Quarterback Trace McSorley (9) of the Penn State Nittany Lions makes a pass against the Washington Huskies in the first half of the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 30, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. McSorley should end his college career this year with most of Penn State's career passing records. (Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images)

Football

Our 10th annual Top 25 countdown: No. 10 Penn State says so long Saquon, hello Trace McSorley

Don't feel sorry for the Nittany Lions. Yes, Saquon Barkley has zoomed into the NFL, but their star quarterback is readying for a Heisman run of his own.

Posted July 19th, 2018

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Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14 on our 2017 list.

Our Top 25 — so far:

No. 25: Texas is building — but are we there yet, are we there yet?

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No. 24: LSU has a tough schedule, questions at key spots

No. 23: Oregon welcomes a new coach — again and again and again

No. 22: Central Florida is out to go unbeaten (ahem, again)

No. 21: There’s a new coach, offense and direction for Florida State

No. 20: Their big names gone, USC is reloading … or is that rebuilding?

No. 19: For West Virginia, when there’s a Will there’s a way

No. 18: For Boise State, the Mountain West sky is the limit

No. 17: Mississippi State is breaking in a new head coach

No.16: Virginia Tech’s chances hinge on an up-and-down quarterback

No. 15: TCU has been the model of consistency, but there are 2018 concerns

No. 14: Love is all you need, at least if you’re talking about Stanford’s Bryce Love

No. 13: Notre Dame is on the brink of a real springboard season

No. 12: Michigan has said goodbye to John O’Korn, hello to Shea Patterson

No. 11: With just about everyone back, Michigan State looks for a 2017 encore

Today’s team: No. 10 Penn State

The Nittany Lions’ best-case scenario: Veteran quarterback Trace McSorley emerges as a Heisman contender and helps the offense overcome the loss of running back Saquon Barkley, an inexperienced defense jells quickly, and the Nittany Lions secure a third consecutive 11-win season.

Their worst-case scenario: Without his top playmakers from a year ago, McSorley’s production drops down to pedestrian level and the youthful defense can’t consistently stop the Big Ten powers.

RELATED COVERAGE: Why Penn State’s offensive line will finally be a strength

RELATED COVERAGE: Tommy Stevens — Penn State’s biggest enigma

Inside the Nittany Lions

Coach: James Franklin (fifth year, 36-17; 60-32 overall at Vanderbilt and Penn State)

2017: 11-2, 7-2 in the Big Ten (beat Washington 35-28 in the Fiesta Bowl)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 3 defense

Goodbye: RB Saquon Barkley (1st, Giants); TE Mike Gesicki (2nd, Dolphins); S Troy Apke (4th, Redskins); WR DaeSean Hamilton (4th, Broncos); S Marcus Allen (5th, Steelers); LB Jason Cabinda; CB Chris Campbell (6th, Cardinals)

Spring cleaning: Barkley, arguably the most explosive player in the nation last season, accounted for 2,329 all-purpose yardso. Finding his replacement was a top offseason priority, but the Nittany Lions also must answer plenty of other questions. How will promoted offensive assistant Ricky Rahne handle the coordinating and play-calling duties now that former OC Joe Moorhead is the new head coach at Mississippi State? Can anyone fill the cleats of all-American tight end Mike Gesicki? And can Penn State’s defense replace its top four tacklers from 2017?

Shareef Miller (48) and Kevin Givens (30) of the Penn State Nittany Lions celebrate after a sack in the second half against the Michigan Wolverines on October 21, 2017 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania. Miller led the team in sacks last year. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Trace McSorley, 284-427-3,570, 28/10 (1st); Tommy Stevens, 14-27-158, 3/0 (2nd)

RUSHING: QB Trace McSorley, 144-491-11 (2nd); Miles Sanders, 31-191-2 (3rd)

RECEIVING: Juwan Johnson, 54-701-1 (2nd); DeAndre Thompkins, 28-443-3 (5th)

TACKLES: LB Koa Farmer, 48 (6th)

SACKS: DE Shareef Miller, 5 (1st); DE Shaka Toney, 4 (2nd)

INTERCEPTIONS: CB Amani Oruwariye, 4 (1st)

Returning All-Big Ten players (6)

Offense: QB Trace McSorley (2nd team); OT Ryan Bates (3rd); WR Juwan Johnson (hon. mention)

Defense: CB Amani Oruwariye (2nd); DE Shareef Miller (3rd)

Special teams: RET DeAndre Thompkins (3rd)

FYI

All eyes on McSorley: McSorley enters the season with Heisman hopes and his spot in Penn State lore already secured. In two seasons as a starter, McSorley has a 22-5 record and holds a plethora of Nittany Lions passing records. Barring injury, he’ll end his collegiate career with virtually every passing record from a school that has produced its share of NFL signal callers.

Clearing the paths: While the Nittany Lion faithful are wringing their collective hands over the departure of Barkley, Franklin has expressed faith that four returning offensive linemen will help keep the ground game humming. Sophomore tailback Miles Sanders was a prep legend in Pittsburgh and averaged more than six yards a carry in limited time last season, and highly touted recruit Ricky Slade tallied more than 2,700 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns as an All-American prep player last season.

Getting defensive: Yes, the top four and six of the top eight tacklers are gone from a defensive unit gutted by graduation and several early departures. But no, Franklin isn’t too concerned about a dropoff because of a veteran front four that helped Penn State lead the Big Ten in sacks a year ago. Pass rushers Miller, Toney and Ryan Buchholz all return, which should make things easier on a rebuilt secondary.

2017 national rankings

Scoring: 7th (41.1 ppg) — right above No. 8 Florida Atlantic, right behind No. 6 Ohio State

Points allowed: 7th (16.5 ppg) — right above No. 8 UTSA, right behind No. 6 Georgia

Passing: 23rd (290.2 ypg) — right above Nos. 24  Baylor and Louisiana-Monroe, right behind No. 22 Buffalo

Rushing: 59th (170.2 ypg) — right above No. 60 Hawaii, right behind No. Louisiana-Monroe

Total offense: 19th (460.3 ypg) — right above No. 20 West Virginia, right behind No. 18 Ole Miss

Total defense: 17th (329.5 ypg) — right above No. 18 Florida State, right behind No. 16 Washington State

(L-R) Grant Haley #15, Nick Scott #4, head coach James Franklin, Marcus Allen #2 and Troy Apke #28 of the Penn State Nittany Lions walk out to field arm in arm before the start of the second half of the Playstation Fiesta Bowl against the Washington Huskies at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 30, 2017 in Glendale, Arizona. The Nittany Lions defeated the Huskies 35-28. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Sept. 1 (2:30, BTN)Appalachian State
Sept. 8 (7, ABC)at PittsburghW, 33-14
Sept. 15 (11 a.m., FS1)Kent State
Sept. 21 (8, FS1)at Illinois*
Sept. 29Ohio State*L, 39-38
Oct. 13Michigan State*L, 27-24
Oct. 20at Indiana*W, 45-14
Oct. 27Iowa*W, 21-19
Nov. 3at Michigan*W, 42-13
Nov. 10Wisconsin*
Nov. 17Wisconsin*
Nov. 24Maryland*W, 66-3
* Big Ten game

The key game: Sept. 29, Ohio State. A win in the conference home opener could give the Nittany Lions an inside track on on the East division, especially with a schedule that includes other home games against conference heavyweights Michigan State and Wisconsin.

The last 5 years

YEARW-L (CONF.)RANKINGSBOWL, RESULT
20137-5 (4-4)— / —No bowl
20147-6 (2-6)— / —Pinstripe, W
20157-6 (4-4)— / —TaxSlayer, L
201611-3 (8-1)— / 7thRose, L
201711-2 (7-2)6th / 8thFiesta, W
Total43-22 (25-17 Big Ten)2-2 in bowls

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking

Our Top 25, by conferences

3 schools:

Big Ten — No. 10 Penn State, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan

Pac-12 — No. 14 Stanford, No. 20 USC, No. 23 Oregon

Big 12 — No. 15 TCU, No. 19 West Virginia, No. 25 Texas

2 schools:

ACC — No. 16 Virginia Tech, No. 21 Florida State

SEC — No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 24 LSU

1 school:

Independents — No. 13 Notre Dame

Mountain West — No. 18 Boise State

AAC — No. 22 Central Florida

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 9 team

Want a hint?

Well, it’s NOT a fourth straight Big Ten school. Oh, and John Heisman — the guy the trophy’s named for — once coached there.

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