Disclaimer: My previews of Big 10 teams are based on viewing of 2014 games of said teams plus extensive reading of local and national previews of that team. I might be wrong in my assessment any one team or any specific unit of that team. But that's clearly doubtful. (!!) No, on a serious note I enjoy people who comment who live locally to these teams or is an opposing fan - helps us get a better perspective so if you are one feel free to add to the discussion.
I also write this with the assumption Jake Rudock is the starting QB as the matrix of possibilities is too great trying to predict things with Shane Morris as a start.
Penn State 2014 reminded me a lot of Michigan 2013. A QB with a lot of potential who was hit or miss from week to week (and suffering from PTSD) behind a horrid OL and a non impressive running game, married to a quality defense. I've been struck how dismissive the general UM fanbase is about 2015 Penn State in these "2015 prediction" threads that pop up weekly. There are a lot of "cumong man we beat them in 2014 with Hoke - 2015 is going to be a UM win!! Don't be a troll!! Harbaugh!!!"
You'd think UM was a powerhouse and PSU was Rutgers (who UM lost to last year as well). Yes Harbaugh... but PSU brings a NFL potential 1st round pick in at QB, an OL that will probably show the same improvement UM's did between 2013 and 2014, return a lot of players from the best Big 10 defense in 2014, and has probably the most underrated coordinator in the conference if not the country on defense. A lot of people seem to be dismissing any improvement out of Hackenberg and think he will be 2014 Devin Gardner - I disagree. It also doesn't mean PSU is a powerhouse but right now PSU and UM are essentially peers in terms of football level. I'd place this along with @Utah as the 3rd toughest game on the slate. It also happens to be in one of the toughest venues in CFB to play a game - ask OSU last year.
To that end Vegas has set the win total for PSU at 7.5. Identical to UM's. Again these are programs at a very similar spot with not dissimilar talent. And the game will be in Happy Valley - so I am not sure where this immense confidence about this game comes from, from many in the fanbase.
As for those odds I'd be taking the over all day as PSU has the potential to come out 6-0 to begin the year: Temple, Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army, and Indiana. All PSU would need to do is win 2 games the rest of the year to best that 7.5 win total. And of the remaining 7 games, foes include Illinois and a not so good Maryland. Northwestern will be on the road but is no great shakes. UM is at home and the 2 teams are very similar. So even if you give losses vs MSU and OSU (both on the road so very likely) PSU has an excellent chance for 9 wins IMO.
PSU returns ~15 starters (~8 offense, ~7 defense) on a squad that was not far away from 10 wins last year. Assuming the PSU OL makes the same improvement UM's did btw 2013-2014, and Hackenberg plays anything like a NFL 1st round draft pick nearly everyone has him pegged to be, combined with another top 20ish type defense and PSU could have a very promising year.
Penn State combined what was IMO the best defense in the conference (FEI #9, S&P+ #13) with a 2013 UM like offense (FEI #101, S&P+ #82). The results were predictable: 7-6.
(If you use NCAA's stats for defense - which I don't prefer as they don't adjust for SOS and all Big 10 defenses get inflated due to some horrid offenses in the conference - PSU looked even better: #2 in total defense, # 3 in rushing defense, #7 scoring defense)
The Nittany Lions had one of the most well-rounded Ds in the country -- third in Passing Downs S&P+, fourth in Rushing S&P+, ninth in Standard Downs S&P+, 10th in Passing S&P+
The offensive line was horrific - ranked #111 (out of 128) in Football Outsiders's rankings.
Only seven teams allowed more frequent sacks on passing downs. Only three teams allowed more run stuffs in the backfield. Only four teams created fewer downfield opportunities for their backs.
PSU entered with only two experienced starters (Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach), and one got hurt. Redshirt freshmen Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon combined to start 22 times. Converted defensive tackle Brian Gaia started 12.
Four of the 7 wins came out of conference with only the win over UCF in Dublin, Ireland being competitive. PSU is infamous for playing patsy city in non conf. Despite a defense that kept them in every game except vs MSU... and strangely Northwestern, PSU could only manage 2 conference wins (Rutgers/Indiana). But 3 of their 4 other losses were by a combined 8 pts and then they lost by 7 in OT to OSU in the 4th game. (If memory serves there was a phantom PI in that game vs PSU that helped OSU escape with a win) So ANY production out of their offense and PSU 2014 could have been quite a good year actually, with double digit wins very viable. Strangely they had a reversal of form in the bowl game vs Boston College where scary Hackenberg showed up (34/50 68% completion rate, 7.4 yards per attempt, 371 yards, 4 TD 0 INT), and the defense fell apart.
A defense led by Anthont Zettel and Mike Hull was generally excellent despite the inept offense, and the kicking game was solid with Sam Ficken 24/29 in FGs incl 8/9 from 40-49 yards out. Punting was meh.
PSU returns the bulk of its team, losing only 7 starters. The skill position players on offense could be anywhere from good to great. The question is on the OL. The defense lost some talent but their DC has a very good track record so I'd expect internal development to fix any holes, and a stodgy defense that gave us less than 19 pts per game in 2014 to remain an issue for opponents. The schedule sets up for a big start which will boost confidence and PSU might be favored in every game but 2 on their schedule.
With a weak non-conference slate (which does include a landmine trip to Temple in Week 1), PSU is scheduled to play three top-50 teams.
The 2 crossover games are Illinoi and Northwestern - not exactly muderer's row. PSU is the obvious candidate to challenge UM for "3rd slot" in the Big 10 East and has fewer questions . They also have a coaching staff going into their 2nd year, rather than their 1st.
On defense the production of Mike Hull must be replaced and PSU needs to break in a new placekicker.
As always, Bill Connelly's team previews are a must read if you are a fan of the game.
Penn State Offense
I won't repeat myself yet again about Hack and that OL. You get the point. Hack had a 58.9% completion rate, with 3K yards, and solid 7.5 yard per attempt season as a freshman when he was only sacked 21 times. His TD to INT ratio was 2:1. All those #s fell his sophomore year as he was sacked 44 times and if you watched more than 1-2 PSU games you saw a man running for his life on almost every dropback. Hack also lost coach O'Brien which certainly was not a positive. I expect the 2015 PSU OL to be 2014 UMlike and Hack to have more time and be in the top 3 in Big 10 QBs and be a scary foe.
Hackenberg returns his top 2 weapons at WR in RS SO DeaSean Hamilton (82 catches, 899 yards, 11.0 ave), and SR Geno Lewis (55 catches, 751 yards, 13.7 ave). Lewis' stats were in the Funchess range so you can see this is a dynamic duo. PSU also played two other freshmen extensively last year - including Chris Godwin who exploded for 140 yards in the bowl game - so this unit will benefit from that trial by fire.
Leading rusher SR Akeel Lynch returns. He was able to average 4.6 yards per carry behind an awful line so any assumed improvement by that OL is only going to benefit him as will defenses needing to play their secondary deep to account for Hackenberg. PSU also brought in some very highly touted RBs in last year's class and this is 1 position on offense true freshman can have an impact right away. Saquon Barkley was the 247 compositive 123rd best player (#14 RB) and Andre Robinson was #258 (#19 RB). There are also some redshirt freshmen in the mix so bodies won't be an issue here.
PSU did lose very good TE Jesse James (38 catches, 396 yards. 10.4 ave) to the NFL but overall PSU does not lack skill position skill or experience. It's a lot better than UM's in terms of being proven and prolific. The issue is that OL. If it can just be mediocre this offense could skyrocket vs its 2014 ranks.PS
PSU returns 6 linemen with starting experience. Only 1 is a senior. Offensive lineman generally get better with age.... so I expect improvement. The question is will it be modest or significant. PSU also brought in a 4 star JUCO prospect they expect to start (must be nice). With the young talent at the edges of this offense even marginal improvement from the OL could have PSU nearing double digit wins.
Penn State Defense
When I did my analysis of Michigan coaching candidates post November, I took a look at 2013's two hot names in a theoretical world where Hoke was fired post 2013 - Strong and Franklin. As I broke down Franklin I was not super impressed - he was an offensive minded coach whose offenses were not great. Obviously he has charisma and can recruit (sounds familiar) but thus far in his HC career he has relied on a man named Bob Shoop. Shoop built the Vanderbilt defenses that allowed the team to rise from afterthought in the Franklin era and in his first year at PSU he had the team playing at a near elite level despite a horrific offense. So there were no excuses there like we heard for Mattison here - you CAN have a great defense even if your offense is a joke (Florida and Texas were similarly able to perform on defense despite galling offenses). Shoop was in play for the LSU job when Chavis left for A&M but PSU locked him down for 3 years at a million per so expect excellent PSU defenses in the near future. At only 48 years old I expect Shoop to get a head coach offer sooner rather than later.
The starting tackles of PSU might be the best tandem in the nation with Anthony Zettel and Austin Johnson. This was the 3rd best defense against the run - a major problem for UM which only managed 64 yards vs PSU last year. Zettel was also awesome as a penetrator with 17 TFL and 8 sacks - this is a man's man. Did I mention he had 3 INTs? UM didnt have a DB with 3 INTs last year. Despite being tiny for his position (280ish) Zettel is widely projected as a 2nd/3rd round talent at a position where it is rare to be picked in the 1st.
Much like UM, PSU has questions at DE with last year's starters (Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan) graduating, and another question at MLB where all everything Mike Hull (140 !!! tackles) graduated. Junior Nyeem Wartman (a 2 year starter at OLB) slid over to that position in spring ball. And to be fair the DEs had all of 9 sacks combined... again Zettel had 8 alone. Rush defense on the edges of the line is probably the area to see if PSU can maintain 2014 levels.
The secondary returns 3 starters and most publications are very high on quite a few of these players - especially Marcus Allen who started 7 games as a true freshman last year and "played as well as any safety in college football the second half of the year." - Bob Shoop. John Lucas - a 2 year starter at corner - is switching to safety. One corner is manned by senior Trevor Williams with the other corner up for grabs.
Penn State returns four of its top six linemen, three of four linebackers, and three of four defensive backs. Shoop didn't play a large rotation, but quite a few difference-makers within that rotation return, and the personality won't change much.
(take these matchups with more of a grain of salt than usual because once you get past the month of September teams grow and evolve - well at least well coached teams.)
UM rush off v PSU rush def - Adv: PSU. PSU returns two sterling DTs off the 3rd best rush defense in the nation last year. Against an offense where running the ball not using the QB (or Drake Johnson) has been an adventure for a few years. UM has a lot to prove here.
UM pass off v PSU pass def - Adv: Even. I am probably being kind with my even here for UM. While PSU doesn't bring a ton of pass rush outside they do have penetrating DTs and that combined with what should be a very good secondary could pose a lot of issues if secondary receiving threats have not emerged for UM by November. I am going with the thesis that one WR emerges by then to offset Darboh and Butt. (and even Darboh is no sure thing - we are all just projecting him to see a #1 WR when he has not yet been one) Rudock will need to have a very good game in a road environment as UM's rush offense will be very challenged. UM's OL will need to be top notch in pass protect as well, especially the center and guards.
PSU rush off v UM rush def - Adv: UM. PSU has a good RB but just as PSU stuffed UM's running attack so did UM to PSU's. PSU's OL and UM's DEs are the big question marks as these 2 units face off.
PSU pass off v UM pass def - Adv: PSU. Potential NFL 1st round QB with pair of top end WRs against a back 7 that has a lot of questions to answer in the passing game. UM's secondary depth at the corners will concern me until I see anyone not named Lewis or Lyons show it on the field in real games. I am hoping it's Watson but I expect a lot of nickel packages in this game with the vertical threat PSU poses.
I like PSU more than the experts and most board members in 2015, due to (1) the schedule, (2) belief that OLs improve with age (even if just to "mediocre" level), (3) my study of Bob Shoop and belief he is severely underrated nationally and (4) the advantage of having a 3rd year starting QB of this pedigree. Yes we had a 3rd year starter ourselves last year (sort of) but we were the exception to the rule where having one was a boon. (Ironically we have another one this year assuming Rudock wins the job)
More specific to PSU in relation to UM this game is very late in the season and as we know with football, injuries by that point in the year can change the complexion of this game quite a bit. So projecting is difficult On paper thru September, I give PSU the edge as their main question marks are placekicker, OL, and DE. They have an established back - we do not. They have a top end WR and a great secondary WR, we do not. While we have a solid QB in Rudock the ceiling for Hackenberg is obviously huge and this is the 2nd year in the system - Rudock starts from scratch. Their defense was simply better than ours last year and while they lost Hull we lost Ryan and Clark which would be equivalents to their Hull. Both teams have what should be excellent DTs but theirs are established and ours are still a bit of potential. Both should have solid DBs with a young star - their young star started 7 games last year, ours barely played. While Harbaugh >>>> Franklin IMO, PSU has the advantage at defensive coordinator as we have a newbie there. Rudock needs a huge game here as does the UM pass defense. I doubt UM will get many yards on the ground vs PSU's front.
PSU was a few plays away last year from a 9-10 win season. UM was a few plays away from a 7 win season. We have more room to make up and less NFL talent among upperclassmen...and it's in Happy Valley. PSU also has a bye week to prepare (not that it mattered for UM in the Hoke era but PSU's staff should use it better) while UM will be in Indiana. I am calling this a coin flip but in reality home field advantage alone gives PSU the edge and I'd expect PSU to be favored by 5ish if everyone is healthy. Winning this type of game for UM would be a boon for the 2015 season and could be the difference between 7-8 wins and 9-10.