James Franklin has rebuilt Penn State football.
To the tune of back-to-back New Year's Six bowl appearances, a 20-3 record over its last 23 games, and year-end rankings of No. 7 in 2016 and No. 8 in 2017.
Now, can the Penn State head coach reload?
Four years and one day into his tenure at Penn State, Franklin has shown he can win on the playing field, in the living room, at the Beaver Stadium box office and in the Big Ten's uber-tough East division.
Now, in the face of heavy losses on both sides of the ball, can he do it again in 2018?
The national media is saying yes. And Vegas agrees.
Only Fox Sports has its doubts. Not very Fox & Friendly, huh?
BUY-IN BY THE NUMBERS
The network doesn't list the Nittany Lions in the Top 10 of its way-too-early rankings for 2018. Which is funny, because in essence, it is the parent company of the Big Ten Conference. Fox owns 51% of the Big Ten Network, and the conference itself owns 49%. (BTN must be doing alright, though, since its big boss — Mark Silverman — was just promoted to run all of Fox Sports, across all platforms.)
Here's where the national media has Penn State ranked heading into the 2018 schedule, just 232 days before the Nittany Lions' Sept. 1 season-opener against Appalachian State in Beaver Stadium:
No. 5 — Westgate, Las Vegas bookmakers (PSU is 12-1 to win it all)
No. 6 — CBS, USA Today
No. 7 — Sports Illustrated, Yahoo!
No. 11 — ESPN, Athlon
It's not a bad thing that the Fourth Estate likes Penn State as Sixth or Seventh. In fact, it's a big compliment, especially for Franklin. And the track record of the last season indicates that if form holds in 2018, so will Penn State.
But, as Joe Paterno used to say, "Publicity is like poison. It only hurts if you swallow it."
Not that 2018 will be a bitter pill to swallow for the Nittany Lions. After all, quarterback Trace McSorley is back to lead the offense and it's been pretty tough to pry points from the PSU defense, which yielded just 16.5 points per game in 2017.
But let's take a closer look:
The Nittany Lions lose 15 players who started the Fiesta Bowl, if you count kicker Tyler Davis — six on offense and eight on defense. To be Franklin with you, that's a lot.
True, the defense essentially returns two starting cornerbacks — a healthy John Reid (who missed all of 2017) and the vastly under-rated Amani Oruwariye. (He was second-team All-Big despite not starting a single game. Stunning.) Oruwariye, who had a team-high four interceptions last season, is destined for a great 2018 season...maybe even at safety.
Plus, Sean Spencer's returning D-line has lots of experience, with its emphasis on rotations, depth and versatility. Which kinda sounds like the O-line as well.
Still, overall, Penn State will be missing starting a good (or bad) amount of experience and offensive production, as the charts below show.
The charts also show that 2017 was supposed to be Penn State's year. PSU returned 359 starts, a voluminous number (the 2012 sanction-struck squad returned just 132, yet finished 8-4). The 2017 squad had nearly all of its offensive firepower back sans Chris Godwin. Also in 2017, Penn State returned all of its passing yardage and nearly all of its running yardage and carries. And it still had three-quarters of its receiving numbers back intact.
Not so for 2018.
The Nittany Lions' 2018 roster features players who have made just a combined 202 career starts. Even in his first season at Penn State, Franklin's squad entered the season with a squad that had more starting experience (216).
A big difference between that 2014 campaign and the one coming up is the Nittany Lions are fairly well-stocked at offensive line, with 82 starts back. That group includes Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates (22 career starts each), Steven Gonzalez (16), Chasz Wright (13) and Will Fries (9). Fries is The Offensive Amani — a superstar in the making.
The biggest question as to whether Franklin can reload vs. rebuild in 2018 comes up in the areas of point and yardage production.
Davis, for all his flaws in 2017, still scored 98 points for Penn State. And Saquon Barkley — we're 675 words into this story, believe it or not, before his name came up — was off the charts with 138 points. Overall, Penn State returns just 32% of its point production from 2017. It desperately needs a kicker to be good from the get-go.
Compare that to the 1994 Penn State juggernaut, which scored 564 points in 12 games. (The 2017 Nittany Lions scored 534 in 13.) Despite the loss of Collins and Ki-Jana and Brady, Penn State returned 70% of that point production in 1995.
Penn State will miss Barkley's rushing prowess, for sure. But it still returns nearly half of the carries from 2017 and over 40% of its rushing yardage. The passing game — of which Barkley was a big part, along with dearly-departed DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki — takes a much bigger hit. New offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will have less than 40% of the team's receptions and receiving yards back in 2018. Penn State's freshmen fleet of top-notch wide receivers and tight ends may need to contribute early, to augment wide receivers Juwan Johnson — primed for a 1,000-yard-plus stud year — and DeAndre Thompkins.
The passing game? It's back at full strength. McSorley is The Man and the main constant, with Tommy Stevens' return in 2018 key for the Nittany Lions' continuity and versatility.
McSorley already has 27 starts for the Nittany Lions, and he's within sight of the 40 career starts of Tony Sacca, which my research shows is the most-ever by a PSU quarterback.
If Penn State is going to reload, they are going to need more than a Trace of experience. And points. Lots of 'em. So, maybe Fox knows something.
Either way, Year 5 of the Franklin Era will be very interesting. And it's not even 24 hours old.