Is Penn State Football More Sizzle Than Steak?

Penn State football announced its return to the national elite last season, coming on strong after early losses to Pitt and Michigan. The Nittany Lions upset Ohio State, won the Big Ten Championship and played a wild Rose Bowl game against USC before falling 52-49. With good recruiting classes coming, there is joy in Happy Valley again. But is this Penn State team more sizzle than substance?

My initial reaction to media coverage was that the Nittany Lions were being overrated. But reaction to media coverage is usually anecdotal. A more reliable gauge of expectations would be to see what informed opinion in Las Vegas thinks and I was happy to see that my own thinking on Penn State seems to align with the smart money.

These are the key numbers for Penn State this year, shared not because I recommend betting them, but because they reflect what serious opinion-makers think…

*The Over/Under for wins is 9.5
*Odds to win the Big Ten title are 5 ½ to 1
*Odds to win the national championship are 20-1

All of that sounds right—there’s enough sizzle in the Penn State lineup to make 10 victories, a credible challenge for the conference and a darkhorse challenge nationally, a very reasonable expectation. Saquon Barkley is the best running back in the country. Trace McSorley is a big play creator at quarterback and tight end Mike Gesecki is another elite player.

This trio has drawn comparisons to Penn State’s 1994 trio of Kerry Collins, Ki-Jana Carter and Kyle Brady, a team whose explosive offense went undefeated. Personally, I think that’s pushing it—Barkley over Carter, sure…but I’m not ready to compare McSorley to Collins.

Historical comparisons aside, there’s no doubt Penn State will make big plays. The question is whether there’s any steak with the sizzle. The offensive line is in need of rebuilding, particularly on the interior. Lion fans need no reminders of what can happen when an offensive line collapses—or if they do, Christian Hackenberg will undoubtedly remind them. A new group of playmakers on the defensive side of the ball will have to step up.

While James Franklin has recruited well, the best classes the Lions have produced recently are still the youngest. If they get a couple of the young defensive players to step up, Penn State can separate themselves from the pack and run with Ohio State for the Big Ten title and a Playoff berth. If not, gunning for a 10-2 season and getting revenge victories over Pitt and Michigan at home are the most realistic goal.

Mark down September 9. Penn State hosts Pitt and if they can blow out the Panthers, it would send a powerful early statement. The pointspread on this game is Penn State (-19) and that’s a good barometer of what a blowout would be. If they have to scrape out a win, it’s an indicator that Franklin’s team is still a year away from great things.