2014 CFN Preview - Penn State Nittany Lions
Penn State TE Jesse James
CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - With a superstar QB and a great coaching hire, things are looking up. (Getty Images)
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Head coach: James Franklin
4th year overall: 24-15
Off: 16, Def. 23, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 18
1. QB Christian Hackenberg, So.
2. CB Jordan Lucas, Jr.
3. LB Mike Hull, Sr.
4. TE Jesse James, Jr.
5. RB Zach Zwinak, Sr.
6. DE C.J. Olaniyan, Sr.
7. OT Donovan Smith, Jr.
8. S/CB Adrian Amos, Sr.
9. TE Adam Breneman, Soph.
10. RB Bill Belton, Sr.
2014 Schedule |
Aug. 30 UCF (in Dublin)
Sep. 6 Akron
Sep. 13 at Rutgers
Sep. 20 UMass
Sep. 27 Northwestern
Oct. 4 OPEN DATE
Oct. 11 at Michigan
Oct. 18 OPEN DATE
Oct. 25 Ohio State
Nov. 1 Maryland
Nov. 8 at Indiana
Nov. 15 Temple
Nov. 22 at Illinois
Nov. 29 Michigan State
Under impossible circumstances, Bill O'Brien did an amazing job.
It didn't matter than he took off early to the NFL – he did his job. Thrown into the fire, he helped keep the program and school from spiraling out of control, put Penn State football back on track, and found a way to replace a legend all throughout all of the controversy. Even so, it's better to be the guy after The Guy.
Even if James Franklin doesn't work out, and even if he doesn't lead the way to ten-win seasons and Big Ten titles on a regular basis, at least on paper, it works. It's the pitch-perfect hire at the exact right time.
Penn State couldn't have found a coach who fits exactly what it needs at almost every level, and it couldn't have found a guy who'd be better to break things out of their shell.
It takes a serious personality to be able to coach at a place that still worships a former head man as a god, and while O'Brien was able to set the right tone at the right time in one way, Franklin is setting a different attitude in another direction just when the program needed it.
While no one's denying that emotions still run high at times when the words Penn and State are brought up, the football program is still standing, the school is still in business, and despite all of the negative PR and all the problems, things are moving on.
But there are still logistical issues to deal with that Franklin will have to get by.
The NCAA sanctions have been lessened, but as USC has painfully found out, it still takes a while to rebuild the depth and get a superpower program back to its former self.
Being thrown in the new Big Ten East with Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan doesn't help, and yeah, there will still be problems at times just because the talent isn't quite there thanks to the NCAA problems. Even so, with bowl eligibility coming next season, and with the addition of Franklin, all things considered, Penn State is coming out of this more than fine on the field.
O'Brien was able to come up with 15 wins over the last two seasons, and while they were irrelevant in terms of the landscape of the respective years, they didn't matter in one way. They helped bring in Franklin, and they helped in a big way for recruiting.
Franklin has the exact right mindset and the perfect attitude. He didn't want to hear any excuses at Vanderbilt, and never allowed anyone to use the same old talking points about why the program couldn't succeed. His demand was to find a way no matter what, and while the Commodores didn't win the SEC East, and they took care of the weak and the sad – for the most part – they also went 9-4 in each of the last two seasons and went to three straight bowl games.
Franklin isn't going to listen to any talk about a honeymoon period, and he isn't going to care that this really is a redshirt year for his coaching staff and his tenure. He has an NFL franchise quarterback in Christian Hackenberg around for two more seasons, he has a possible top five recruiting class coming in, and he has just enough talent among the starting 22 to be competitive.
But if Penn State goes 5-7 this season, that doesn't mean it's time to worry in any way. That doesn't mean that O'Brien was the far better coach, and that doesn't mean anything to Franklin's tenure. It doesn't really matter if Penn State goes 12-0 or 0-12, it's all about getting Franklin into his groove now so 2015 can rock.
What to watch for on offense: Who will Christian Hackenberg throw to? There's no question who the franchise star is, and offensive coordinator John Donovan and the rest of the coaching staff will do everything possible to make sure the potential first round NFL draft pick is able to maximize his talents. Step One will be to keep him upright, but that could be tough with just
one starter returning up front.
The bigger challenge will be to replace Allen Robinson, who was more than just a security blanket for the true freshman passer catching 97 passes for 1,432 yards and six touchdowns last year – the top returning wide receiver, Geno Lewis, caught 18 passes for 234 yards and three scores. Hackenberg will make everyone around him better, but there isn't a veteran Robinson or a Jordan Matthews – Vanderbilt's all-star under Franklin – on the roster. Expect Donovan to tap into the recruiting class to mix in some true freshmen with a few of the returning veterans.
What to watch for on defense: Lots of different formations to help out the pass defense. The offense got most of the attention under O'Brien, but his defenses – outside of a few midseason problems with Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State last year – were solid and did a great job against the run. The secondary struggled despite the help of a decent pass rush, and now expect defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to use more nickel and dime packages to help the cause. The Nittany Lions will continue to roll with the base 4-3 like they did under O'Brien, but Shoop will get creative. There's enough returning experience at defensive back to hope for an improvement, and the ends and pass rush could turn into a strength early on.
The team will be far better if… the offense can convert a third down chance. It wasn't an issue in 2012, converting 42.5% of the time. With a great quarterback like Hackenberg and a fantastic offensive coach like O'Brien, you'd think moving the chains wouldn't have been a problem. Instead, the offense stalled way, way too often converting just 34% of the time and not going on enough long drives. It didn't matter early in the season in wins over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, converting just 2-of-16 chances, but it proved costly in the loss to UCF and was a massive problem in losses to Minnesota and Nebraska, converting just 3-of-23 chances. It was too tempting to take shots down the field to Robinson, but Hackenberg misfired a bit too often – for all his talent, he was a true freshman – and the offense simply failed to click at times.
The Schedule: Will the Nittany Lions be able to kick off the James Franklin era with a revenge win against UCF? If so, they'll have to do it in Dublin, Ireland, and then they come back for what should be an easy win over Akron. The team isn't exactly stretching itself with UMass on the slate and the annual win over Temple coming in mid-November.
The Big Ten schedule starts out with a trip to Rutgers in what could seem like a Penn State home game, and Northwestern starts out the official conference home run before getting a week off to prepare for Michigan. The Wolverines and Ohio State might come up back-to-back, but there's a bye week before facing each team. The problem is that there aren't any more breaks, playing six straight games to close out the year with Michigan State to finish things up. However, there's a winnable November stretch of Maryland, at Indiana, Temple and at Illinois.
Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Christian Hackenberg. He still needs some fine-tuning, and he threw a few too many interceptions, but it's all there. He might not have been a top 15 pick if available in this year's draft, but with a few more at-bats he could quickly become the must-have No. 1 overall pick in 2015 with his 6-3, 220-pound size, mobility and next-level arm. Now he has to be the type of star who makes everyone around him better. He showed against Wisconsin in the season finale that he could be truly special against a top team, and even without Robinson to throw to, he'll come up with several more great performances this year.
Best defensive player: Junior CB Jordan Lucas. Considering the problems with the secondary last year, it's not a bad thing that two of the best returning players are at corner with Lucas and Adrian Amos two of the team's leaders. The end tandem of C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes need to rise up and do even more as pass rushers to help out the defensive backs, and linebacker Mike Hull could turn out to be a statistical superstar, but it's Lucas who returns as one of the Big Ten's best all-around defensive backs after doing a great job as an open-field tackler and defending 16 passes with three picks.
Key players to a successful season: Junior OT Donovan Smith. The line was one of the keys to the transition to the O'Brien era a few years ago and was one of the team's biggest strengths last season, but Adam Gress and John Urschel are gone on the
right side and center Ty Howle is done. The hope was for veterans on the left side to be anchors to work around, but guard Mile Dieffenbach is gone for the year with a knee injury. That leaves Smith as the lone returning starter, and he's a good one. Finding the starting five is going to be tough enough, and the lack of depth could be a disaster. Smith has to be an all-star.
The season will be a success if ... the Nittany Lions flirt with nine wins. Seven wins would make for a more realistic goal, but Franklin isn't about shooting low. Depth issues and offensive line concerns should be a bit too much to overcome, but the program has dealt with bigger problems over the last two years. The schedule just isn't that bad, and even if Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State turn out to be losses, there's a chance to be favored in every other game. If there's an upset win over one of the division's big three, it could be a special year going into 2015.
Key game: Nov. 11 at Michigan. If everything comes together in a hurry, and all the holes are filled at receiver and on the offensive line right away, the Nittany Lions can reasonably hope to beat UCF, Akron, Rutgers, UMass and Northwestern. Just because Ohio State and Michigan State come to Happy Valley, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll cower, but at least those two showdowns are at home. After losing an overtime heartbreaker to the Wolverines last year, if Penn State can come up with the road victory this season, it could be 6-0 going into the Ohio State game.
2013 Fun Stats:
- Third Quarter Scoring: 68 – Fourth Quarter Scoring: 106
- Penalties: Opponents 72 for 638 yards – Penn State 55 for 403 yards
- Fourth Down Conversions: Penn State 13-of-24 (54%) – Opponents 6-of-14 (43%)
- 2014 Penn State Preview -
What You Need To Know & Top Players