an immediate impact.
Still, the schedule isn’t favorable. Having the bye week in between Ohio State and Michigan State is nice, but traveling to Michigan — another team pushing for a playoff spot — followed by hosting Wisconsin is brutal.
On the media bus back from University of Phoenix Stadium hours after Penn State’s Fiesta Bowl win over Washington, I started thinking about what the Nittany Lions can accomplish in 2018. Ever since, I’ve gone back and forth between 9-3 and 10-2.
By no means is 10-2 or even 11-1 out of the realm of possibility. Neither is a Big Ten title. But you don’t lose Saquon Barkley, offensive genius Joe Moorhead and more than half your defense and face four top-15 teams without taking a step back.