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. Now, No. 16 Penn State.
I hate to write it; you hate to read it. But despite our solid moral groundings, good people of college football, it is nonetheless true that Penn State is going to be scary as hell this year. Might as well prepare for the inevitable JoePa cutouts at the playoff. It’s going to be a long season.
If there’s one thing a historically great college program and its fans hate the most, it’s mediocrity. For whatever reason, a three-win season every now and then can be preferable to, say, three consecutive seven-win finishes. That’s because with three or four wins, your room for improvement is high and easily attainable—going from sucking ass to Fine is still pretty hard, but it allows for coping to take place more naturally and produces actual happiness upon improvement. Stick a team in a seven-win rut, let alone a team that’s used to butting heads with the elite rather than eating the dirt from their boots, and they’ll go mad. For the past five years, Penn State was stuck in this state of agonizing mediocrity, and we, the good people of college football, took it for granted, thinking their climb out of the pit would require decades to pass before they rediscovered the path to success (spending a shit-ton of money). Oh, how it sucks to be wrong.
After accruing a pair of early season losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan last fall (the Nittany Lions should’ve beaten the Panthers and should’ve played the Wolverines closer than a 39-point deficit), Penn State seemed well on its way to a fourth consecutive seven-win season. But after that Week 4 blowout, the Nittany Lions wouldn’t chalk up another loss until their thrilling 52-49 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl, reeling off nine straight wins, including a home victory against Ohio State. They managed this by bucking the trend of the previous two years—low-scoring offense and top-notch defense—and letting their star running back and gun-slinging southpaw quarterback cook. It’s how an offense that hadn’t cracked to top 100 in scoring for two straight seasons suddenly joined the top 25, and how a team that could do nothing but float alongside the other middling, big-budget programs suddenly went to its first meaningful bowl game in nine years.
The majority of guys who matter or have names you should actually remember are back on offense for Penn State this season; the other ones ain’t half bad, either. Back under center for the second year in a row, junior Trace McSorley will look to build on his first season as a starter, in which he used a late-season run to establish himself as one of the more entertaining quarterbacks in the country. The Virginian was named the MVP of the Big Ten championship game after going 22-of-33 for 384 yards, four scores and no picks—this was part of a three-game stretch to close the year in which McSorley was good for 1,012 yards, 12 touchdowns, and three interceptions.
Although he didn’t start hitting his long shots consistently until the second half of the season, that’s McSorley’s biggest draw. A fairly mobile quarterback, McSorley loves to roll out to either side of a broken pocket, give his receivers a moment to straighten out their escape route, and let it fly. It’s the last part where he starts to reveal himself as an ideally entertaining college quarterback. He’s got a whip of an arm that can send a football cutting through all three levels for a 20-yard pickup (admittedly leading to unnecessary overthrows) or drop a 50-yard bomb over the correct shoulder into his receiver’s bread basket.
Though some would categorize this as simple slangin’, McSorley’s actually pretty smart about what he does with the ball. He completed at least 60 percent of his passes in six of 14 games, a mark that includes a pair of opponents boasting top-15 defenses in Iowa and Wisconsin. He posted multiple interception games just twice, throwing two in a win against Indiana and, more painfully, a three-pick outing in the season-ending loss to the Trojans. (In fairness, one pick was due to a deflected dropped pass and another because of a receiver breaking off a route too soon; the last one, with under a minute to go and the score knotted at 49, was an incredibly shitty pick that was all McSorley’s fault.) As long as he does what he can to avoid replicating that final Rose Bowl drive—the three scores he threw were amazing to watch, but the pick ended up snuffing them all out and solidifying Sam Darnold’s spot as the media’s new, boring-ass, white-bread hero—then one should expect McSorley to add a few touchdowns to last year’s total and develop into a must-watch player.
On the edge, gone is Chris Godwin, as are his 59 receptions, 982 yards, and 11 scores. In his stead, sophomores Juwan Johnson and Irvin Charles have been battling to earn playing time at one of the three starting spots alongside junior DeAndre Thompkins and seniors DaeSean Hamilton and Saeed Blacknall. Whether one or both of the underclassmen have an immediate impact this season shouldn’t be too large a concern; I expect to see a fluid receiving lineup for at least the first couple games as the Nittany Lions tinker with the best options for McSorley. Thanks to a stud at the end of the line, they’ll have the necessary cushion to establish a natural passing game.
Due to the existence of Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli, Penn State senior Mike Gesicki can’t be known as the best tight end in college football; he’s definitely at least No. 2. After toiling around in subpar offenses his first two years. Gesicki and McSorley made for a perfect pair last season, hooking up for 48 receptions, 679 yards and five scores. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound New Jersey native is a load to bring down, and once that load starts going north, the best anyone short of a burly inside linebacker can do is latch onto a loose piece of jersey and pray. He has the field and sideline awareness of a toe-tapping wideout but the body of a defensive end, making him a mismatch for every program save the five or six that can recruit hybrid players like Derwin James. While he’s a solution for a Penn State offense looking to replace its No. 1 receiver, Gesicki is a helluva problem for everyone else in the Big Ten.
Blocking for the stud quarterback and star running back Saquon Barkley will be Connor McGovern, who moved over from his old spot at guard to take over at center; he’ll join Ryan Bates at tackle and Brendan Mahon at guard as the known starting entities, though the remaining options all have starting experience.
On defense, Penn State lost both defensive ends from last season; while the current group is heavy on talent but light on starting experience, making use of Torrence Brown and either Shareef Miller or Ryan Buchholz shouldn’t be too tall a task for defensive coordinator Brent Pry. Inside, Kevin Givens, Parker Cothren, and Chris Cothran all have at least six starts to their name will ably rotate at tackle, with Cothren and Cothran (not brothers, just seniors with similarly spelled last names) earning the starting spots.
Behind them, Jason Cabinda will start at linebacker after missing five games last season; he’ll be joined by a load of backers that were forced by injuries to step in and play last season. Manny Bowen, Cam Brown, Koa Farmer, Brandon Smith, and Jake Cooper all deservedly have a shot at starting or playing significant time. Similarly, Penn State is loaded at the corner position, with all of its four guys back, led by presumed starter Grant Haley and Christian Campbell, another pair of seniors. At safety, expect Marcus Allen to be the lock while Troy Apke and Ayron Monroe battle it out for a the other starting spot—Monroe has the athleticism edge, but according to Centre Daily, Franklin’s been more impressed with Apke’s work this offseason, going as far to predict the senior will have “a tremendous year for us.”
If, for whatever foul reason, you could only choose one running back to watch every week, you wouldn’t be a fool for picking Saquon Barkley.
Barkley is college football’s premier running back; simply put, he is as talented a runner as you’ll find in college football this side of an actually healthy Nick Chubb. He’s short, shifty, fast-as-hell, and absolutely loves to hurdle any corner or safety stupid enough to put their head down. Just watching a highlight reel of him going through his array of head fakes is enough to make you feel a twinge in your ankles.
Barkley’s back after improving on a phenomenal 1,076-yard rookie season last year, when he bumped his production up to 1,496 as a sophomore. His nose for the end zone was sharpened by a year of Big Ten play, too, as he finished with 22 combined scores, up from the eight touchdowns he managed as a freshman. Going into this season, with a crew of backups to grant him rest when needed and a line that should be more consistent than last year’s bunch, the Heisman should be well within reach for the Pennsylvania native.
Yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, Penn State can absolutely make the playoff; this will likely be the case every few years for the remainder of my life. I’ve resigned myself to it. There’s no reason to think Penn State will slink back down to the depths again, either. Basically, while the recruiting under James Franklin hasn’t brought in any top-5 classes (think Alabama or Ohio State, where NFL talent flows through the two-deep), he’s got a couple years’ worth of top-level recruits to pair with a Rose Bowl appearance and a Heisman contender in his backfield, meaning a slide back to mediocrity isn’t going to come any time soon.
This season’s non-conference slate isn’t all that stiff, but considering the Nittany Lions could possibly count wins against Michigan, Ohio State (on the road this year), and Nebraska as regular season victories, I don’t think the selection committee will care all that much, especially if Franklin’s squad can repeat in the Big Ten. That being said, the back-to-back match ups against the Wolverines and Buckeyes in Weeks 8 and 9 are going to be a doozy; how they come out the other side will, more or less, determine at least the general direction of their postseason destination.
James Franklin is no Art Briles, but if you lie about seeing a rape video and defend it by claiming you didn’t want to “water down the message” to your players, you’re being a dick and a shitty communicator. Also, the man went on-record with Clay fucking Travis to admit he judges his assistants based off the hotness of their wives. C’mon, he’s the damn Penn State coach. He’s a dick.
Sept. 2: Akron
Sept. 9: Pittsburgh
Sept. 16: Georgia State
Sept. 23: @ Iowa
Sept. 30: Indiana
Oct. 7: @ Northwestern
Oct. 21: Michigan
Oct. 28: @ Ohio State
Nov. 4: @ Michigan State
Nov. 11: Rutgers
Nov. 18: Nebraska
Nov. 25: @ Maryland