No. 9: Penn State

Trace McSorley looks like he’ll be the best quarterback in the Big Ten. James Franklin has done a remarkable of restoring Penn State quickly to national-contender status after the devastating Sandusky scandal.

Herb,NEW, 8-12-18

And while running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki and eight defensive starters are gone, there are a lot of reasons to think the Nittany Lions will be in the mix in the Big Ten East, which looks like the nation’s toughest division. (I don't expect the turmoil in Columbus to diminish that a whole lot.)

In a way, this is the year when we find out if Penn State is really back. Hang tough in a division with Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State—and you’ve done something.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Franklin knows the 22-5 record the last two seasons has set the bar high—especially for a team that had scuffled to a 21-17 mark the previous three years under the weight of NCAA sanctions.

``Our players have been fantastic,’’ he said. ``In our four years, we've been able to accomplish really special things in a short period of time—and it really starts and ends with them.’’

That said, this is one of those transition years where perennial powers stay in the hunt by reloading. Franklin believes Penn State will show this fall that it is truly out from under the scholarship restrictions it endured.

That’s especially true on the offensive line, which Franklin expects to be Big-Ten-tough.

``For the first time we have an offensive line that we think has a chance to be a strength in our program,’’ he said. ``Obviously, a lot of questions [about] replacing Saquon Barkley. I don't know if you necessarily can replace a guy like that from a production standpoint. But I do think our offensive line, for the first time since we've been here, becoming a strength is going to help with that.’’

Quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne takes over at offensive coordinator for Joe Moorhead, who is Mississippi State’s new head coach. That could be good for McSorley, who makes good decisions, has a good arm and good athleticism—and is a winner.

The tricky part is the schedule. But at least it has a little flow to it. The first big test figures to take place on Sept. 29, when Ohio State visits Happy Valley. After an open date, Michigan State comes to town. A Nov. 3 trip to Michigan will be followed by a Nov. 10 home game vs. Wisconsin. If Iowa, which plays at Penn State on Oct. 27, shows its teeth, that could be quite a challenging stretch.

But all indications are that Penn State is back. And programs like Penn State figure out how to deal with challenges.[/membership]