Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State, No. 13 Notre Dame, No. 12 Auburn, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 10 Stanford, No. 9 Miami
No. 8 Penn State
2017 record: 11-2 (7-2)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense
It’s Trace McSorley’s team, but Joe Moorhead has departed
If it wasn’t already true, it is now: Penn State is Trace McSorley’s team.
Saquon Barkley got all of the accolades over the last two seasons, and rightly so. He went No. 2 in the NFL draft for a reason, but McSorley, now PSU’s senior quarterback, has been driving the ship.
McSorley was tremendous last fall. He threw for 3,570 yards and 28 touchdowns while completing 66.5 percent of his passes — up from 57.9 in 2016. He also added 491 yards and 10 scores rushing.
When James Franklin hired Joe Moorhead before the 2016 season, Moorhead and McSorley proved to be a perfect match. Moorhead employed an array of run-pass options, allowing McSorley to give to Barkley, run, or pick apart opposing defenses as a passer. McSorley quickly became excellent at connecting downfield. And Moorhead made it clear that those were more than just jump balls.
“This mischaracterization that Trace just drops back and picks the deepest receiver and chucks the ball up and hopes the guy makes the play. That’s ridiculous at best and, quite frankly, asinine at worst,” Moorhead said. “A kid couldn’t lead the league in multiple passing categories and set school single-season records if he was just throwing the ball indiscriminately down the field.”
But McSorley will play his senior season without Moorhead calling the plays. Moorhead landed the head-coaching job at Mississippi State, leaving Franklin without an offensive coordinator for the Fiesta Bowl. He quickly gave the responsibility to longtime assistant Ricky Rahne, a role he’ll keep in 2018.
Any fears Penn State fans may have had about the Rahne-led Lions were put to rest with 545 yards of offense in a 35-28 win over Washington. McSorley threw for 342 yards and was a ridiculous 12-for-12 on third down in the win.
There’s more than just Saquon Barkley to replace for Penn State
PSU has a lot of production to replace on both sides of the ball, but that’s where recruiting comes in. Miles Sanders will take the reins from Barkley. Sanders, a junior, has had limited carries but made the most of them with a 6.7-yard average.
Receiver DaeSean Hamilton and tight end Mike Gesicki are gone, making Juwan Johnson (54 catches for 701 yards) the No. 1 receiver. There is an abundance of talent behind him, including senior DeAndre Thompkins, a dangerous punt returner with 58 career catches, and Brandon Polk, a speedy junior who played with McSorley in high school.
With four starters returning, Penn State has the best offensive line it has had during Franklin’s tenure. Michal Menet, a top 100 recruit from 2016, will slide in as the fifth starter at either center or guard.
On defense, linebacker is a point of interest. Koa Farmer and Cam Brown return on the outside, but the replacement for Jason Cabinda in the middle is up in the air. It could be Jan Johnson, a walk-on who is also on the wrestling team. Manny Bowen, a senior with 21 career starts, should be a factor, too — provided he gets out of Franklin’s doghouse. Bowen has been suspended multiple times and was recently reinstated to the roster. True freshman Micah Parsons, a five-star recruit, is expected to see the field as well.
The secondary lost three to the NFL, but John Reid, a 2016 starter, is back from a torn ACL, and Amani Oruwariye was second-team all-Big Ten despite being the team’s No. 3 corner. The accolades for Oruwariye, a non-starter, are a good example of how much coordinator Brent Pry rotates his players.
That’s true on the defensive line more than the secondary. Junior end Shareef Miller is the best of the group, especially now that Ryan Buchholz, a projected starter, medically retired. The options to replace Buchholz are four sophomores who will rotate situationally: Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph, Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos. Behind starters Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor, the depth at tackle is full of underclassmen as well.
The lack of proven depth in the middle — defensive tackle and middle linebacker — is the biggest concern for the Nittany Lions as a whole.
The Big Ten schedule sets up really nicely
In 2017, Penn State missed an undefeated season by four points — a one-point loss to Ohio State and a three-point loss to Michigan State as time expired.
A win in either one of those games would have put PSU on the precipice of the College Football Playoff. The OSU and MSU heartbreaks were both on the road and came in back-to-back weeks. This year, OSU and MSU, the top two other teams in the Big Ten East, will visit Beaver Stadium. On Nov. 10, Wisconsin, the favorite in the West, will do the same.
From a home vs. road perspective, the schedule sets up very nicely for the Nittany Lions. A Nov. 3 trip to Michigan, No. 15 in our Top 25, will be the biggest road test. That three-week stretch of Iowa, at Michigan and Wisconsin will be a huge challenge.
Impact player: Miles Sanders, RB
Sanders has all of the talent in the world but hasn’t had a chance to show it much with Barkley ahead of him. That changes now, as he enters 2018 as PSU’s clear top back. He has 375 yards and three touchdowns on 56 carries through two seasons. He’ll see a huge workload increase in 2018 and could be one of the Big Ten’s breakout stars.
Game to watch: Sept. 29 vs. Ohio State
Penn State should be 4-0 when it plays Big Ten favorite Ohio State at Beaver Stadium in Week 5. The last time the Buckeyes visited Happy Valley (in 2016), the course of PSU’s program changed with a dramatic upset victory. From there, PSU marched all the way to an improbable Big Ten title.
If the young guys on the defense can get their footing in the early part of the season, PSU should be in the Playoff conversation for much of the year. Going undefeated doesn’t seem realistic, so a best-case scenario would be going 3-1 against OSU, MSU, Michigan and Wisconsin and 11-1 overall.
If there are injuries on defense, PSU could be in trouble. That doesn’t mean a disastrous season by any means, but in the Big Ten East there is no margin for error.
Penn State drops a close home game to Ohio State and later slips up with Wisconsin and its high-powered running attack. 10-2 (7-2 Big Ten) and second in the East.
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