2015 season preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

Previewing the 2015 season for the Penn State Nittany Lions.

2014 record: 7-6 (2-6 Big Ten; beat Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl)

Key losses: RB Bill Belton, TE Jesse James, OL Donovan Smith, DL Deion Barnes, DL C.J. Olaniyan, LB Mike Hull, DB Adrian Amos, K Sam Ficken

Key returners: QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Akeel Lynch, WR DaeSean Hamilton, OL Andrew Nelson, OL Angelo Mangiro, DL Anthony Zettel, DL Austin Johnson, LB Nyeem Wartman-White, DB Jordan Lucas

Instant impact newcomer: Paris Palmer was a junior college prospect, and he could break the lineup early on. The Nittany Lions need help along the line, and Palmer could provide help at tackle. He won't need to take much time adjusting to the college game, so his is a name to watch in the class.

Class of '16 update: Penn State has the second-ranked class in the conference behind only Ohio State. The coaches have reeled in nine ESPN 300 commitments and still have room to add a few more. The class is headlined by five-star defensive end Shane Simmons and is currently ranked No. 6 overall in the country. The staff addressed the need for offensive linemen in the 2015 class and are now stocking the cupboards with defensive linemen in 2016. With Simmons and ESPN 300 linemen Daniel Joseph and Ellison Jordan, as well as Christian Colon and Michael Dwumfour, this class could produce plenty of future defensive starters for Penn State.

Biggest question mark: How much can this offensive line improve from last season? The line was clearly the weakest link in 2014, as PSU surrendered 44 sacks and ranked 117th nationally in rushing. And that's the big concern again this year. The good news is four starters return; the bad news is PSU's best offensive lineman, Donovan Smith, left early for the NFL. It's still hard to imagine this line will be as bad as last year's, but it needs to make a lot of strides this offseason. Tailback Akeel Lynch has the speed to bounce outside and make defenses pay, Christian Hackenberg has the arm strength to test even the nation's top defensive backs, but none of that matters if they're both getting hit right away. How much the offensive line improves this season once again will determine where this offense's ceiling is.

Most important game: At Ohio State on Oct. 17. This is an absolute no-brainer. This will be the Nittany Lions' first trip all season outside of Pennsylvania, and the Buckeyes are one of just two top-25 teams Penn State will face this regular season. Add to that the fact OSU is the reigning national champion and was nearly upset by PSU last season, and this is easily the Nittany Lions' most important game of 2015. Oct. 17 will mark their first big test, and there's a chance PSU could be undefeated heading to Columbus.

Upset special: vs. Rutgers on Sept. 19 at Beaver Stadium. Rutgers nearly pulled out the win last season, but Gary Nova's five interceptions killed any momentum. (A trademark Hackenberg comeback didn't hurt, either.) This season, Rutgers could finally edge out PSU. The Lions will be coming off a snoozer against Buffalo, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop could have a bit more trouble than usual preparing for a quarterback with virtually no film. It also won't help Penn State that Leonte Carroo will be arguably the best receiver it sees all season, and Rutgers' rushing attack should be solid. Penn State's defense will be tested here, and so will the offensive line. Darius Hamilton and Kemoko Turay could prove too much to handle for the Lions.

Key stat: 44. That's the number of sacks allowed by the Nittany Lions last season. Only two teams -- Wake Forest and SMU -- allowed more. Breaking that down further, PSU allowed 3.38 sacks per game, which still ranked No. 119 nationally.

Prediction: 9-3. Sure, Penn State must play both the Spartans and Buckeyes. But, outside of that, the schedule is extremely favorable. The Nittany Lions play Northwestern and Illinois in their crossover games, and their four nonconference opponents -- Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State, Army -- should all be big underdogs. PSU should be better than last season, and this defense once again should be one of the nation's best.