Three storylines for Penn State football in 2018

September 16, 2018

Despite its decades of success, Penn State hasn’t won 10 or more games in three consecutive seasons since 1980-82. The Nittany Lions hope to end that nearly four-decade drought this season, and they might have the roster to do it.

The return of Heisman Trophy candidate Trace McSorley at quarterback is the biggest reason, and he has five offensive linemen with at least nine starts each to protect him.

But there are holes on defense, especially the one at safety left by Steelers draft pick Marcus Allen.

The nonconference schedule isn’t a major problem, with only one Power 5 team (Pitt, coming off a 5-7 season), plus Appalachian State and Kent State. Throw in Big Ten games against Illinois, Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland (plus, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin, who must come to Beaver Stadium), and 10 victories look within reach.

1. Sanders time

Sanders, a Woodland Hills graduate, steps out of Barkley’s considerable shadow into the bright light of college football expectations. At 5-11, 207 pounds, he surely looks the part.

Sanders (already a junior) averaged 6.7 yards per carry over the past two seasons, but that was only on 56 carries. Franklin is too smart to put an excessive load on Sanders’ legs, and there will be a rotation that might include as many as four other backs: seniors Mark Allen and Johnathan Thomas, redshirt freshman Journey Brown and first-year freshman Ricky Slade.

“He doesn’t have a lot of wear on his tires,” Franklin said of Sanders.

2. Suspect secondary?

The return of junior cornerback John Reid, who missed last season with a knee injury, will help. Reid of St. Joseph High School in Philadelphia was the third-rated player in the state in 2015, behind Jordan Whitehead and Barkley.

At the other corner, Amani Oruwariye had four interceptions last season as a reserve.

Defensive end Shareef Miller led the team with five sacks last season, helping the Nittany Lions to a Big Ten-best 3.2 per game. But he’s one of only two returning starters on defense, with outside linebacker Koa Farmer.

3.Just another top-10 team?

When interviewed last month at Big Ten Media Days, Franklin pointed out the gap between the four or five elite teams in college football and rest of the top 15 is wider than the separation between schools in the middle and the bottom half of the top 25.

His point is that’s it’s difficult to get invited to the CFP Final Four party.

In four years (16 berths), only nine schools have been chosen, led by Alabama (four times), Clemson (three) and Ohio State and Oklahoma (two each). That left Florida State, Oregon, Michigan State, Washington and Georgia taking the occasional kick at the can.

With a weak nonconference schedule, the Nittany Lions might have to sweep the Big Ten power teams -- Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin -- to convince the CFP committee they belong in the Final Four.

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