Penn State is still dealing with NCAA sanctions, but the program appears to be on stable ground with second-year coach Bill O’Brien. The Nittany Lions rebounded from an 0-2 start to finish 8-4 last season, which included a win over Wisconsin in overtime and a 39-28 victory over Northwestern. A big part of Penn State’s eight-win season was the transformation of quarterback Matt McGloin into one of the Big Ten’s top passers, along with the leadership provided from defenders Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill.
Even though McGloin, Hodges, Mauti and Hill are gone, the Nittany Lions still have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. The offense needs to find a quarterback, which doesn’t figure to be an impossible task considering O’Brien’s work in the NFL and with McGloin in 2012. The defense has a new coordinator and must replace the heart and soul of the unit from last year.
With a bowl ban in place for 2013, Penn State is once again ineligible to compete for the postseason. However, O’Brien should have this team back in the mix for eight or more victories this year.
What will Penn State's record at the end of the 2013 regular season? Athlon’s panel of experts debates:
Penn State's 2013 Game-by-Game Predictions
8/31 Syracuse (East Rutherford)
9/7 Eastern Michigan
9/21 Kent State
10/5 at Indiana
10/26 at Ohio State
11/9 at Minnesota
11/30 at Wisconsin
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Whether it’s Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson starting at quarterback, Penn State should be just fine on offense. There’s plenty of talent at the skill positions, and the offensive line is solid with the return of left tackle Donovan Smith and guard John Urschel. My biggest question mark for the Nittany Lions is a defense that loses linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, along with tackle Jordan Hill. Replacing the leadership and production those players provided won’t be easy. There’s also a new coordinator (John Butler), but Penn State doesn’t plan on drastically changing the scheme. The schedule certainly isn’t easy for the Nittany Lions, especially with crossover games against Michigan and Nebraska. Road trips against division foes Ohio State and Wisconsin are likely losses as well. I know it’s a longshot, but I have Penn State losing to Indiana. Maybe the Nittany Lions don’t lose to the Hoosiers, but I feel this is a 8-4 team.
Brent Yarina, Big Ten Network, (@BTNBrentYarina)
We don’t know what Penn State has under center, we don’t know if Zach Zwinak is a true No. 1 back, we don’t know how the Penn State defense will perform without now-NFL linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, so I’m thinking 7-5 is a fair prediction. The schedule doesn’t help, either, featuring arguably the Big Ten’s top four teams (Michigan; at Ohio State; Nebraska; at Wisconsin) and one of the conference’s tougher nonconference slates. But, I will say this: it’s hard not to believe in Bill O’Brien and staff, who the players never quit on after last year’s 0-2 start and who turned Matt McGloin, a much-maligned and unsuccessful quarterback, and Allen Robinson, an unknown receiver, into the Big Ten’s premier pass-catch duo.
Penn State appears to have plenty of potential at quarterback, but it could get off to a rough start regardless of who is under center to start the season, be it JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson or blue chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg. I believe the defense will be solid enough to win most of their games and keep some others within reach, but despite having a strong running game and dependable tight ends, until we know just how quickly Hackenberg and/or Ferguson get adjusted to this level of play I think it is fair to have some legitimate concerns about Penn State's offense.
The non-conference schedule is not the easiest. For now, I have Syracuse winning the week one match-up and Central Florida sneaking out of State College with a win. Penn State could just as easily be 4-0 or 3-1 heading in to conference play but I'll take a cautious approach and call for a split. The Big Ten schedule includes three games I think for now are most likely losses. Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska are all losses to keep in line with my previous picks, and I think playing at Wisconsin in the final game of the season could be a loss right now. All in all, six wins avoids a losing record, which I think is a solid victory for Bill O'Brien right now. O'Brien still has Penn State heading in a positive direction overall, which may not be indicative just by watching the win total at the end of the season.
Give credit to Bill O'Brien and his coaching staff for what they were able to accomplish while dealing with so much adversity last season. This fall the task will be to maintain the momentum despite having to start over at quarterback and fill some sizable holes on defense. Getting Michigan and Nebraska in Big Ten crossover play only adds to the degree of difficulty, but I am a believer in O'Brien. It also helps that the returning offensive players, starting with Big Ten Receiver of the Year Allen Robinson, have had a full season to adapt to the new system, which should only help the new quarterback. It may not be as special as last season's run, but look for the Nittany Lions to match 2012's win total, despite the ongoing bowl ban.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Bill O'Brien has some big holes to fill on defense, in particular in the leadership department. The linebacking corps and defensive line will be the key to success for the Lions this fall. However, the offense returns largely intact and is ready for the arrival of Christian Hackenberg. The non-conference schedule is very manageable and should provide four victories. Division play also offers plenty of wins as well, but crossover play will be nasty with Michigan and Nebraska coming to town. However, is Penn State pulls one upset in a game in which it isn't favored, it could easily get to nine wins. The Lions will win the ones they are supposed to and lose the ones they are supposed to.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Penn State is going to be tough to pick. Christian Hackenberg is the future, but he’s operating without a net. Bill O’Brien worked miracles with Matt McGloin, but McGloin was still a senior with starting experience. I’m looking toward those early games against UCF and Indiana — two teams with quality offenses — to be key indicators of how Penn State will do on defense. The Nittany Lions lost some good seniors. I’ve picked Penn State to win both, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions split those games. My eye-popping picks are probably a loss to Minnesota on the road and a win over Nebraska at home. More than anything, I think those possibilities illustrate what kind of up-and-down season this could be for a program with a freshman quarterback, limited depth and no hope for a postseason.
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