Penn State is back! At least that's what fans of the blue and white hope to be saying in a few years. After the NCAA sanctions have passed and James Franklin has a couple more recruiting classes under its belt, there's a good chance that Penn State football will be in its best shape sine the late-2000s, when the program won two Big Ten titles and a Capital One Bowl in a span of five years.
For now, though, there is uncertainly. A young receiving corps and lack of depth on the offensive line and defensive front seven could force Penn State fans to endure another middling campaign before things start to get really fun again.
I. Case History and Opening Statement
A. Case History
The 2013 season was a roller coaster ride in more ways than one. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg went from looking like a deer in the headlights in performances against Kent State and Ohio State to a cold-blooded assassin in wins over Michigan and Wisconsin. Similarly, the defense went from being torched by Central Florida, Ohio State, and Indiana to performing like a stout unit against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
When Hackenberg was brilliant, a big part of it was Allen Robinson, the junior wide receiver who was capable of turning a two-yard bubble screen into a 50-yard touchdown pass. Hackenberg will also be without offensive mastermind Bill O'Brien this season. The head coach was able to take full advantage of his quarterback's pro-style talents and make up for shortcomings on other parts of the team. Will Hackenberg's continuing development be able to overcome the potential hiccups involved in switching from O'Brien to new head coach James Franklin?
B. Opening Statement
Ladies and gentlemen of the Big Ten jury, I present to you the 2014 Penn State Nittany Lions. Yes, the offensive line returns tackle Donovan Smith along with a bunch of players with zero career starts. No, we aren't certain who will take the place of Robinson as Hackenberg's top target. Sure, the defense wasn't exactly up to "Linebacker U" standards in 2013. But there is plenty of be excited about in Happy Valley, even if you're not going to stop by the creamery on your way to Beaver Stadium (big mistake).
For starters, there should be at least two upperclassmen on the offensive line when the season starts. Probable starters at center, Angelo Mangiro is a junior who have plenty of experience in the program already. Three other spots on the line will likely be taken by underclassmen, but you could argue that experience at center and left tackle is what's most important to a stable offensive line.
Line inexperience will also be offset by what could be the best backfield in the conference. Zach Zwinak has shown that he knows how to grind out yards no matter who is blocking, Bill Belton is a great third-down asset with his ability to catch the ball, and Akeel Lynch has explosiveness that hasn't been fully utilized yet.
Wide receiver Geno Lewis only caught 18 passes last year, but he showed big-time playmaking ability with two touchdowns in the season-ending upset of Wisconsin. Even if Lewis isn't the heir apparent to Robinson, tight end Jesse James is a huge target with soft hands who could go from being a role player to a major factor in Penn State's offense. Even with Adam Breneman likely lost for the season due to injury, there are plenty of tight ends to go around. Kyle Carter looked like a future stud when he was catching passes from Matt McGloin two seasons ago, but he was hampered by injuries in 2013. Look for Carter to be productive again in Hackenberg's sophomore season.
The third major issue for the Lions heading in 2014 is the defense, and it should be improved with experience. The unit was embarrassed at times last season, but it showed great strides in the last two games of the season against Nebraska and Wisconsin
Still, the Nittany Lion defense is not championship-caliber because it lacks star power. Maybe one of the returning ends can turn into a premier pass rusher, but C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes haven't shown that kind of potential yet. The strength of the defense will likely lie in the back seven, where linebacker Mike Hull and safety Adrian Amos headline a pass defense that did a lot of growing up in 2013.
Until Franklin's highly-touted recruits start to make an impact in the coming seasons, this is still a Penn State team that has too many weaknesses to win an East Division that is loaded with talent (even after the sad Braxton Miller news). That said, a quarterback with as much upside as Hackenberg can hide a lot of warts. I wrote more on him in the Cocktail Party Preview, so hit that link below if you want even more Penn State analysis.
A. What OTE wrote about Penn State this offseason
Penn State Cocktail Party Preview
Penn State's Smartest Guys in the Room
Penn State Potluck Part 1
Penn State Potluck Part 2
State College Bar Tour!
Why we hate TTFP!
B. What we can learn from pop culture
It sure stinks that Penn State is ineligible for the postseason again, but only getting to watch your college football team play 12 games a year is a first world problem...
C. Timeline of events
The schedule is pretty friendly for Penn State in 2014. The Lions don't have to travel to Wisconsin or Minnesota like they did last season, and Illinois is back on the slate despite a division switch. Ohio State and Michigan State are both at home, but is Penn State good enough right now to take advantage?
August 30: vs. Central Florida (at Ireland)
September 6: vs. Akron
September 13: at Rutgers
September 20: vs. Massachusetts
September 27: vs. Northwestern
October 11: at Michigan
October 25: vs. Ohio State
November 1: vs. Maryland
November 8: at Indiana
November 15: vs. Temple
November 22: at Illinois
November 29: vs. Michigan State
III. Emotional Plea
If you hate the NCAA as much as most freedom-loving Americans, Penn State has a chance to stick it to the man this season by winning a division title at a time when most pundits thought State College would be a smoking crater in the ground.
On the other hand, if you believe in conference loyalty, Penn State winning the East would probably be a bad thing. That would mean taking Michigan State and Ohio State out of the playoff hunt, which in turn wouldn't do much to demote the notion that the Big Ten is among weakest of the five power conferences.
So, there you have it. There's a choice. I'm not going to beg and plead you to feel bad for this program that is just six year removed from the Rose Bowl and could be there again in a few years. Penn State is lucky to have the tradition and fan base in place before the NCAA struck to survive the sanctions as well as a coaching change. If you want to get your shots in at Penn State, get them in now, or wait a few years and risk the program actually being #Unrivaled.
IV. The Verdict
I'm surprised so many pegged Penn State has having the same record as it had last season, when the team had a freshman quarterback, was ambushed by an excellent Central Florida team, and had to travel to Columbus and well as Madison. Maybe I'm optimistic, though.
Not as optimistic as Graham and Mike, though, who are all board the Franklin bandwagon and ready for a very happy season in Happy Valley.
|Aaron Yorke||9-3 (5-3)|
|Aaron Rench||5-7 (1-7)|
|Green Akers||9-3 (5-3)|
|Brian Gillis||8-4 (5-3)|
|Ray Ransom||6-6 (2-6)|
|DJ Carver||7-5 (4-4)|
|MC ClapYoHandz||7-5 (4-4)|
|Candystripes for Breakfast||7-5 (3-5)|
|Eric Schulman||7-5 (4-4)|
|Graham Filler||11-1 (7-1)|
|Jesse Collins||9-3 (5-3)|
|Mike Jones||10-2 (6-2)|
|OTE Average||7.9-4.1 (4.3-3.8)|