The Official Penn State 2018 Preview and Prediction Guide
The past two years have definitively restored Penn State to the upper-echelon of college football (unless Alabama gets its own echelon). Preseason award watch list nominees, a top-ten ranking, and high expectations all carry extra pressure for the defending Fiesta Bowl champions. But there are significant losses, starting of course with RB Saquon Barkley. TE Mike Gesicki, WR DaeSean Hamiton, all but 1 starter on both the defensive line and at linebacker, along with the entire secondary, are also gone, along with significant depth at those positions.
With so much talent and leadership being replaced, this season will test the mettle of both players and coaches. The good news is that many key players return, including Heisman hopeful QB Trace McSorley, sack master DE Shareef Miller and heavy-hitter S Koa Farmer. Add to that a top-5 recruiting class, and the Lions are once again in reload (not rebuild) mode. The schedule is favorable and tough at the same time, with the conference’s top teams on the slate, but most matchups happening in the confines of raucous Happy Valley.
We were pretty close on our prediction last year. So with that, here are PSU Zone’s game-by-game predictions for Penn State’s upcoming season.
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- Game 1: vs Appalachian State Mountaineers
- Game 2: @ Pittsburgh Panthers
- Game 3: vs Kent State Golden Flashes
- Game 4: @ Illinois Fighting Illini
- Game 5: vs Ohio State Buckeyes
- Game 6: vs Michigan State Spartans
- Game 7: @ Indiana Hoosiers
- Game 8: vs Iowa Hawkeyes
- Game 9: @ Michigan Wolverines
- Game 10: vs Wisconsin Badgers
- Game 11: @ Rutgers Scarlet Knights
- Game 12: vs Maryland Terrapins
Game 1: vs Appalachian State Mountaineers
“Not too Upset”
“Not too Upset” Savvy fans will point to the 2007 shocker the Mountaineers pulled in Ann Arbor. It’s extremely unlikely that the gaffes that led to Michigan’s defeat will happen in this game, but with so many new players, the Lions may come out sluggish and have to find their way in the opener. A [relatively] surprisingly close first half will give way to Penn State pulling away late, relying on its talent, size, and depth advantages.
Official Prediction: 48 20
Game 2: @ Pittsburgh Panthers
“Superbowl in September”
Unbelievably, ESPN is giving this game the full prime-time, Fowler-Herbstreit treatment. The stadium will be more than 50% Penn State fans, with the other half being delusional enough to think they deserve to have Penn State come to Pittsburgh every other year in the Keystone Classic. The only classic thing about the game is whether Pitt wears the throwback unis or not. The argument in favor of an annual rivalry with Pitt for Penn State is tough to make, but the fans do like the game. The night atmosphere will also ramp up the energy from a typically sleepy early Saturday afternoon [half empty] Heinz field. It is Pitt’s Super Bowl (and likely only “bowl” game), and they’ll be hyped to pull the upset, despite an empty talent cupboard. It sure will be nice to see Auburn or hopefully Texas in this spot in the coming years. Pitt jumps out to an early lead, but State roars back and leaves them in the dust (48-14, anyone?)
Official Prediction: 27 14
Game 3: vs Kent State Golden Flashes
The Golden Flashes have really struggled in recent years, finishing 6th in their division in 2017. Play the game 100 times, Penn State wins ‘em all. The only drama will be whether the Lions cover, and whether Kent State scores.
Official Prediction: 37 3
Game 4: @ Illinois Fightling Illini
“Lovie Isn’t All We Need”
What could be more fun than a Friday night in Champaign? James Franklin isn’t a fan of Friday night games, for the same reason I’m not. It’s a gimmick aimed at increasing national exposure for teams that need it. Penn State does not fall into that category, though Illinois might. Lovie Smith is starting to look like a retread coach, with the team regressing every year. They went winless in an admittedly strong Big Ten a year ago, and in year 3 of his tenure it feels like this is Smith’s last chance at the U of I. Michael Robinson brought Penn State to Champaign in 2005 with the eventual conference champs, and beat an awful Illinois team 63-10. I’m not sure this year’s offense is as good as the 2005 group, but I see a similar result. Tommy Stevens plays the whole second half.
Official Prediction: 49 17
Game 5: vs Ohio State Buckeyes
“In a White[out] Room”
So many parallel storylines with this one. The recent scandal in which Urban Meyer could have (and should have) gotten fired adds an interesting twist to the game. The conference has moved it up in the season, seemingly to prevent it from ruining the chances of the loser from making the CFP; I for one think it is a great move to increase the B1G’s chances of getting a team into the playoff field. There’s no question Penn State should have won in Columbus a year ago. But, PSU saw JT Barrett play the game (or 4th quarter, at least) of his life. No shame in losing that one, despite holding two 18-point leads. OSU is annually chock full of NFL talent, and Barrett needed that game more than the Lions did. Meyer coaching his first meaningful game in an environment full of white-clad maniacs who are only too excited to express to him that Ohio State, not Penn State, is a true “football-first culture” university, who puts winning above all else. The negative press and Meyer’s exploding ego get in the Buckeyes’ way in this early-season game, and Penn State exacts revenge in the annual heavyweight fight, giving them the inside track to the division title.
Official Prediction: 20 10
Game 6: vs Michigan State Spartans
“Sweet Home[coming] State College”
If you want to point to the singular reason Penn State did not make the playoff field last year, I would point to the Michigan State game. The Collapse in Columbus was bad, but it would have been easy for the CFP committee to forgive. The Michigan State loss in 2017 was like the Pitt loss in 2016, only that MSU was much better and ranked. Mistakes and missed opportunities snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, instantly derailing Penn State’s playoff dreams. It was a weird game, with multiple long weather delays that prevented either team from finding a rhythm. The game should have either been postponed until Sunday, or stopped long enough to ensure the weather had passed. Sparty did just enough to come up with a late field goal to secure the win, knocking PSU out of the national title hunt. MSU’s cross-state rival Michigan was the last visiting team to win in Beaver Stadium, and I think the Spartans have a good chance to break that streak this year, especially since the Lions’ schedule again put this game back-to-back with Ohio State. At least this year’s slate provides a bye week in between, and both matchups are in State College. I don’t think Michigan State’s offense can put enough points up to get the win, however. Revenge for last year, coupled with laser focus, a balanced offensive attack, and the energy of a mid-October Homecoming atmosphere will deliver the Lions a victory against Michigan State.
Official Prediction: 23 16
Game 7: @ Indiana Hoosiers
“Hoosier Division Champ, Indiana?”
The Hoosiers continue spin their wheels, never quite able to reach a .500 record. A young offense and porous defense with many returning starters plague the Hoosiers again. Bloomington has been friendly to the Lions, losing only once there in its history. Penn State jumps out early and doesn’t look back.
Official Prediction: 28 10
Game 8: vs Iowa Hawkeyes
“There’s No Place Like Home”
Thank goodness this game isn’t in Iowa City (right Ohio State?). Penn State stole one last year, walking off with a win on the Hawkeyes’ home field on a great pass from McSorley to Juwan Johnson. Iowa had won 8 of 9 against the Lions before the current 4-game win streak Penn State has enjoyed, and the last time Iowa came to Beaver Stadium, they were pounded 41-14. This year’s game promises to be an immovable object vs. an unstoppable force, with Iowa preferring to slow the game down and James Franklin pushing the tempo. Since 2009, the team who reached 20 points first won, and I think the Lions execute their plan to get a lead to take Iowa out of their comfort zone. State gets a lead, and the Hawkeyes never catch up.
Official Prediction: 27 17
Game 9: @ Michigan Wolverines
“Can’t [and won’t] Hardly Wait”
What a difference a couple years make. After the Michigan game in 2016, James Franklin’s seat had gotten pretty hot. The Wolverines stomped the Lions in Ann Arbor 49-10, and Jim Harbaugh was still enjoying the honeymoon phase of his tenure, being heralded as the savior who would restore Michigan to national prominence. Fast forward to 2018, and Franklin has led the Nittany Lions to a conference title, back-to-back 11-win and top-10 seasons, while Harbaugh’s unique approach to coaching is wearing thin without the results he’s heavily paid to produce. This year is make-or-break for Michigan, and a home game against a likely top-10 team like Penn State would go long way toward returning Harbaugh to the alumni’s good graces. This year’s Michigan squad has the talent to do it. Penn State hasn’t won in Ann Arbor since 2009; in fact, they’ve only won 3 times there in the history of the series. Thinking back on the strange things that happen when you play at Michigan (Tony Johnson “out of bounds” in 2002, 2 seconds in 2005), I think Harbaugh and his band of zebras find a way to pull one out. Penn State is a different team at home vs. on the road, and Michigan’s defense does just enough to topple the Lions at home.
Official Prediction: 21 24
Game 10: vs Wisconsin Badgers
“Badgering the Defense”
Penn State won its first 9 games in 1999, before it free-fell out of the national title race. I was on campus that year, and the day of the Minnesota game people were talking about Orange and Sugar Bowl trips, and which SEC team they would rather play. Dan Nystrom and Minnesota kicked a last-second FG in Beaver Stadium to puncture the undefeated season, and Tom Brady erased a 10-point 4th quarter PSU lead to push Michigan past the home team again. A late fumble thwarted a PSU comeback the following week at Michigan State, and all of a sudden, a nightmare-ish November put the Nittany Lions in the Alamo Bowl. Wisconsin’s biggest asset is Penn State’s biggest weakness; a strong running game with pre-season All-Americans RB Jonathan Taylor and OL Beau Benschawel, David Edwards, and Michael Dieter. PSU will want to bait them into a shootout, like they did in the 2016 B1G title game. Like in 1999, though, just about the time Penn State starts thinking about the championship, Wisconsin gives them enough body blows with the run game to set up a knockout punch in the 4th.
Official Prediction: 17 28
Game 11: @ Rutgers Scarlet Knights
“What’s your vector, Victor?”
This game, like Maryland a year ago and Pitt this year, will be an away game in location only, confusing attendees into thinking they’re in Beaver Stadium. Every time Penn State travels to Rutgers, they bring with it droves of fans and alumni from the surrounding NY/NJ/Eastern PA area. Despite last year’s team seeming every bit in transition, the Knights actually doubled their win total from the year before, knocking off 3 conference opponents including Illinois by double digits on the road. In a conference [and division] where the divide between the top and bottom teams seems to be getting wider, Rutgers seems to be the most likely candidate to step up from the ranks of the underachieving this year. Problem is, they better do it by Halloween as their November schedule has road games against Wisconsin and Michigan State, and home games with the Lions and Wolverines. Early tilts against Texas State, Kansas and Buffalo should help.
Official Prediction: 38 20
Game 12: vs Maryland Terrapins
“Light My Dumpster Fire”
Last year, I thought Rutgers’ season was likely to wind up a dumpster fire. They proved me wrong, so this year I’m going with Maryland, as the Terrapins start the season mired in scandal. It’s tough tell how a season that starts in such turmoil will end for Maryland, but to be sure the school has much bigger problems than the Nittany Lions to content with this year. Penn State, meanwhile, wants to end the season strong heading into a likely postseason berth.
Official Prediction: 49 6
It is certainly reasonable to think Penn State could lose up to 3 games, based on the amount talented contributors that have graduated and/or entered the NFL and the quality teams it plays in 2018. A soft underbelly from the turnover in the defensive front 7 make them susceptible to the run, and it is important not to discount the significance of the loss of former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead to Mississippi State. But James Franklin is a winner, and he recruits and trains winners, starting with Trace McSorley. The senior QB is insensitive to pressure, most times rising to the occasion to deliver his best performances when it matters most.
Penn State will finish 10-2, capturing the B1G Eastern division for the second time in 3 years, earning a rematch with the Badgers and a chance to avenge their regular season loss. 11-1 is possible with a good performance at Michigan, but it’s hard to see them beating Wisconsin to run the table. A top-10 finish and New Year’s 6 bowl will be a nice outcome in a “rebuilding” year.
We hope you enjoyed the ‘Penn State 2018 Preview & Prediction Guide’. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment your opinions below and join our community to post your own preview and predictions for the upcoming season!
About the Author:
Eric Mayhue is a contributing author and commentator at PSU Zone. An avid sports fan, Eric can talk for hours about the Penn State Nittany Lions of past and present. When he's not cheering on the blue and white, Eric stays active in the internet marketing community and enjoys superhero movies and video games.