Penn State football preview: Nittany Lions 2017 schedule, roster and three things to watch

Penn State is back in the national spotlight, and it will be intriguing to see how they handle that attention in 2017.

Penn State is back in the national spotlight, and it will be intriguing to see how they handle that hype after an outstanding 2016 season.

James Franklin led the Nittany Lions to an improbable Big Ten championship in 2016 on the strength of a nine-game win streak. Penn State beat Ohio State 24-21 but had to settle for a Rose Bowl berth, where it lost a 52-49 thriller to USC. Penn State finished 11-3 in 2016.

MORE: Penn State gets jump on 2018 recruiting class

Now the expectations are high in Happy Valley heading into Franklin's fourth year. Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley are both Heisman candidates, and tight end Mike Gesicki stayed in school. It’s a similar formula to 1994, a year in which Penn State finished No. 2 but was denied the national championship. There's a playoff system now, and the Nittany Lions will have their chance if they handle that hype.

The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 7 in Sporting News' Way-Too-Early Top 25, and here's a preview of Penn State’s 2017 schedule, roster and biggest questions entering the season.

When is Penn State's spring game?

Penn State's spring game is scheduled for 3 p.m. on April 22 at Beaver Stadium in University Park. Pa.

Where will Penn State’s spring game be televised?

Penn State’s spring game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

2017 Penn State football schedule

Sept. 2: vs. Akron

Sept. 9: vs. Pittsburgh

Sept. 16: vs. Georgia State

Sept. 23: at Iowa

Sept. 30: vs. Indiana

Oct. 7: at Northwestern

Oct. 14: BYE

Oct. 21: vs. Michigan

Oct. 28: at Ohio State

Nov. 4: at Michigan State

Nov. 11: vs. Rutgers

Nov. 18: vs. Nebraska

Nov. 25: at Maryland

Dec. 2: Big Ten championship game

2017 Penn State recruiting class

Penn State had a composite ranking of No. 14 across four major recruiting sites. Cornerback Lamont Wade, an early enrollee, is the star player in that class. The Nittany Lions also are off to a fast start in the 2018 class.

2017 Penn State roster

Penn State's roster will be updated throughout the spring and fall here.

Three things to watch

1. How does Franklin keep momentum?

Franklin was Sporting News' choice for Coach of the Year last season, and with good reason. The remarkable turnaround last season helped a program come out of the shadow of NCAA sanctions resulting from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Nittany Lions were the "hot"team at the end of 2016. Now, they’ll be picked my many to repeat as Big Ten champions. That ’94 Penn State team entered the season ranked No. 9 and handled expectations.

2. How will Heisman contenders handle hype?

Penn State might be the only team in the FBS with two legit Heisman contenders. McSorley emerged as a star with 3,614 passing yards, 29 TDs and eight interceptions while adding seven rushing TDs. Barkley, meanwhile, totaled 1,496 yards and 18 TDs and looks like the best returning running back in the country. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead also was a hit in his first season. The Nittany Lions averaged 37.6 points per game, and he has the two biggest pieces back. The biggest losses on that side are center Brian Gaia and receiver Chris Godwin, who had 59 catches for 982 yards and 11 TDs. Saeed Blacknall, Daesean Hamilton, DeAndre Thompkins will be in the mix for those targets. Blacknall could be that home-run hitter the offense needsin 2017.

3. Where will the 'D'improve?

Penn State still gave up too many points last season, and a rash of injuries at linebacker early in the season played a role in that. The secondary —led by safety Marcus Allen —will be a team strength. Cornerbacks Grant Haley and John Reid also return. Finding a more consistent pass rush will be a key after Garrett Sickels left early for the NFL Draft. Defensive tackle Kenny Givens is the top returner in sacks with 5.0. Remember, Penn State allowed 47.7 points per game in the losses to Pitt, Michigan and USC. The Panthers and Wolverines, however, have to come to Happy Valley this year. That should help.

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