The Penn State Nittany Lions may not have beaten a single winning Power 5 team this past season and the offense once may have once again fallen short of expectations -- but they still finished with their fourth straight winning season in spite of the sanctions (7-6, 4-4).
They should now be back to full strength, in terms of having 85 scholarship players, but the 2016 schedule appears far more challenging than this past season. In addition to playing the East division's top teams, Penn State will also face Pitt, Temple, Minnesota and Iowa.
So, for Penn State to earn a spot in the postseason in 2016, it'll have to answer several key questions in the offseason. Here are three of the biggest:
1. Can this offensive line finally find success?
Was this unit better in 2015? Yes. Was it good in 2015? No. Over the past two seasons, the Nittany Lions have allowed 83 sacks -- and a lot more quarterback hits -- as this has been the Achilles' heel of the entire team. And, once again in 2016, it will remain this offense's biggest question mark.
There is some cause for hope, however. Center Angelo Mangiro is the only departing starter, so this line should once again improve over the year before. But, like last season, the question remains -- by how much?
James Franklin said in the past that, ideally, offensive linemen should be ready by their third season. That means three more tackles -- Noah Beh, Chance Sorrell, Brendan Brosnan -- should be prepared to contribute more in 2016. And a handful of talented second-year players -- such as Ryan Bates, Steven Gonzalez and Sterling Jenkins -- could also challenge for playing time. Outside of keeping Andrew Nelson at tackle, there's no telling what this unit might look like in the spring. There should be a lot more competition here than previous seasons.
2. How will the offense look with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and without three-year starter Christian Hackenberg?
Former offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired shortly after Penn State's 55-16 loss to Michigan State, and Moorhead brings an entirely new philosophy to Happy Valley. His schemes have historically been more spread-based, up-tempo and simple. According to one of Moorhead's former quarterbacks, Michael Nebrich, the weekly playbook often consisted of just 15-20 pass plays and 15-20 run plays.
That being said, Moorhead's track record speaks for itself, as those simple schemes still have proved to be very effective. He turned a one-win Fordham team into an annual playoff contender in just two seasons.
His offense also works best with a dual-threat quarterback, and it just so happens that Hackenberg's replacement will almost certainly be dual-threat Trace McSorley. That should open up this offense a little bit, and it absolutely must be improved over its No. 105 total offense ranking in 2015. There's really no way to go but up.
3. Can the defensive line recover from three key departures?
Penn State loses the nation's sack leader in Carl Nassib, in addition to one of its best-ever defensive tackle duos in Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel. It's impossible to replace that kind of production.
Garrett Sickels is the lone returning starter, and he should be a solid defensive end. But the other three have been All-Big Ten players, and all three will be playing on Sundays in 2016.
On the plus side, defensive line coach Sean Spencer and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop got the second unit plenty of reps this past season. Defensive end Torrence Brown showed some flashes, and Curtis Cothran had 2.5 sacks in limited time. This could still be a solid group in 2016 -- but it'll still almost certainly be a big drop-off.