Penn State was six points from being perfect in 2017.

All the Lions really needed was to make a few more plays at Ohio State and Michigan State, then we’re looking at 12-0 instead of 10-2, with a berth in the college football playoff.

That was pretty much it last season – a pair of single-digit Big 10 nail biters that saw the Lions fall out of the top five and instead settle for 11 wins and a Fiesta Bowl victory over a very good Washington team. That’s not a bad consolation prize, but Penn State fans and neutrals alike know just how agonizingly close this team came to running the table.

It’s a mixed bag of storylines coming into the 2018 season, which will be James Franklin’s fifth since taking over for Bill O’Brien in 2014. Franklin seemed to be on the hot seat after opening his Penn State tenure with a pair of boring 7-6 seasons before rumbling to 11 wins, a conference title, and a Rose Bowl appearance in year number three.

Along the way, he recruited extremely well and put the right assistants in place. He got Saquon Barkley to flip on his Rutgers commitment, brought in offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead from Fordham, and promoted Brent Pry to defensive coordinator after bringing him along from his previous gig at Vanderbilt. Those three moves probably guided Penn State’s success more than anything, fleshed out with a glut of impressive talent on both sides of the ball.

Two of those three guys won’t be back this season, with Barkley going to the New York Giants and Moorhead taking the Mississippi State head coaching gig. Pry returns without the services of Troy Apke, Marcus Allen, and Chris Campbell, three defensive backs who all earned NFL draft selections. Also gone is defensive tackle Parker Cothren (Steelers) and linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Smith, who got a shot with the Raiders and Bills, respectively.

On the offensive side of the ball, top tight end Mike Gesicki graduated to the NFL with leading receiver DaeSean Hamilton. Quarterback Trace McSorley returns with four-fifths of the offensive line, so that’s a huge positive for the Lions despite the myriad of skill position losses.

This is the offensive production that needs to be replaced:

In the receiving game alone, you need to make up for the loss of 21 touchdowns and 2,100 yards from Hamilton, Barkley, and Gesicki. Behind Saquon, no other running back got more than 35 carries last season.

Thing is, when you recruit as well as Franklin has, Penn State is now looking like a “reloading” team and nothing like a “rebuilding” team. Franklin’s 2017 class was ranked top-15 nationally and featured 11 four-star recruits. The 2018 class was ranked top-five in the country and is highlighted by three five-star recruits and 13 four-star guys. That’s a monstrous haul for PSU.

That’s why fans should feel pretty confident in the guys tasked with filling the big shoes this season. Running back Miles Sanders went for 6.2 yards per carry last year. You’ve got senior Mark Allen and newcomer Ricky Slade in the mix as well. At receiver, Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins are more than capable of filling the void and you return a pair of 6’4″ junior tight ends in Nick Bowers and Jonathan Holland, plus a pair of four-star recruits.

Taking over for Moorhead on the sidelines is OC Ricky Rahne, another Vanderbilt guy who ran the offense during the Fiesta Bowl win. The Lions put up 552 yards against the Huskies in the 35-28 victory, so there did not seem to be any drop off in production, at least for one game with the old crop of players. We’ll see if that continues into 2018 with a new-look personnel group. The common thought is that McSorley and the experienced line will provide a lot of stability from the jump.

Defensively, the Lions need to replace eight of their top ten tackle leaders from last season, including the aforementioned Cabinda, Allen, Smith, and Apke, who contributed a combined 4.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, 9 defended passes, and four forced fumbles:

Same thing here; Penn State blew some teams out of the water last season, which provided snaps for some of the peripheral guys, who are no longer peripheral guys. Kevin Givens and Shareef Miller look primed for big seasons on the line, and John Reid, who missed last season via injury, comes in to boost the secondary. Amani Oruwariye is an excellent player. There’s plenty of talent to go around on defense.

And then you’ve got Franklin himself, who was voted one of the most overrated coaches in the country in an anonymous CBS poll of his peers. Personally, I don’t think Franklin is an X’s and O’s guru, but he doesn’t need to be. He recruited his butt off and put the right coordinators in place. He’s a motivator and a leader and an organizer and lets people do what they were brought in to do. To that point, I think Moorhead’s departure is one of the biggest question marks coming into this season, so we’ll see what happens there.

Maybe the key for the ninth-ranked Nittany Lions is the boon of getting the toughest matchups at Beaver Stadium. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Big 10 preseason darling Wisconsin all make the trip to Happy Valley this year while Michigan is the only difficult trip on the Penn State schedule. Surely, Pitt will not prove to be a road block in week two.

Here’s the schedule:

They’ll be 4-0 going into the Ohio State game with Urban Meyer back on the sidelines. Michigan State follows and then they smash Indiana and Iowa before going to Michigan, which is more than winnable. Their playoff hopes might come down to that Wisconsin game, because PSU will run through Rutgers and Maryland like wet paper bags.

For more on the Lions I got in touch with Frank Bodani from the York Daily Record, who has been covering PSU since 1994. He was good enough to share a few minutes previewing this iteration of the team:

Crossing Broad: 10-2 last year, obviously a couple of heartbreakers on the road – what’s the outlook going into James Franklin’s 5th year?

Frank Bodani: Expectations are higher. I think they overachieved in some ways the past two years. But when you win 11 games, now people expect that and more. The hard part to predict is that they’re gonna rely on quite a few – more than recently – new faces, so to speak. Freshmen, redshirt freshmen, first time starters. A lot of these kids are highly rated and regarded, so I think the optimism is there, but until they do it, I think some people have a little bit of concern in certain areas. But I still think that anything less than 9-3 and people are going to be really disappointed. I still think they have, when you combine their QB situation with a really, truly improving offensive line, probably their best in quite a while, to start as your foundation, that’s going to do them well. I think that’s really going to open up the offense and the prospects for the whole team.

Crossing Broad: Obviously Barkley is a New York Giant, Hamilton is in the NFL with Mike Gesicki, a new offensive coordinator is coming in with Joe Moorhead headed for Mississippi State – on that side of the ball what do you see, and how big of a loss is Moorhead?

Bodani: Those are really a lot of talking points, but every team is going to be different from the team before. Basically, Gesicki was another wide receiver. He didn’t really block, he didn’t really play tight end, so to speak. So you’re going to replace him with other receiver options and I think they actually underused him anyway. Barkley was a once in a generation talent, but the way things work is that teams keyed on him so much, and because the offensive line wasn’t good enough to blow people off the ball and open up running lanes, he became kind of a decoy and four or five big highlight-reel plays type of guy. It was almost like their offense became kind of disjointed and they basically had to throw the ball all the time at the end. I think, this year, you don’t have as many of the proven stars but I think you’ll have more balance. I think Miles Sanders, to me, should have more yards rushing than Barkley had last year. There’s going to be more balance than last year.

And I don’t think the coordinator thing…I mean, Joe was really good. I think he was a great fit for the time they had him there. But you gotta give Ricky Rahne a shot because he’s been with James Franklin forever. He worked under Joe and he did call the Fiesta Bowl. If James Franklin has proven two things, it’s that one, he can recruit, and two he can hire people. So I really don’t think he’d entrust his offense to someone he doesn’t believe in at this point.

Crossing Broad: I think the thing with college football is that you’re either rebuilding or reloading. And when you look at Penn State and the way James Franklin has recruited over the last few years, this is definitely a reload, just looking at the highly-rated talent coming through the pipeline.

Bodani: They have more talent and depth on this team than they had on the previous two. Now does that mean their record is going to be as good? I don’t know. Here’s the thing I think people would underestimate about Trace McSorley’s effect on that: they are.. what, 22 and 5 over the last two years? And he played in the Tax Slayer Bowl, so he’s something like 22 and 6 as a starter. Every one of those games but one came down to the last couple of minutes. You think the kid has been your quarterback for 27 or 28 games and every game but one, you had a chance to win at the end, and that’s incredible. You keep him and bring in all of this talent and I think they’re going to be a pretty explosive team on offense. I think they’re going to fare well. But when you play in the toughest division in America, there’s a very fine line between winning and losing.

Crossing Broad: Let me ask about James Franklin.. that CBS poll of anonymous coaches came out a while back and he was named one of the more overrated coaches in the country. I’ve always felt like he’s not exactly a tactical genius, but he recruits like a madman, and, like you said, hires people who know what they’re doing. In this day and age, doesn’t that make you a good coach?

Bodani: Oh sure. I mean, first of all, that poll got a lot of attention because when people looked at it closely, hardly anyone responded to it. Out of the people who said he was overrated, it was something like five percent of the people that responded. There weren’t that many. So some people thought it was a joke – who is saying this and who is just upset with him personally?

But in this day and age, you need to be a good CEO. You don’t need to be an expert in any positions. You need to be able to sell, recruit, hire, and if you’re smart and do those things well, then the people you hire will take care of the details. That’s what you need. He is a good face for, not just a power five team, but specifically for Penn State when he came here. Because who cares if people needed an attitude adjustment to get used to somebody like him? I think Penn State needed some extra positivity in 2014. So it seemed a little bit overdone at first, but that helped. He kind of pulled back from some of that, but I think he’s been there long enough to prove to people that they also seem to be doing things the right way, or the “Penn State way,” where kids are graduating and earning their degrees and they’re not getting into trouble. No scandals, no rumors, no rule breaking. They’ve won and they’re doing it in fine form, so to speak.

Crossing Broad: Last one – the schedule looks navigable this year. I don’t know if Pitt gives you much trouble out of conference. You get Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin at home. Really the toughest road trip looks like Michigan. What do you make of how this slate breaks down?

Bodani: I think you can break down the schedule in a few different ways. The first positive part is that you have a nice four—game run where they’re going to be favored substantially in all four. That helps you with some of these places, these positions of question, where you need to work guys into. So that’s a good thing. They’re not tested abruptly out of the gates. Number two, after you get all jacked up for your Ohio State night game, you get another tough team afterwards, but you get a bye week in between. I think it would be hard for them to put everything into Ohio State then have to come back the next week and play Michigan State, like they did last year. This year, you get that week off in between, and that MSU game is at home. I think that helps.

You’re going to need every bit of advantage you can get when you play Wisconsin in November. I don’t care if it’s at Beaver Stadium or not, that, to me, is their toughest game. Not only is Wisconsin more talented than they’ve ever been, but they’re still in that typical mindset that they’re going to beat you into the ground on both sides of the ball. So yeah, it helps a lot that it’s at Beaver Stadium, but the hardest part about the schedule is that they play more quality opponents in the league than they have under Franklin. They never had to play Wisconsin in the regular season under Franklin and they also get Iowa.

That’s true. Obviously if you’re looking at the Big 10 West, you’d prefer Minnesota and Purdue instead of Iowa and Wisconsin, but there’s no reason Penn State can’t beat both of those teams at home.

Whatever happens this season, there won’t be a lack of excitement. There’s a ton of young talent across the board. McSorley is the real deal. Beaver Stadium hosts three marquee Big 10 games. The Lions are coming off an 11-win season that could have easily been a 12-win season.

The question marks are obvious, but this looks much more like an Alabama-style reload rather than a rebuild. We’ll learn a lot about this team when post-scandal Ohio State visits Happy Valley in week five, which will be a matchup of top ten teams if neither suffers an early season slip-up.

Let’s play some college ball.