PASADENA, Calif. — It was a huge surprise for Penn State to climb from the middle of the Big Ten pack to as high as No. 5 in the national rankings in 2016.
There will be no such surprise in 2017.
The Nittany Lions will enter next season with a much different narrative. They will almost certainly begin the year ranked in the top 10 of the preseason polls for the first time since 2009. Kirk Herbstreit says they will be in the top 5, which would be the first time since 1999.
Returning to this level of college football was an incredible ride for Penn State’s team in 2016. The next challenge is remaining there.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Penn State coach James Franklin said Monday night after the Nittany Lions lost an epic Rose Bowl, 52-49, to Southern Cal. “There are programs that have been playing like this, at this level, for a number of years, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up. It’s going to be a long, steady, difficult climb. As difficult as this year was to have, we’re going to have to fight even more to be able to sustain it. And there’s a lot of things that are going to go into that.”
Given where this program has been, and where it was even just three months ago, gauging huge expectations for next season still seems a little weird. If Penn State begins 2017 at No. 5 or No. 6 in the preseason polls, what would constitute a successful year?
When a team begins so near the top of the mountain, there’s a lot more room to slip then continue climbing. There are also a lot of teams bringing back a lot of talent next season. This season began with uncertainty behind Alabama and Clemson at the national level. Next season should begin with a much bigger cluster of teams that look primed for a run at the College Football Playoff.
Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Southern Cal, Florida State, Washington, Oklahoma — toss in Penn State and that’s at least eight teams that will bring back a lot of starters from great teams. That doesn’t even include teams with more questions to answer, such as Michigan, Louisville with Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and whoever improves behind Alabama in the SEC.
The Nittany Lions could return 18 starters from a team that went 11-3, won a Big Ten title and then played maybe the game of the year in college football against the Trojans. Everything to like about Penn State in 2017 was on display.
Saquon Barkley should begin the season as one the top 10 candidates for the Heisman Trophy. He ran for 194 yards against USC, added 55 more receiving and generally showed why he might be the most complete back in the country next year.
Trace McSorley threw four touchdown passes for the third straight game. Questions about his arm strength from earlier this season might linger, but anyone who saw him hit Chris Godwin in the corner of the end zone from nearly 50 yards while on the run knows he’s got enough of it to make this offense explosive. His biggest improvement in the second half of the season was being able to escape the rush and prolong plays, something he did about a half-dozen times against the Trojans.
Godwin is a question mark for next year, because after that Rose Bowl performance against future first-round pick Adoree Jackson and his pals in the USC secondary, the junior wideout might be more willing to enter the NFL draft.
It’s also possible that DaeSean Hamilton considers leaving as a graduate transfer. Hamilton’s role in the offense diminished as the year progressed, though he did have a huge game against Wisconsin in Indianapolis. McSorley threw 29 times against USC, and Hamilton was not targeted, even though Saeed Blacknall didn’t play. Penn State should also have Irvin Charles and Juwan Johnson pushing for more playing time at the position.
Someone will have to replace senior Brian Gaia at center. There could be at least three redshirt freshmen — Michael Menet, Will Fries and Alex Gellerstedt — that could push incumbents for playing time on the offensive line.
Penn State’s defense could return nine starters, as well as several others who saw spot start duty or at least significant action in a lot of games. Defensive end Garrett Sickels and free safety Marcus Allen have a decision to make about the NFL draft.
The Nittany Lions will need to replace Brandon Bell at linebacker and Malik Golden at strong safety. Penn State’s defensive performance declined dramatically after Bell got hurt against USC, in part because Manny Bowen also was not available.
Establishing more linebacker depth will be a priority, and it is a position where a true freshmen, such as Dylan Rivers or Brelin Faison-Walden, could help right away. Safeties coach Tim Banks said last week that the coaching staff has already been wondering who will replace Golden, both at strong safety and as a leader on the defense. Will there be a way to make the pieces fit so top-rated commit Lamont Wade can make an early impact?
The special teams should be a big strength again next season. There will be more experienced talent at nearly every position.
There will also be increased expectations. The first three times Penn State won at least a share of the Big Ten title — 1994, 2005 and 2008 — the following season began with high expectations. The Nittany Lions went 9-3 and 9-4 in 1995 and 2006, though the 2009 team did go 11-2 and finished basically where it started, near the back of the top 10 in the polls.
This was the most explosive team since the 1994 crew that went 12-0 and is still waiting for its crack at Nebraska for the national title. The following year was an overhaul, with Ki-Jana Carter, Kerry Collins and Kyle Brady off to the NFL as top-10 draft picks.
This coming season is the opposite of that. If Godwin, Sickels and Allen come back, there will pundits who predict a playoff berth. Even without all three of them, this would still be a Big Ten title and playoff contender.
That’s a different world to live in, with a new set of pressures. These players haven’t dealt with that before. But they’ve been pretty good at dealing with new territory this season.
“Obviously, this loss sucks, but (we will) use it as motivation in the offseason,” Barkley said. “We were so close to being Rose Bowl champs, and we still have so much work to do, and we’re still a young team with a lot of guys coming back. So use that as motivation and try to be the best team we can be next year.”