Months have now become weeks as the countdown to the 2012 college football season kicks off marches on. Today the countdown lands on a program that has been in the middle of more controversy than ever thought possible. For 45 seasons Nittany Lion fans have become accustomed to the same man patrolling the sideline. This will be the first year since 1965 that Joe Paterno will not be the head coach in Happy Valley. At No. 50 on the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview is the Penn State Nittany Lions.
More has transpired in past eight months than can be put into words for this forum. JoPa passed away from lung cancer in January, but not before the university became embroiled in a sexual assault controversy surrounding former coach Jerry Sandusky.
There has been much written and said regarding the news eminating from central Pennsyvania. The purpose of this article is to preview the events that will happen between the lines. In no way will the tragedy surrounding campus be forgotten or pushed aside. It is that fact that will make 2012 the most difficult season ever in University Park.
First year head coach Bill O’Brien brings NFL experience as an assisant to Bill Belichick. Whatever knowledge O’Brien attained as the offensive coordinator for the Patriots and Tom Brady, he would be wise to direct it toward Penn State.
The biggest question for the Lions is at the quarterback position. Unless someone steps up to take the reigns, the aforementioned positon will not just be a quesiton but a problem. Senior Matt McGloin, and junior Rob Bolden have been platooning under center for the past couple seasons. Another name in the mix is junior Paul Jones. None earned the starting gig in spring practices this past fall. Neither McGloin nor Bolden have established themselves at elite passers in the Big Ten.
There are plenty of holes on the offense beside quarterback but running back is not going to be one of them. Junior Silas Redd returns as the go to back in the Lions offense. Redd had five consecutive 100 yard games in 2011 and finished with 1,241 yards on the ground.
Receiver Justin Brown is back in a starting role after racking up the second most receiving yards for Penn State last year. A name to look out for will be Eugene Lewis. The freshman was a top prospect and has top shelf upside. How much playing time he will see is uncertain as O’Brien brings a more pro-style attack.
The offensive line will feature only one returning starter in center Matt Stankiewitch. Although there is plenty to replace along the line, Stankiewitch is a senior and should be one of the best at his position within the conference. His leadership ability along with his work ethic is well respected and will surely be appreciated by O’Brien’s who is also the offensive coordinator.
Ted Roof knows defense. Guiding Auburn‘s D to a national championship in 2010, Roof is a suberp hire to help bring stability to an otherwise unstable environment. As for the actual players, once again, there are a fair amount of new faces to the starting lineup. The left side of the defensive line should have a couple familiar faces. End Sean Stanley along with fellow senior Jordan Hill in the tackle position should give the Lions a solid presence at the point of attack. Hill is an athletic inside lineman finishing 2011 with 8 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks.
Linebacker is a strength for the Lions defense in 2011. Surprising right? At head of the class is senir Gerald Hodges. The returning starter is also the returning leading tackler from 2011. A first-team All Big Ten performer by coaches and ESPN, Hodges has the numbers to back the accolades. Totaling 106 tackles, 10 for a loss, and 4.5 sacks it is no mystery why Hodges is an impact player. Junior Glen Carson is the other returning starter at the linebacking position. Carson is no slouch himself finishing fourth on the Lions D for tackles in 2011.
If opposing offenses want to avoid the Penn State front seven, there is room for attack in the secondary. All the starters from last year’s secondary are gone. The Lions had the 17th best pass defense in the nation last season. Staying in the top 20 will be almost impossible. Stephon Morris is a senior corner who had limited playing time during his career but will be counted on to defend the top receivers in the conference. The rest of the unit is a patch-worked bunch short on experience.
Outside of the Big Ten, Penn State should have a solid chance at going 4-0 or 3-1 at worst. A home date with Ohio opens the season September 1st. The most dangerous non-conference draw is in week two at Virginia. Navy and Temple follow for games three and four with both being played in Beaver Stadium.
Inside the conference the Nittany Lions get big boys Ohio State and Wisconsin at home on October 27 and November 24 respectively. The Big Ten slate begins September 29 at Illinois. The Lions also travel to Iowa October 20, Purdue November 3, and Nebraska November 10. Northwestern visits Happy Valley October 6 and Indiana makes the trip November 17.
Getting enough wins to make a bowl game should be a given with the soft non-conference schedule coupled with the avoidance of both Michigan and Michigan State. Defeating the traditional power schools like Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin is unlikely. Penn State must take advantage of the weaker Big Ten schools to rise above a six win season.
Everything being equal the Lions have an uphill climb having to replace 13 starters. This is not a normal year for Penn State. The program and school have become the symbol of what is wrong with big time college sports. Fair or not, coach O’Brien is inheriting a difficult scenario. If the team can rally around themselves and focus on the next game on the schedule, there is a chance to be competitive.
Competing for a Big Ten title is unlikely. Returning to national prominence may take years if ever. Even with the various stated quandaries for Penn State, the future is more uncertain than the present.