Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. We start with No. 25 Penn State.
Had we done this poll last year, Penn State and the NCAA may have gotten off easier. I could have written about how Christian Hackenberg finally put the Happy back in Happy Valley, and that even with Bill O’Brien on the way out, things were finally looking up for James Franklin’s Nittany Lions.
But this is 2015, and Happy Valley is still, well, happy about some wins from last year, just none that the football team posted.
Last fall, the NCAA decided to call erasies on its post-Sandusky demolition of Penn State’s football program, announcing that the team would once again be eligible for post-season play, and that all of JoePa’s 111 wins would be restored.
Oh, there were marches. There were celebrations. There were stickers. My goodness, did the formerly sad bros of Happy Valley take themselves on quite the victory lap. That’s about where the good vibes stopped, though, because the actual games did not go so well for the Nittany Lions.
After opening with four straight wins against lollipop squads, Penn State lost four games in a row—three of which were to unranked teams—before Indiana mercifully allowed them to stop the bleeding with a 13-7 win in November. The sole highlight of the year came in the postseason—made possible thanks to the NCAA hitting the moonwalk—as Penn State squeezed out a 1-point win against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. (Calling that the highlight of the season hurt to type). The team finished 2-6 in the Big Ten, good for third-worst in the conference, just above the Hoosiers and poor ol’ Purdue.
The Nittany Lions weren’t allllll bad, I guess. They did have a standout defense—the unit was seventh in the nation in points allowed per game at 18.6, third against the run, and first in helping its team win games the offense would have gleefully spoiled otherwise.
As I not-so-subtly alluded to, the offense was garbage last year. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg hit his sophomore slump hard, throwing 15 interceptions and 12 touchdowns while averaging just 6.2 yards per throw. The reason the team lost six games last year was because scoring seemed to be a foreign concept. They ended the year ranked 113th in scoring, putting up just 20.6 points per game.
There’s not really a good reason to believe that Penn State is due for a huge turnaround this year, but with eight guys back on the offensive side of the ball, one can at least hope that things won’t get worse. After a year of (poorly) drudging through the offensive motions, the unit returns guys who were overmatched last season, but should be at least a little bet this go-round.
The most important returnees are out wide. Sophomore receivers DaeSean Hamilton, Chris Godwin, and Saeed Blacknall will all be back. None of those guys caught more than two touchdowns last year, but Hamilton did contribute 899 receiving yards and should be Hackenberg’s favorite target again this year.
The defense should be a top-20 squad once again this year, as it brings back six starters from last year’s unit and has the guys in place to fill the rest of the gaps. The defense’s biggest concern the will be replacing last year’s Big Ten leading tackler, Mike Hull, at middle linebacker. For a unit that was very clearly the only one that actually had its shit together on a weekly basis, replacing Hull will be key to maintaining consistency.
Who else? Quarterback Christian Hackenberg, the team’s most important player.
Although Hackenberg sucked last year, many of 2014’s struggles were not totally on him. The woefully inexperiences offensive line helped him get sacked a conference-high 44 times, which goes a long way toward explaining all those interceptions.
It’s important to remember that Hackenberg was actually good as a freshman. He tossed 20 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions in 2013, and went just one game without throwing for a score. In 2014, he had six scoreless outings, including an early three-game scoreless run against Rutgers, Massachusetts, and Northwestern. Those are the type of punk teams that Hackenberg should have carved up. Barring a complete lack of improvement from his offensive line, Hackenberg will have no excuse for going through half the season without a touchdown pass.
If you want to check out one of his better performances, I’d advise watching the Ohio State game. In the 31-24 double-overtime loss, he completed 63.3 percent of his passes and threw for 224 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. It’s a game pretty much everyone expected the Nittany Lions to get rolled in, but Hackenberg did a solid job of maintaining his composure, and helped his team put up a fight against the future champs.
The Nittany Lions play in the same division as Michigan State and Ohio State, two teams that have as good a shot as any of making the playoff. Penn State will play and lose to both of these teams. Winning the Big Ten is, in that same line of thought, also impossible. Not improbable, but actually impossible. Don’t give me your nonzero chance nonsense—it’s not going to happen.
Now that we have tempered our expectations for the sake of reality, let’s talk about what the Nittany Lions can do. They can, and should, win more than two conference games this year. They can, and should, win around nine games, actually. Hackenberg and the offense will be better, and while you’ll probably see the defense slip down the charts just a bit, the team as a whole will be an improvement on last year’s squad. Looking at its schedule, I think eight or nine wins is a reasonable expectation, and though they’re not going to the playoff, they can still nab third place overall in the conference and go to a better bowl than the Pinstripe Bowl.
James Franklin seems like a pretty good dude, actually. (Update: Dammit, we somehow forgot about all this stuff). He’s a hardworking guy who gave Vanderbilt back-to-back 9-win seasons and is a exactly what Penn State was looking for in a coach.
However, our man loses some cool points for having participated in a TED Talk about “core values.”
Also, Franklin stays sniping on Twitter, so if you play for Penn State, tweet wisely.
No. The Nittany Lions will not come realistically close to winning the Big Ten or making the playoff, but with experience on both sides of the ball, and a hopefully better Christian Hackenberg under center, this year should still be an improvement over last year’s 7-6 record.
Sept. 5: @ Temple
Sept. 12: Buffalo
Sept. 19: Rutgers
Sept. 26: San Diego State
Oct. 3: Army
Oct. 10: Indiana
Oct. 17: @ Ohio State
Oct. 24: @ Maryland
Oct. 31: Illinois
Nov. 7: @ Northwestern
Nov. 21: Michigan
Nov. 28: @ Michigan State