James Franklin had his work cut out for him in his first season at Penn State. He was coming off back-to-back improbable 9-4 campaigns at Vanderbilt, which is no small feat. He did have 12 returning starters to work with last year and reduced sanctions, but it was still a tall task to ask for him to win in his first season.

The Nittany Lions wound up finishing 7-6 after beating Boston College 31-30 in the Pinstripe Bowl. They took national champion Ohio State into double-overtime, which shows what they are capable of. But ugly losses to Northwestern, Maryland and Illinois also showed that the Nittany Lions still have a lot of work to do if they want to be among the Big Ten’s elite.

Things are looking up for Penn State entering 2015. It has 15 returning starters, went 2-6 in Big Ten play last year despite only getting outgained by 7.5 yards per game, and now it goes from having 64 scholarship players in 2014 to 83 in 2015. It was amazing to see the Penn State faithful fill Beaver Stadium during the probation period over the last three years. Now, those fans should be rewarded with some solid football under Franklin going forward.

Last Season
Big Ten East
Record
ATS Record
Over/Under
Points For
Points Against
6th
7-6
6-6-1
6-7
20.6
18.6
2015 Penn State Nittany Lions Schedule
Date Opponent
Spread (Est.)
Win Chance
9/5 @ Temple
-8.5
0.75
9/12 Buffalo
-24
1
9/19 Rutgers
-8
0.74
9/26 San Diego State
-10.5
0.79
10/3 Army
-28
1
10/10 Indiana
-10
0.77
10/17 @ Ohio State
+18
0.00
10/24 Maryland (Baltimore)
-7
0.70
10/31 Illinois
-10
0.77
11/7 @ Northwestern
-1
0.51
11/21 Michigan
-3.5
0.61
11/28 @ Michigan State
+12
0.18
Estimated Wins: 7.82
Offense

What held the Nittany Lions back last year was an offense that averaged just 20.6 points and 335 yards per game. Quarterback Christian Hackenberg did not live up to the hype, completing just 55.8 percent of his passes for 2,977 yards with 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Many project him to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, but he’s going to have to show a lot more this season if that’s going to happen.

Perhaps the biggest reason Hackenberg struggled is because he was not protected. The Nittany Lions gave up a whopping 44 sacks, which was double what they allowed in 2013. They had just one returning starter along the offensive line last year, so they were clearly lacking in experience. That shouldn’t be a problem in 2015 considering they return four starters and add in two very highly touted linemen. With 51 career starts back up front, this should be one of the most improved offensive lines in the country.

The skill positions are in good hands. The Nittany Lions return leading rusher Akeel Lynch (678 yards, 4.6/carry, 4 TD) and their top two receivers in DaeSean Hamilton (82 receptions, 899 yards, 2 TD) and Geno Lewis (55, 751, 2 TD). Also back is their fourth-leading pass catcher in Chris Godwin (26, 338, 2 TD). There are several very highly touted freshmen at the running back and wide receiver positions waiting in the wings as well.

Defense

Penn State had one of the nation’s best defenses last year. It allowed just 18.6 points and 279 yards per game. If it can get that kind of production again in 2015, it could surprise in the Big Ten East. The Nittany Lions return seven starters on D, including five of their top six tacklers. This could be the best stop unit in the conference.

The linebacker corps welcomes back junior Nyeem Wartman (75 tackles, 3.5 for loss) and Brandon Bell (47 tackles, 7 for loss, 1 INT). They do lose their best linebacker in Mike Hull, who finished sixth in the FBS with 140 tackles. But they also get Ben Kline back from injury, and the incredibly athletic Koa Farmer moves from safety to linebacker.

The defensive line parts ways with a pair of third-team All-Big Ten selections from last year in Deion Barnes (44 tackles, 12.5 for loss) and CJ Olaniyan (43 tackles, 3 sacks). They do have two returning starters in the interior in NT Austin Johnson (49 tackles, 6 for loss) and first-team All-Big Ten DT Anthony Zettel (42 tackles, 17 for loss, 8 sacks). Senior Carl Nassib and sophomore Gerrett Sickels figure to take over for Barnes and Olaniyan.

Six of the top eight defensive backs return to the secondary, which allowed just 178 passing yards per game and 53.0% completions last year. Three starters are back in senior CB Trevor Williams (27 tackles, 2 INT), senior SS Jordan Lucas (58 tackles, 9 pass break-ups) and sophomore FS Marcus Allen (58 tackles). Sophomore CB Grant Haley (18 tackles, 1 INT) got his feet wet as a freshman last year and should be ready for a starting role.

Odds (Courtesy of 5Dimes)
Regular Season Win Total
Big Ten East Odds
Big Ten Championship Odds
4-Team Playoff Odds
National Championship Odds
8
+1500
+2300
N/A
+13500
Season Predictions

I’m a really big fan of the Nittany Lions this season. Going from having 64 scholarship players to 83 will make a huge difference. Franklin is already putting in some great work on the recruiting front, and he proved at Vanderbilt that he could do the unthinkable in leading the Commodores to back-to-back 9-win seasons. Look for the Nittany Lions to return to Big Ten title contention for years to come.

With 15 starters back and just 18 lettermen lost, the Nittany Lions are for sure going to be improved in 2015. Hackenberg will live up to his potential behind a much stronger offensive line and plenty of weapons outside. The defense does lose some key pieces and will have a hard time matching last year’s numbers, but this is still one of the best stop units in the Big Ten with seven starters back.

The schedule sets up well as the Nittany Lions have just three true Big Ten road games because they play Maryland in Baltimore. They draw Illinois and Northwestern from the West. They do have to play both Ohio State and Michigan State on the road, but they’ll be a favorite in their other 10 games. I’ll call for a 6-2 season in the Big Ten and and 10-2 mark overall for the Nittany Lions in 2015.

2015 Projections
Big Ten East
Big Ten Record
Overall Record
Win Total Prediction
3rd
6-2
10-2
Over 8
More College Football Predictions
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West
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