Penn State to Contend in Big Ten, but Don't Count the Nittany Lions for a Conference Title

Matthew Jordan

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 7:19 PM GMT

The Penn State football program is finally free of all the NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Can the Nittany Lions return to national relevance and Big Ten contention as early as 2015? Let's examine with their 5Dimes odds.

Free Of Sanctions!
Actually, the NCAA made the surprising decision to lift all its sanction on Penn State early last season, allowing PSU to play in a bowl game in 2014 and returning all its scholarships for this year. Penn State's athletics integrity monitor, former Sen. George Mitchell, recommended both actions in his second annual report that gauges progress made by the university. The school still has to pay a $60 million fine and 111 wins under Joe Paterno remain forfeited, but it's still a big win for the school.

Penn State was very up-and-down last season under first-year coach James Franklin. It opened 4-0, including close wins over Central Florida in Ireland and at Rutgers. However, then PSU lost four straight Big Ten games, won two more and then lost its final two. The Lions accepted a bid to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium and beat former rival Boston College 31-30 in overtime to finish 7-6. It was PSU's first bowl game since January 2012.

The Nittany Lions had a very good defense last season, ranking seventh nationally in points allowed. However, they were not good on offense, ranking 113th in points scored (20.6) and 120th in rushing yards (101.9). Quarterback Christian Hackenberg took a pretty sizable step back after a very good freshman season.

 

Can Hackenberg Bounce Back?
The team welcomes back 15 starters, nine on offense. Hackenberg is still considered a future NFL quarterback and potential first-round pick as soon as next season if he leaves after his junior year. He has stated all 25 career games under center and enters the season ranked No. 3 in career passing yards (5,932), attempts (876) and completions (501), and No. 4 in career total offense (5,770) at the school. He is one of just eight Nittany Lions to amass over 5,000 passing yards and is the only one with a 400-yard game. That came in that season-opening win over UCF (454 yards). Hackenberg completed 55.8 percent of his passes for 2,977 yards, 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. By comparison, as a freshman he completed 58.9 percent for 2,955 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 picks. Some credit the regression to QB guru Bill O'Brien leaving as Penn State's head coach following the 2013 season to take the Houston Texans' head coaching job. Hackenberg is +9000 to win the 2015 Heisman.

Also back are 2014 leading rusher Akeel Lynch (147 carries, 678 yards, four TDs) and top receiver DaeSean Hamilton (82 catches, 899 yards, two TDs). The offensive line has to play better. Hackenberg was sacked 44 times last year, most in the Big Ten and third-most nationally. The offensive line returns four starters, but that group also allowed five sacks in the spring game.

The defense was one of the best against the run last year, allowing just 2.9 yards per carry, No. 2 in the FBS. The Lions have one of the best tackle duos in the conference, if not the nation, in Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is also back after nearly taking the same job with LSU.

 

Breaking Down Schedule
If Penn State doesn't start 6-0, I will be surprised. The Lions open at Temple on Sept. 5 as 8-point favorites on the college football odds for the game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. They beat the visiting Owls 30-13 last season, their final regular-season win. Lynch rushed 18 times for 130 yards and a score. Hackenberg wasn't good, going 12-for-26 for 112 yards and two interceptions. Penn State forced five Temple turnovers. That's Penn State's only road game until Oct. 17, and frankly it's not even a road game. The Linc will be filled with PSU fans.

On Sept. 12, Penn State hosts Buffalo. That's a win. Sept. 19 is vs. Rutgers in the Big Ten opener. PSU is a 9-point favorite and beat the Scarlet Knights 13-10 last season, rallying from a 10-0 halftime deficit. Should be a win. Sept. 26, San Diego State visits Happy Valley as a 10.5-point dog. On Oct. 3, Army visits with the Cadets as 28-point dogs. Then Indiana visits on Oct. 10; no line on that yet, but Penn State will be favored. You won't find an easier six-game opening in the country than that.

Then things toughen up. Oct. 17, Penn State visits what should be No. 1 and unbeaten Ohio State, which is an 18-point favorite. The Lions pushed the Buckeyes to the limit last season, losing 31-24 in double overtime. On Oct. 24, Penn State faces Maryland in Baltimore. No line yet. On Halloween, Illinois visits PSU. That should be a Lions win. November opens with a trip on the 7th to Northwestern, followed by a Nov. 21 home game vs. Michigan. Penn State is -3.5 for that. And the regular season closes with a trip to Michigan State on Nov. 28. Sparty is a 12-point favorite.

Penn State is +18000 to win the national title, +2500 to win the Big Ten and +1550 to win the East Division. It has a wins total of 8, with the 'over' a -145 favorite.

College Football Pick: If the Nittany Lions were in the much weaker Big Ten West, I'd give them a shot to reach the conference title game. Not in the East, however. I think that wins total might push, but I'd lean 'over' because I do expect a 6-0 start.