2015 Record: 7-6 (4-4 B1G)
2015 Final S&P+ Ranking: 30
2016 Projected S&P+ Ranking: 28
Returning Starters: 9 offense, 5 defense
Treading water or rebuilding what was broken?
Penn State has been sort of stuck in neutral for the past several years. Since the scandal that rocked college football in 2012, the Nittany Lions are 29-21 over the last four years, and they've finished 7-5 or 7-6 the last three. Not bad considering the two-year bowl ban, scholarship sanctions, and two head coaches in four years. Just this past offseason, head coach James Franklin caused a bit of a stir at the Big Ten Media Days when he opened up about other programs that still use negative recruiting against Penn State. The program has been able to keep its head above water for a while now, but what everyone wants to know is when it will fully recover and start swimming again.
Last season, the Nittany Lions were stunned by Temple in a season-opening loss that at one point saw quarterback Christian Hackenberg sacked by a two-man rush. Penn State's offensive line would allow 39 sacks on the season, tied for 111th in college football. In two seasons under Franklin, the Nittany Lions have allowed a total of 83 sacks. Not good. After the loss to Temple, Penn State won seven of their next eight games (six of which were at home) before losing four straight to end the season, including a TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia. The Nittany Lions' wins were over opponents with a combined record of 36-51, while their losses were to opponents with a combined record of 64-16.
Due to the scheduling quirks of the Big Ten, Minnesota and Penn State have faced each other only once over the last five seasons, and that was a 24-10 Gopher victory at TCF Bank Stadium in 2013. That was also in Bill O'Brien's last season as head coach before the NFL came calling, so the Gophers have yet to face a James Franklin-coached squad at Penn State. The Nittany Lions were 3-4 at home in their first season under Franklin, but improved to 6-1 at Beaver Stadium last season, albeit against the likes of Army, Buffalo, San Diego State, Indiana, Illinois, and Rutgers. Their lone loss at home was to Michigan. The Gophers are 2-4 all-time at Beaver Stadium, but that also includes a memorable 24-23 upset of No. 2-ranked Penn State in 1999.
Watch out for Saquon Barkley on offense
Three-year starter Hackenberg is gone to the NFL. Sophomore Trace McSorley has been named the starting quarterback, beating out redshirt freshman Tommy Stevens. McSorley was relegated mostly to mop-up duty last season, until he took over for an injured Hackenberg in the second quarter of their bowl game against Georgia. In that loss to the Bulldogs, he completed 14 passes on 27 attempts with 142 passing yards and two touchdowns. By the time the Gophers see McSorley, he'll have faced Kent State and Temple at home and Pittsburgh and Michigan on the road, so don't count on inexperience being a significant factor.
McSorley also has the benefit of sharing the backfield with sophomore running back Saquon Barkley. Barkley was a revelation for the Nittany Lions last season as a true freshman, rushing for 1,076 yards on 182 carries, with seven touchdowns (even while missing two games midseason). He broke the single-season rushing mark for a freshman at Penn State, and rushed for 100 yards or more in five games last season. Barkley is the real deal and will help take the pressure off McSorley as he finds his footing under center early in the season. Penn State also returns their top three leading receivers, including junior wideouts Chris Godwin (69 receptions, 1,101 yards, 5 touchdowns) and DaeSean Hamilton (45 receptions, 580 yards, 6 touchdowns).
The offensive line, as per usual, is the biggest question mark, and Gopher fans will recognize the man that Franklin has brought in to solve their woes in the trenches. Former Minnesota offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover takes over coaching a line that returns four starters from a unit that obviously struggled mightily a season ago. Limegrover had mixed success at Minnesota, and he has been quoted as saying that having to balance his duties as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach was not always easy. Perhaps he'll have more success with less responsibilities. But against the Gophers? Hopefully not.
Just your typical outstanding Nittany Lion defense
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for the same position as Tennessee, but he leaves behind a handful of returners from an elite defense that ranked 15th in college football last season according to S&P+. Linebackers coach Brent Pry will now lead the defense and the Nittany Lions are hopeful his defense won't miss a beat.
Defensive end Carl Nassib -- a disruptive force who led the Penn State defense with 15.5 sacks last season -- is the most significant loss up front, along with defensive tackle duo Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. With one returning starter back from a unit that was one of the most experienced a year ago, the Nittany Lions must gamble on a young group to improve a defensive line that struggled somewhat against the run last season.
It hasn't quite been the same 'Linebacker U' that we saw under Joe Paterno, but the linebacker corps for Penn State this season should be a strength again for the Nittany Lions. Junior linebacker Jason Cabinda, last year's leading tackler, is back to lead the defense, along with senior outside linebacker Brandon Bell. The lone departure is redshirt freshman Troy Reeder, who transferred to Delaware despite starting the last 11 games of last season. But it won't make much of a difference if senior middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White can stay healthy after missing last season due to injury.
Cornerback Trevor Williams and safety Jordan Lucas depart, but plenty of experience returns for the Nittany Lions' defensive backs. Junior safety Marcus Allen was the team's second leading tackler a season ago, and junior cornerback Grant Haley tied for the team lead with two interceptions on the year. Overall, six of their eight most experienced defensive backs from last season are back. But this defensive backfield also won't have the benefit of Carl Nassib rushing the quarterback this season, so expect a young pass rush to have an impact on the secondary.
Can the Gophers beat the Nittany Lions?
I don't feel confident, to be honest. It's hard to gauge how the close the gap is between Minnesota and Penn State because the teams haven't played in three years. No one on the Gophers' current roster has even played at Beaver Stadium before, and its reputation obviously precedes it. Minnesota is also 4-6 on the road the last two seasons. The Gophers did go into the Big House two years ago and beat Michigan to open Big Ten play, but I doubt this current iteration of the Nittany Lions is even close to the mess that Wolverines team was at that time under Brady Hoke.
We'll obviously know more about both teams at the end of the non-conference schedule, but at this point in the preseason, the odds are stacked against the Gophers, at least on paper. I think Minnesota is capable of beating Penn State, but leaving Beaver Stadium with a victory in October will be a tall task.
For more on the Penn State Nittany Lions, check out a more in-depth preview from SB Nation's Bill Connelly.