The Penn State Nittany Lions are embracing change this season.
With new faces -- offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover -- Penn State is attempting to reverse its fortunes in the areas where it struggled most last season. (The Nittany Lions finished No. 101 nationally in scoring offense and No. 111 in sacks allowed.)
Moorhead wants to utilize an up-tempo offense built around a simple scheme and dual-threat quarterback Trace McSorley, and Limegrover has continued to mix-and-match on the line in hopes to find the five best starting players. How those two fare in their first seasons with Penn State will likely determine how far this team goes.
"Really feel like we've laid a foundation in a lot of different areas that's going to allow us to take some steps in the right direction and show some progress," head coach James Franklin said this month.
With Bob Shoop's departure for Tennessee, assistant coach Brent Pry has also become the new defensive coordinator. So there has been a decent amount of change this offseason. But will the tweaks pay off? Can Penn State’s changes lead to a Blue and White renaissance? Here’s a preview of the 2016 season:
2015 record: 7-6 (4-4 Big Ten)
Key returners: RB Saquon Barkley, WR Chris Godwin, WR DaeSean Hamilton, OL Andrew Nelson, DE Garrett Sickels, LB Nyeem Wartman-White, LB Brandon Bell, LB Jason Cabinda, DB Marcus Allen, DB Grant Haley, DB Malik Golden
Instant impact player: OL Connor McGovern. Franklin said Wednesday that only three true freshmen will definitely play this season -- running back Miles Sanders and punter Blake Gillikin are the other two -- so McGovern is one of the few expected to make an impact here. Penn State’s struggles on the offensive line have been well-documented the past two seasons, and McGovern has already seen some reps with the first-team. He wasn’t a starter at the most recent practice, but he’s still talented enough to see time in the rotation in Week 1. He might even develop into a starter as the season progresses.
Key stat: 83. Over the past two seasons, the offensive line has contributed to 83 sacks allowed -- one of the worst marks in the nation. Penn State surrendered 44 sacks in 2014 and 39 sacks in 2015. The offensive line has lacked depth, experience and, well, talent the past two seasons. But it’s starting to get better. It should be improved this season, but the big question is: By how much? That answer might determine whether the Nittany Lions take a step forward as a team or a step back.
Most important game: Sept. 10 at Pitt. These rivals haven’t squared off since 2000, and a lot of state pride is at stake when they meet in Week 2. It’s also Penn State’s first big test of the season. This will really go a long way in determining whether the Nittany Lions are a team to watch in 2016 or whether it’s best for fans to just start looking forward to 2017.
Best-case scenario: Barkley rushes for more than 1,500 yards and becomes a Heisman candidate. The offensive line is widely regarded as "average." And McSorley leads an up-tempo offense that becomes the most improved in the nation. (It was ranked No. 105 last season, after all.) The defense loses a step, but is still a top-25 unit. Penn State pummels Pitt, 48-14, then upends Temple en route to a 10-win regular season. Franklin even ends the season by saying the Nittany Lions are set up for a national championship run in 2017.
Worst-case scenario: Another season, another struggle by the offensive line. Despite the efforts of Moorhead and Limegrover, Penn State’s offense still sputters. Defenses stack the box and dare McSorley to throw, and he just doesn’t have the arm to challenge them. Barkley’s yards-per-carry drops slightly, and watching the offense essentially becomes like watching a re-run of the hapless 2015 squad. The defense goes from great to just average, as it flirts with national rankings in the 40s and 50s in total yards allowed. The Nittany Lions lose to Pitt by three touchdowns and barely edge out Temple. When it comes to its record, Penn State has just five wins heading into the regular-season finale against Michigan State, and fans have been calling for Franklin’s head all season long. He’s fired by the end of the year.