Two days ago, we got a chance to watch the best National Championship in the College Football Playoff era unfold since.. well… last season. Last year’s unbelievable, near-overtime action between Clemson and Alabama set the tone for last night’s action between the last two teams standing, two SEC heavyweights. After Alabama fell behind 13-0 midway through the third quarter, Alabama Head Coach went against the grain, benched Jalen Hurts in favor of true freshman Tua Tagovailoa. As controversial as the decision was, the freshman delivered for Nick Saban, leading the offense up and down the field to tie the game at 20. He then marched the offense down the field once more, put his team in field goal range, and after a missed field goal, threw a 41 yard strike to claim Alabama’s fifth National title in nine seasons, the quickest time frame to accomplish such feat, breaking Bear Bryant’s Alabama record by 11 years.
The long awaited finale left little on the table, in terms of both theatrics and time spent on my television, and writes the final chapter on a book that will sit untouched on the shelf that we call the offseason until August takes hold once again. With the final paragraph being etched in epic fashion into the confines of this book, it’s time to start looking ahead and predicting the next chapter to be written, aptly, yet simply titled, “2018”. The latest anticipated installment of this book that is now nearly 150 chapters long, and growing in volume size by the season, will State, and (unofficially) on Saturday, April 21, when the immortal blue-white game will kick off inside Beaver Stadium.
So how does one of the most loaded rosters in Penn State history shake off the stigma of 2017’s heartbreak and finish the final paragraph of the 2018 chapter in blue and white ink? These four steps are a good place to start.
1. Find Consistency In The Running Game
Listen, I know I said all year I’m not going to use the cop-out, “Saquon Barkley is good. Saquon Barkley is the X-factor. Saquon Barkley is the way Penn State wins this game,” and I didn’t. I refused to do it, because, honestly, it’s not very deep thinking on my part. But it’s unavoidable to think that the running game could take a step back in 2018 with the loss of the future-top ten NFL Draft pick. The backfield is not, however, a lost cause going into next season. Sophomore Andre Robinson will no longer be in the fold moving forward, as he announced earlier this year that he would be transferring at the end of the season. While we don’t know his landing spot yet, we do know he won’t be back in Happy Valley for the 2018 season. With Robinson’s departure, the backfield boils down to three names, at least at this point in time. When the season kicks off in September, then-junior Miles Sanders will likely get the bulk of the touches and be listed as the depth chart’s starting back. Throughout the 2017 season, Sanders took snaps away from Robinson, and with Barkley out of the fold, it would make the most sense for Sanders to be the next man up. Along with Sanders currently on the roster is freshman Journey Brown, a three star back out of Meadville, PA who was rated as the number 19 prospect in the state a year ago. He’ll likely get a good amount of touches as Sanders back-up in the early part of the season. Finally, the wild card of this mix, is incoming freshman Ricky Slade, who preached his commitment after the departure of running back coach Charles Huff, who joined Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State. The key to these three backs is to not attempt to recreate Saquon Barkley unless the opportunity arises. Use these three as a tandem, and do not try to force one as the feature back unless one emerges as said feature back. You don’t have to get 1200 yards from one rushers, but 400 from each is perfectly okay to compete in 2018. By the end of the season, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Sanders be the bell cow back, but to begin the season, just allow the backfield to materialize naturally.
2. Use The Schedule To Their Advantage
In 2017, the Nittany Lions faced a brutal three week gauntlet that saw them take on Michigan before hitting the road in consecutive weeks to battle Ohio State and Michigan State. The latter two games resulted in two losses by four combined points and cost Penn State a chance at the Big Ten Championship and the College Football Playoff. This season, Penn state needs to use its favorable schedule to its advantage. It won’t be an easy schedule in terms of which teams Penn State plays. On top of the three aforementioned East division teams, the Nittany Lions also draw Wisconsin in 2018 with a running back coming into his true form in his sophomore year and an always prepared defense. But the beauty of the schedule, albeit a small victory, is the fact that the only true road test of the year will be going to Ann Arbor to play Michigan the first weekend of November. Wisconsin comes to Beaver Stadium the following weekend, and prior to that, Ohio State and Michigan State will both traverse the country to come to Happy Valley in what will almost assuredly be at least one night game. To further this point, the Nittany Lions have a bye in between the Buckeye and Spartan games, and get Indiana and Iowa in between the second tough part of the schedule. coming out of the Big Ten unscathed has proven nearly impossible in the last few seasons, but the schedule shapes in Penn state’s favor this season after that were blasted with a three week nightmare in 2017. Winning the correct games is going to be crucial, but 11 wins is not out of the question for this team next year.
3. The Secondary Finds Two New Pieces That Compete At a High Level
At the end of the Fiesta Bowl, four members of the Penn State secondary stepped off the field for the final time in their college careers. Safeties Troy Apke and Marcus Allen will no longer roam the deep part of the field and corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell will play press coverage no more. With that being said, Penn State will need to find at least two players that can step up and become stars in 2018. Few teams have four defensive backs that play at a high level, so I’d be happy to see three roles filled with high caliber players. First and foremost, John Reid will finally make his return to the field in 2018 after missing the entire 2017 season with an injury. Reid was surely missed in 2017, but the corners did a good job at hiding his departure. So that fills one role almost immediately. Beyond Reid, the corner position is seemingly in good hands, with Amani Oruwariye returning for his senior season and young guns Tariq Castro-Fields and Lamont Wade returning with on-field experience in their freshmen seasons. The corner position will run four deep and could become a weapon against opposing passing attacks in 2018. What concerns me far more is the safety position. Losing two starters in one offseason at a spot on the field that is two deep is worrisome. Nick Scott appeared in 11 games in 2017, and will likely get the first crack at a starting role in 2018. Of those who appeared in multiple games in 2017, redshirt sophomore Ayron Monroe could see an uptick in playing time as could Garrett Taylor. Figuring out who will fill the free and strong safety roles will be a top priority this offseason, and the sooner that question is answered, the quicker the team can go about recapturing the Big Ten title.
4. Use 2018 To Take Ohio State Down a Peg
For the first time since Penn State joined the Big Ten, J.T. Barrett will not be the Ohio State quarterback. Kidding, of course, but it sure seems like Barrett was the Buckeye signal caller for far too many years. Now that Barrett will finally graduate and take his shot at the NFL level, uncertainty creeps in the minds of those in Columbus as to who will be Urban Meyer’s quarterback in 2018. The only quarterback in Columbus to throw a pass at the college level is Joe Burrow, who spend most of 2017 on the disabled list with a broken bone in his throwing hand. Burrow has attempted 39 passes in two seasons, connecting for two touchdowns. Matched with the uncertainty of Burrow transferring, which appears may not be the case at this point, the quarterback situation is up in the air for the Buckeyes. With this knowledge, and the loss of the dynamic Barrett from under center, could add up to offensive struggles for Ohio State this upcoming season. Don’t expect a massive dropoff because the offense Meyer employs is effectively plug and place, but the talent and read ability could dip. Penn State needs to take advantage of that and beat the Buckeyes at home for the second time in three seasons if they wish to get back to the Big Ten title game.