B1G 2013 // Penn State Cocktail Party Preview

USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to your guide to not sounding like a huge dork while discussing the upcoming Penn State football season.

Cocktail party preview time! Let's pretend that your boss is a huge Penn State supporter (we all know in reality he's a Northwestern fan) and that you need a refresher course on what the Nittany Lions are all about so that you can impress him and maybe not allow things to get totally awkward between the two of you at "fun" office social events.

In the old days, you could say something like "Wow that Penn State rushing attack is really something," or "Looks like JoePa has got the defense in top shape again, huh?" and get away with sounding like you might know something about PSU football. Not anymore! SUCCESS WITH HONOR is gone. SUCCESS DESPITE SANCTIONS is here.

We Penn State alums no longer deify Joe Paterno. That kind of worship is now reserved for Bill O'Brien and his incredible chin dimple. This is still a FOOTBALL school people. Anyone who praises PSU's top ranking Supply Chain Management and Meteorology programs has no idea what they are talking about and is probably lying to cover up FOOTBALL CULTURE. Okay, let's get to it.

About Last Season

The good news...

One year into the bowl bans, and Penn State football has not totally collapsed yet. Head coach O'Brien did a great job of lowering expectations by somehow dropping the first two games to Ohio and Virginia. That set things up for a great run of overcoming adversity and defying doubters by a Penn State team that was really good enough to go 10-2.

After the tumultuous start, the Lions won every game they were supposed to and then capped off the season with a dramatic overtime victory over the eventual conference champion Wisconsin Badgers. It was like a bowl game without the obnoxious southern people!

Along the way, the Lions got great surprise performances from Matthew McGloin (3,271 yards, 24 touchdowns, only five interceptions), Zach Zwinak (1,000 yards rushing, 4.9 yards per carry), Allen Robinson (77 catches, 1,018 yards, 11 touchdowns), and a host of tight ends who starred in O'Brien's New England-style passing chowder.

The defense was anchored by linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges as well as by defensive tackle Jordan Hill. The Lions seemed to be the same hard-nosed Linebacker U on defense in 2012, but this time they had an offense that was fun to watch for people all over the country. It was a fun time to be a Penn State fan, especially after all the... ugliness that marred the 2011 campaign (I know, that quarterback controversy was really dreadful!).

The bad news...

With three years left of no bowls and the NCAA's dreaded scholarship restrictions first starting to take hold, Penn State fans are left wondering if the success from 2012 can continue. McGloin, Mauti, and Hodges all graduated, with Mauti missing Senior Day because of yet another ACL injury.

Besides that, there's really not much to complain about after the first two weeks of the season. Plus, graduating players is technically good news according to the book "How to Not Care Too Much About Football" by Mark A. Emmert, Ph.D.

Actual bad news: Penn State blew a lead on the road against Nebraska in a game that would have been really nice to have but obviously had no impact on the team's postseason prospects.

Sort of bad news: Kicker Sam Ficken was dreadful in the early going and pretty much lost the Virginia game by himself, but he improved as the season went on and looks like he can be an asset going forward.

On the Offensive Side of the Ball

The good news...

There is sufficient depth at every position except for quarterback, which is a fact that will make this unit extremely dangerous if true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg is as good as advertised. Robinson and Brandon Moseby-Felder bring experience to the wide receiver corps, while redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis could have a major impact if O'Brien is convinced to take some tight ends off the field.

That could be a tough argument to make considering that Kyle Carter, Jesse James, and Matt Lehman all return to the coach's favorite position. Carter in particular is exciting because of his breakout 2012 season in which he caught 36 passes for 453 yards as a redshirt freshman. And that was with three games missed due to injury! Penn State fans are hoping that Carter sticks around for at least one more season because him and uber-freshman Adam Breneman could eventually become the Big Ten's version of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. You know, without all those alleged injury and murder issues.

The offensive line is anchored by tackle Donovan Smith and guard John Urschel. As a redshirt sophomore, Smith is the youngest member of a front that includes three grad students. On of those geezers is Urschel, who Penn State pretends is a math genius in a PR scheme that is obviously a cover-up of FOOTBALL CULTURE.

The bad news...

With McGloin having graduated and taken his talents to the Oakland Raiders, Penn State is left with two realistic options at quarterback: Hackenberg and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson. Neither guy was on the roster last season, so all we really have to judge them by are a spring game (Ferguson) and a high school all-star game (Hackenberg). I really didn't see enough of either guy to grade them right now, but I can tell you that I would feel a lot better if last year's backup Steven Bench had decided to stick around. He didn't, and now PSU is has one of the greenest quarterback groups in the country.

The running backs could also use some work. Last year's starter Bill Belton was supposed to be an all-purpose threat, but he got hurt in the opener and then never really got his season going, save for one magical game at Iowa. Zwinak appeared from nowhere to become a reliable threat on the ground, but he wasn't as big a factor in the passing game as he could have been. The hope this season is that Zwinak can combine with a healthy Belton to terrorize opposing defenses even when the new quarterback isn't playing that well. If that doesn't happen, we could see a lot of redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch, who was sat out last season despite some injury issues in the backfield.

On the Defensive Side of the Ball

The good news...

The depth problems that will reportedly plague Penn State for the next five or so years start to become apparent on the defensive side of the ball. Oh wait... You wanted the good news first? Deion Barnes is back, and he was a terror for opposing offensive lines to deal with in his redshirt freshman season. He had six sacks last season and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The Lions will be depending on him to anchor a line that lost defensive tackle Jordan Hill to graduation in the spring.

The major strong suit of the PSU defense is (duh) the linebackers. More glamorous than the quarterback position at Penn State is that of middle linebacker, where Paul Posluzny, Dan Connor, and Sean Lee have played in recent years. Glenn Carson occupies the spot this season, and while he hasn't shown the type of playmaking ability so far that made the linebackers before him solid NFL draft picks, he at least is experienced and solid against the run.

More exciting than Carson is Mike Hull, who came off the bench last season to make a lot of plays in the backfield, especially on passing downs. Think of him as the Navarro Bowman of this linebacking corps. He's secretly a lot better than Carson, so look for him to really come into his own now that he's secured a full-time role.

The bad news...

I already told you about how Penn State is a little soft in the middle of the defensive line, but the depth problems there pale in comparison to those in the secondary. At least up front the Lions have a guy like DaQuan Jones who has lots of playing experience and could breakout as a senior. At cornerback, one of State's projected starters was playing wide receiver last season! That would be Trevor Williams, who along with fellow sophomore Jordan Lucas, has leap-frogged Da'Quan Davis on the depth chart.

Yes, like DaQuan Jones, but with an apostrophe this time. Stick with me here. Davis was the first corner off the bench last season, and you'd figure he'd be in line for a starting spot after Stephon Morris graduated and Adrian Amos was switched to safety. That turned out not to be the case, and it's pretty safe to say that the coaching staff is not very confident in Davis.

Based on the depth at both positions, I'd say that the first defensive back off the bench will be a safety. Look for Amos, who was solid at corner last season, to move down to his old position in nickel situations and be replaced by Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a graduate student who started at safety last season.

I don't know why Amos was moved to safety when PSU already has the experienced Obeng-Agyapong and another fifth-year player Malcolm Willis at the position. There's a lot of faith being put in some inexperienced cornerbacks, but I'm guessing we'll learn more about the situation once practice starts up again.

On the Special Teams

The good news...

Kicker Sam Ficken was much less terrible at the end of the season than he was at the beginning of the season. He actually made his last 10 kicks of the year, including the game-winner against Wisconsin, but uh... they were not very long kicks. On the season, Ficken was 0-for-4 when asked to kick from 40 yards away or deeper. The good news -- besides Ficken's increased reliability from short range -- is that O'Brien loves to go for it on fourth down from pretty much anywhere within 20 yards of the opponent's 30-yard line. He just doesn't care for "the book," which is pretty awesome.

The bad news...

As if Ficken having no range last season wasn't enough bad news, the punter Alex Butterworth (yes, like the syrup lady) was maddeningly inconsistent in 2012. He had a long punt of 58 yards but only averaged 37.4 yards per attempt. Of course, with the scholarship restrictions in place, there's no point for Penn State to hold an extra punter or kicker on the roster so for the time being they are... wait for it...

Stickin' with Ficken (and Buttersworth)! But seriously, if these guys don't improve look for O'Brien to go for it on every fourth down with less than 20 yards to go.

On the Schedule

The good news...

The road game in Columbus appears to be the only utterly unwinnable match on the slate, but I would also be pretty shocked if the Lions managed to beat Michigan at home. That said, there's still plenty to look forward to, including the opener at Beaver Stadium East (ie: MetLife Stadium) and a home game against Nebraska on Senior Day that should have the State College faithful all jacked up.

The bad news...

The Big Ten opener at Indiana could serve as a major letdown considering that the Lions will be fresh off of three home games in a row versus mid-majors. It's not like Kent State and UCF are total cupcakes, but I'm not sure if either of those teams will prepare PSU for the havoc that Indiana could wreak on the secondary. It would be nice for Penn State to be 5-0 heading into the Michigan game (will ESPN come to Happy Valley despite the sanctions?), but there are a lot of potential pitfalls in the early going.

If you're talking to a Penn State fan, don't mention:

He-who-must-not-be-named, how the NCAA is a like a cheer squad, how great a fit for the _______ (insert struggling NFL team) job O'Brien would be, that time that Nixon picked Texas, Shonn Greene, Adrian Clayborn

Do mention:

Grilled stickies, how the ice cream from the PSU creamery is the best of all time, that great time you had at THON, that great time you had at the Skellar, THON again, the Crispin brothers, Tamba Hali sacking Troy Smith, Vinny Testaverde, Blackledge to Garrity.

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