Southern Football Report Preseason Poll: #19 Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State LogoThe first year in Happy Valley for Head Coach James Franklin was neither a success nor failure. The 2014 campaign ended with an overtime victory in Yankee Stadium over Boston College to finish 7-6 on the year. Former Head Coach Bill O’Brien didn’t leave the cupboard bare and judging by Coach Franklin’s former post at Vanderbilt, it won’t take long for him to get Penn State back into the Big Ten title race. Penn State finished the season 2-6 in conference play but lost four of those games by a combined 15 points so the Nittany Lions were right on the cusp of making some noise in the Big Ten in year one under Coach Franklin.

Penn State Junior Quarterback Christian Hackenberg
Penn State Junior Quarterback Christian Hackenberg

One of the big pieces left over from the O’Brien coaching staff is quarterback Christian Hackenberg who most likely will bold for the NFL after this upcoming season. Although one major issue is how Hackenberg regressed a bit in 2014 when he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (12) while his touchdown total went down from 2013 to 2014. The 6-foot-4 240-lb quarterback looks the part but it’s time for him to have a breakout year in Happy Valley. It should be pretty easy for him in 2015 as the offensive line will return four of five starters from a season ago and will replace the left tackle with the very capable junior Paris Palmer. Hackenberg will have three of his top four favorite targets from last year as well including sophomore DaeSean Hamilton who only had 2 touchdown receptions but caught 82 balls for 899 yards in 2015. I expect senior tight end Kyle Carter to have a huge year for the Nittany Lions this year after only starting two games in 2014. Penn State will have to find a running back for 2015 even though they return their leading rusher Akeel Lynch who finished 2014 with just under 700 yards. They will most likely adopt a running back-by-committee system including Lynch & redshirt freshmen Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas.

Defensively, Penn State will have a huge hole to fill after the departure of linebacker Mike Hill (140 tackles in 2014) but junior linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White who had 75 tackles himself last season. He will lead six other starters from last season after having a successful 2014 season. The Nittany Lions held Northwestern, Michigan, Ohio State, Maryland, Illinois & Michigan State to under 300 yards of total offense last season after bringing their points per game number down almost ten points from 2013. Penn State returns both defensive tackles Austin Johnson & Anthony Zettel who accounted for 14 tackles for loss last season. They will be bookended by new defensive ends but senior Carl Nassib and sophomore Garrett Sickels will be up for the job. The secondary will be the strength of the defense with three of the four players being returning starters, two of which are seniors (corner back Trevor Williams & safety Jordan Lucas). The lone non-starter from last year will be sophomore Grant Haley who played in 13 games last season so he won’t miss a beat when put into service this year as a starter.

Penn State Nittany Lions Head Coach James Franklin
Penn State Nittany Lions Head Coach James Franklin

The Nittany Lions open the season on the road across the state in Philadelphia against the Temple Owls, a team that Penn State hasn’t last to since World War II, but then return home for a five game home stand against Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army & Indiana. The two Big Ten games in that five game span against Rutgers & Indiana are the only two conference games that the Nittany Lions won in 2014 but if Penn State can win those two again as well as beat the other three, they will have a chance to enter their October 17th match up with the reigning National Champion Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus. Last season, Penn State lost to the Buckeyes in Happy Valley in double overtime in a game that most people feel that the Nittany Lions should have won. This season, Penn State could enter that game undefeated and hopefully (for Penn State fans) will have learned from their mistakes last season. The next week, Penn State will travel to Baltimore to take on the Maryland Terrapins who scored 13 4th quarter points to edge the Nittany Lions 20-19. The month of October ends on the 31st with a home game against Illinois who kicked two field goals in the final nine minutes for the 16-14 win. Notice a trend here? November opens with a bye week followed by their final home game of the season against the Michigan Wolverines who will most likely have worked their way back to bowl eligibility. The regular season ends on the road for Penn State when they travel to East Lansing to take on Michigan State who are only 24-3 over the last two seasons.

The Penn State Nittany Lions are off of probation & almost back to full strength scholarship-wise. That will have as much of an impact in this season’s win total as the fifteen returning starters will because they will have the proper depth at each position to compete in a Power Five conference. Christian Hackenberg, who was sacked 44 times in 2014, will be much better this year because he will be protected much better and defensively I don’t expect any drop off. Vanderbilt went from 6-7 to 9-4 in year two under James Franklin so don’t be surprised if Penn State has a similar second season under Franklin and is in the hunt for the Big Ten East title.

Beaver Stadium - Capacity: 106,572
Beaver Stadium – Capacity: 106,572

2015 Penn State Nittany Lions Schedule

Sept 5th          at Temple
Sept 12th        Buffalo
Sept 19th        Rutgers
Sept 26th       San Diego State
Oct 3rd           Army
Oct 10th         Indiana
Oct 17th          at Ohio State
Oct 24th         v. Maryland (Baltimore)
Oct 31st          Illinois
Nov 7th          at Northwestern
Nov 14th        BYE WEEK
Nov 21st         Michigan
Nov 28th        at Michigan State

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