Summer six-pack: Six burning questions for this season

The answers to these questions could end up in history books when it’s all said and done…

1. What does Joe Moorhead do in year 2?

The former Fordham head coach was just the maestro Penn State needed to reconfigure and lead its offense. 

After two sometimes dreadful, often sluggish seasons, Moorhead’s no-huddle, line-up-then-match-up approach produced more than 1,500 yards and 225 points than the 2015 team. The good news for us and bad news for the rest of the Big Ten? Moorhead has nearly every playmaker back from last season. He’s also got a few newcomers ready to chip in.

In this publication last season, we predicted Mike Gesicki would rise based on Moorhead’s past use of tight ends. Expect Moorhead to continue to go to the big Gesicki. A schemer who likes to use multiple receiver sets and formations, Moorhead could expand his use of tight ends with highly touted recruits Jon Holland and Nick Bowers waiting to be deployed. Both are big targets with skill sets similar to Gesicki’s and have been itching to play for a while after injuries slowed their debuts.

It’s also known that Moorhead and Franklin really like what they have in backup quarterback Tommy Stevens. Although Stevens lost the competition for the starting job to McSorley last August, he’s shown plenty of flashes, and the competition was very close. Stevens was a standout in the Blue-White game and is a strong runner with a live arm. Maybe there’s a way the creative Moorhead could get him involved?

The Best Case Scenario Answer: The offensive line, primarily starting tackle Andrew Nelson, stays relatively healthy and provides the stability this offense needs to reach the next level. There are some mediocre defenses on Penn State’s schedule, setting up the possibility that, if clicking on all cylinders, 7,500 yards isn’t out of reach.

2. What does Trace McSorley do for an encore?

Have no doubt, this is Trace McSorley’s team and he is its leader.

McSorley might’ve been the best kept secret in college football last season, save for the most inquisitive of reporters who attended the team’s open practices during the heart of the 2015 season and got to see McSorley run the offense. His shiftiness stood out and he didn’t seem to make boneheaded throws. 

Those who didn’t get those glimpses of McSorley early in his career? They didn’t know what to expect. They just assumed the smallish passer could probably run, but definitely wouldn’t be able to gun. Countless deep balls later, McSorley emerged as one of the country’s best deep-throwers, showing the moxie of Matt McGloin coupled with the arm strength of Christian Hackenberg.

McSorley’s final throw in the Rose Bowl — a deep heave that was intercepted and set up the winning points for USC — has hung in his head as it hung in the air. He’s spent the offseason in the film room trying to perfect his reads before the snap and during the play to avoid those mistakes.

The Best Case Scenario Answer: McSorley exceeds his 2016 campaign and breaks his own single-season total offense record in the process. He does so by cutting his turnover numbers in half, and interceptions that all but sealed losses against Pitt and USC instead go for touchdowns because McSorley made a smarter read.

3. Can Saquon Barkley win Penn State its first Heisman Trophy since 1973?

The Nittany Lions’ lone Heisman winner, John Cappelletti, brought the bronze trophy to Happy Valley 34 years ago. Now, number 26 could have a great shot at it. Heisman voters consider plenty of factors, and Barkley seems to have everything.

However, so do Louisville’s Lamar Jackson and a handful of other quarterbacks that might be higher on the preseason watch lists than Barkley at this point. Jackson is a phenom and won the award last season. He tops nearly all lists as it stands. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, USC’s Sam Darnold, and even McSorley factor into most lists, too. As for fellow running backs? LSU’s Derrius Guice, Alabama’s Bo Scarbrough and Georgia’s Nick Chubb are in the mix. 

The Best Case Scenario Answer: Yes. He could put up his biggest numbers yet this season behind a deep offensive line that returns starters at every spot. More importantly, he grabs your attention and holds it with his dynamic style.

4. Can the Nittany Lions stay healthy?

No Penn State team in recent memory has succeeded in the wake of injuries like the 2016 squad. The team was without all of its starting linebackers well before the midpoint and at one point was minus most of their true backups!

Meanwhile, the team finished the season without both starting offensive tackles and saw a few other offensive linemen battle injuries throughout. Perhaps the Michigan game would’ve been a bit closer with a few of those linebackers healthy, but the Pitt loss was a shootout, and Penn State had a chance to win at the end. So overall, the injuries might’ve actually set Penn State up for success this year — players like offensive linemen Michael Menet, Connor McGovern and Steven Gonzalez and linebackers Cam Brown and Manny Bowen gained added experience that should make them even more prepared for this season.

The Best Case Scenario Answer: There’s no reason to lie. No. This is football. Someone is getting banged up — it’s the nature of the game. The real question might be: can Penn State endure? All the evidence points to yes. 

5. Is Penn State-Pitt a rivalry?

This was asked ad nauseam last season, and the answer was always a resounding no from Penn State’s side of the aisle. Consider: the two teams hadn’t played since most of the players were still in diapers. They had no history like the older fan bases. 

Pitt players had a little more fun with it as well as with the outcome of the game, a shootout that the Panthers survived late. 

But now? Based on how that game ended and how it was played — particularly physically — the tone might be a bit different now. Penn State doesn’t want to drop two in a row to its intrastate rival with the game’s status uncertain beyond 2019.

The Best Case Scenario Answer: Yes. Fans love this kind of stuff and rivalries are great in college football. 

6. Can a two-loss team make the Playoff?

This was the situation Penn State found itself in last season and was the first team left out. The selection committee opted to go with unbeaten Alabama and one-loss Clemson, Ohio State and Washington squads.

Never mind the fact that Penn State beat Ohio State, won the Big Ten and played some red hot ball down the stretch. If this were the criteria, cases could be made for the Nittany Lions and for the three-loss USC Trojans, who were also playing great in the final month of the season. Penn State’s additional loss was too much for voters, however, so USC surely wasn’t getting in with three.

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