Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 Countdown: No. 8 Penn State

Dr. Saturday
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 9 Washington, No. 10 AuburnNo. 11 LSU, No. 12 Michigan, No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 GeorgiaNo. 17 FloridaNo. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 TexasNo. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre DameNo. 23 NorthwesternNo. 24 Washington StateNo. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 11-3
Returning starters: 9 offense, 6 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 9 vs. Pittsburgh
Biggest conference game: Oct. 28 at Ohio State

Key returning player: RB Saquon Barkley
Key departed player: LB Brandon Bell

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Three things to know about Penn State

• Penn State took a huge leap in James Franklin’s third season with the program, and a big reason for the jump was the hire of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. The Nittany Lions could be even more explosive in 2017.

PSU won nine straight after a 2-2 start, and used a big play offense to run past its opponents during that winning streak en route to a Big Ten title. In 2017, almost everybody returns, led by star running back Saquon Barkley, a Heisman candidate. Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore and made some plays you just had to see to believe (the long TD run in the Rose Bowl is especially memorable). He’s one of the most fun players in the country.

His quarterback, junior Trace McSorley, is almost as fun as his backfield counterpart. At 6-feet and 205 pounds, he doesn’t look like much, but McSorley was incredible at extending plays with his legs and delivering deep shots downfield in Moorhead’s offense. He is a very capable runner, and there were many plays where he could have taken off for a 10-or-15-yard gain but he usually opted to keep his eyes downfield in search of a big play.

His top target, Chris Godwin, left for the NFL, but DaeSean Hamilton returns with 161 career catches under his belt and a good group behind him, including Big Ten title game standout Saeed Blacknall, DeAndre Thompkins and camp standout Juwan Johnson. And you can’t forget tight end Mike Gesicki (48 catches for 679 yards and 5 TDs), another possible All-American.

Much of Penn State’s success — a record 6,056 yards — was predicated on chucking it deep. That led to a line of thinking from some that PSU, McSorley especially, was lucky to connect on those long balls at such a high rate. Earlier this month, Moorhead took it upon himself to correct that narrative.

“You know kind of this thought process that’s prevailing that you hear about — and frankly, this is gross mischaracterization, No. 1, of the application of our offense and the role of the quarterback — that Trace just drops back and picks the deepest receiver and chucks the ball up and hopes the guy makes the play. That’s, in a lot of ways, ridiculous at best, and, quite frankly, asinine at worst,” Moorhead said at Penn State’s media day.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this. (McSorley) couldn’t lead the league in multiple passing categories and set school single-season records and be on the verge of multiple other school records if he was just throwing the ball indiscriminately down the field. In a lot of ways, I feel that minimizes the role of the people who gameplan the plays, the person who calls them, and the player who executes them.”

So remember that quote if the Penn State offense continues to produce at an extremely high level in 2017. One reason it should is because of the offensive line. The unit was better compared to Franklin’s first two seasons (which were disastrous), but there still weren’t many holes for Barkley (which makes his season even more remarkable).

Franklin has pointed out repeatedly that, as a byproduct of the NCAA sanctions, PSU had seven scholarship offensive linemen when he arrived. Now he returns six linemen with significant starting experience, plus a handful of blue chip underclassmen poised to crack the two-deep and potentially the starting lineup. That means more holes for Barkley and more time for McSorley to create.

• Penn State has question marks at every level of its defense.

Defensive line, on paper, seems like the most glaring, but there are young guys who will get their chances. The Nittany Lions are a good five or six deep at defensive tackle, but the two top ends from last year have moved on. That leaves junior Torrence Brown and sophomore Shareef Miller as the top options. Miller is a speed guy who flashed as a rotation player last year, but sustaining backfield penetration as a starter is a different deal. Brown has been pretty steady against the run, but has only two career sacks under his belt. Where will the sacks come from?

PSU’s secondary took a big hit when it lost John Reid to an ACL injury in the spring. Reid, a junior, is the team’s best all-around corner, but coordinator Brent Pry has the luxury of plugging Grant Haley (23 career starts) and Christian Campbell (2016’s No. 3 corner) into starting roles with Amani Oruwariye seeing significant action as well. Pry may turn to five-star recruit Lamont Wade at the nickel and will need to identify a safety to start next to leading tackler Marcus Allen.

Linebacker was ravaged by injuries last year and that could play to PSU’s advantage this year. Jason Cabinda is back in the middle and some combination of Manny Bowen, Koa Farmer, Brandon Smith and Cam Brown will man the outside LB spots. It won’t be easy to replace Brandon Bell.

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• Penn State switches roles this year, going from underdog to favorite.

It took a while for things to click for Penn State in 2016, but when it did, things were really fun to watch. PSU started 2-2 with an absolute beatdown at the hands of Michigan in Week 4. The Nittany Lions squeaked past Minnesota in overtime the next week and never looked back, winning nine straight en route to a Big Ten title.

The Nittany Lions were the upstarts last year. You wondered how long they could keep it going and all they did was roll to the Big Ten title and Rose Bowl. Now there are expectations — on a national level — for Franklin’s bunch. He is certainly aware.

James Franklin is entering his fourth season at Penn State. (AP)
James Franklin is entering his fourth season at Penn State. (AP)

“I think the expectations are always pretty big at Penn State. I think where it’s probably changed is nationally. I think there’s more people nationally talking about Penn State right now than in years past,” Franklin said at Big Ten Media Days.

“To be honest with you, I think our guys embrace it. It challenges them and motivates them. But for us we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about those things. We believe in kind of how we run our program and focus on the fundamentals of the game and making sure all our guys are really detailed and specific and thorough in all the things we do from a preparation standpoint, both physically and mentally. So we focus on that and not on the expectations, the outside noise. We’re concerned about ourselves. Although we are aware of it.”

PSU has a chance to get off to a really good start if it can win its rematch with Pitt at home. An early October trip to Northwestern won’t be easy, but there will be major Big Ten East (and maybe College Football Playoff) implications in a two-week stretch later that month: vs. Michigan on Oct. 21 and at Ohio State on Oct. 28. The slate finishes at Michigan State, against Rutgers and Nebraska at home and closes at Maryland.

It’s hard not to see PSU as significant favorites in every week other than the Michigan and Ohio State games.

For more Penn State news, visit BlueWhiteIllustrated.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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