Preview 2016

Preview 2016: Penn State Improving, But Need Big Wins

The Penn State football outlook for 2016 season. Everyone still needs to be patient, but James Franklin has to start beating the better teams.

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2016 Penn State Preview
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Always mindful that the tragedy and scandal continues to go far, far beyond something as trivial as football, when it comes to the product on the field, remember, Penn State is still not all that far removed from a holding pattern awaiting its fate from the NCAA. No matter how things shook out, there were going to be repercussions when it came to wins and losses.

It’s still impossible to take the nightmare totally out of the equation considering James Franklin kicked off his first season two years ago trying to wade through the uncertainty, and it still plays a role in recruiting, perception, and image.

On the field, Franklin is the right personality with the right energy, attitude, and chops to be the face of the program guy Penn State needs, but after two 7-6 seasons, is it time to start expecting more?

The problem is the division. It’s hard to wade through the issues of the recent past while Ohio State is Ohio State, Michigan State has risen up into a powerhouse, and Jim Harbaugh is going crazy – however you want to define that – at Michigan. Penn State could have the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, and the fourth-best team in its own division.

Give Franklin and Bill O’Brien credit for coming up with winning seasons over the last four years, but after one more year the program will be expected to be close to all-back-full. Two 7-6 seasons don’t quite cut it, even with all the acceptable excuses available.

O’Brien was and is a whiz for the offensive side, and his Nittany Lion teams were able to throw the ball well enough to be entertaining. His defenses were fine, but they weren’t anything like what Franklin has put together in his first two seasons. With that in mind, either 1) Penn State is really, really close to doing big things if the offense can just pull its weight just a little bit, or 2) Franklin is a good coach who struggles against the good teams.

In Franklin’s two seasons, Penn State has won 14 games with four coming against teams that finished with winning records. However, the victory over eventual Mountain West champ San Diego State last season was the only won of note, and even that didn’t seem that great at the time. All that matters so far is that he’s 0-6 against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

But that was sort of what Franklin did at Vanderbilt, too. He won nine games twice in three years – fantastic for Vandy no matter how it’s sliced – but only four of his 24 career wins with the Commodores came against teams that finished with wins, and only the 2013 31-27 shocker over Georgia was all that impressive. And even that was against a mediocre Bulldog squad.

Winning seasons are a given in Happy Valley, but for Franklin, the signature victories have to start coming this year, or next season the pressure will be on and the patience will be gone.

Fortunately for Franklin, his defense that finished 14th in the nation will be fantastic again, even with line that needs plenty of retooling. The linebacking corps should be stellar and the secondary great. Even if the D isn’t quite as strong, it’ll still be a plus with more help from an improved offense.

Christian Hackenberg is gone, but new offensive coordinator and former Fordham head man Joe Moorhead knows how to make an attack work. The line that’s been the Achilles’ heel for the last two seasons should be far better – at least it’ll be more experienced – but Saquon Barkley is a terrific runner and the receiving corps will be terrific if the quarterback play is more consistent.

This isn’t a good enough team to win the Big Ten title, but it’s still going to take a little while to get there. With Ohio State and Michigan State at home, and a ridiculously favorable schedule outside of a road game at Michigan, this is when the Nittany Lions have to start showing a whole lot more.