PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS
2012 record: 8-4 (6-2 Big Ten)
Returning offensive starters (8): RB Zach Zwinak, WR Allen Robinson, WR Brandon Moseby-Felder, TE Kyle Carter, TE Jesse James, T Donovan Smith, G Miles Dieffenbach, G John Urschel
Projected starting offense: QB Christian Hackenberg, fr., 6-3, 218 or Tyler Ferguson, so., 6-3, 213; RB Zack Zwinak, jr., 6-1, 240; TE Kyle Carter, so., 6-3, 244; TE Jesse James, so., 6-7, 250; WR Allen Robinson, jr., 6-3, 211; WR Brandon Moseby-Felder, sr., 6-2, 199; T Donovan Smith, so., 6-5, 327; T Adam Gress, sr., 6-6, 311; G Miles Dieffenbach, jr., 6-3, 297; G John Urschel, sr., 6-3, 307; C Ty Howle, sr., 6-0, 292
Returning defensive starters (6): LB Glenn Carson, DT DaQuan Jones, DE Deion Barnes, S Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, S Malcolm Willis, DB Adrian Amos
Projected starting defense: DE Deion Barnes, so., 6-4, 250; DE C.J. Olaniyan, jr., 6-3, 251; DT DaQuan Jones, sr., 6-3, 318; DT Kyle Baublitz, jr., 6-5, 286; MLB Glenn Carson, sr., 6-3, 240; LB Mike Hull, jr., 6-0, 226; LB Nyeem Wartman, fr., 6-1, 240; CB Jordan Lucas, so., 6-0, 192; CB Trevor Williams, so., 6-1, 190; S Malcolm Willis, sr., 5-11, 213; S Adrian Amos, jr., 6-0, 211
Return specialists: (2): K Sam Ficken, jr., 6-2, 183; P Alex Butterworth, sr., 5-10, 206
Key losses: LB Michael Mauti, LB Gerald Hodges, CB Stephon Morris, DT Jordan Hill, DE Sean Stanley, QB Matt McGloin, C Matt Stankiewitch
Key additions: QB Christian Hackenberg, 6-3, 218; TE Adam Breneman, 6-4, 230; DE Garrett Sickels, 6-4, 238; OL Brendan Mahon, 6-4, 315; LB Andrew Nelson, 6-5, 295
2012 review: No team in the last 40 years had to face the adversity that gripped Penn State, and perhaps no team ever responded with greater character, either. Penn State faced debilitating NCAA sanctions that allowed its players to transfer and become immediately eligible, a four-year bowl ban and severe scholarship cuts after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. USC (Silas Redd), Texas (kicker Anthony Fera) and other schools swiped a total of 10 players from the program by early camp. Then Penn State solidified under new coach Bill O'Brien.
Penn State's kicking woes cost the team a week two game against Virginia, but the offense gelled under O'Brien's tutelage. The Nittany Lions posted double-digit wins in their next five games, including a 38-14 whipping over favored Iowa. Penn State lost just two Big Ten contests, and finished the season with a 24-21 overtime victory against Big Ten champion Wisconsin.
From the scandal to O'Brien replacing legendary figure Joe Paterno, the whole season was gripped with emotion. The finale concluded with the team hoisted upon the school's ring of honor, and O'Brien later was named the Big Ten and national coach of the year. The Nittany Lions were not allowed to compete in a bowl game.
2013 schedule: A31 Syracuse (MetLife Stadium); S7 Eastern Michigan; S14 Central Florida; S21 Kent State; O5 at Indiana; O12 Michigan; O26 at Ohio State; N2 Illinois; N9 at Minnesota; N16 Purdue; N23 Nebraska; N30 at Wisconsin
Key stretch: Penn State's league schedule is fairly balanced between the contenders and also-rans, but back-to-back October games against Michigan and Ohio State will define the season. The Nittany Lions have a shot at a 5-0 start before hosting Michigan on Oct. 12 for homecoming. Penn State has won the last three in the series but had lost the previous nine. Two weeks later Penn State travels to Ohio State, which could be ranked No. 1. Wins in either games could keep Penn State among the league powers.
Trap game: Indiana. NCAA sanctions could catch up with Penn State this season, particular in the Big Ten opener at Indiana. While the Hoosiers hardly are a football powerhouse, they boast a quick-strike, pass-first attack capable of testing depth and putting good defenses on their heels. Plus, Memorial Stadium and its sparse crowd sometimes lulls decent teams to sleep. With a pair of games against Michigan and Ohio State immediately following the trip to Bloomington, it might be easy for Penn State's players to look past Indiana. It could be a huge mistake.
Glass half-full: Penn State avoids depth-stripping injuries and starts 4-0 in non-conference play. True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg develops quickly into Bill O'Brien's pro-style offense and provides a seamless transition from last year's gem, Matt McGloin. Pass catchers Allen Robinson and Kyle Carter elevate their play from all-conference to elite levels. The one-two running back tandem of Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton stays effective. The depleted defense takes strides and keep Penn State in games all season long.
Penn State wins the games it should, finishes with at least eight wins and excites fans that the program might actually weather the NCAA sanctions with little drop-off.
Glass half-empty: Penn State struggles to replace defensive leaders Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill, and stopping the run becomes almost impossible. The quarterback position becomes a shuffle with true freshman Christian Hackenberg and sophomore Tyler Ferguson trading snaps and games. Injuries mount up and the lack of depth capsizes play along the line of scrimmage. Penn State loses Big Ten games to teams it normally beats -- like Indiana and Minnesota -- and last year's proud, feel-good story fades into reality.
It's possible the Nittany Lions could equal last year's win total but the scholarship losses and depth reductions will hurt this year and into the future.
The Iowa angle: With little history between the programs, Iowa and Penn State developed into a classic on-field rivalry since the Nittany Lions' Big Ten entry in 1993. Iowa owns a 9-7 record over the last 20 years and won eight of nine from 2000 through 2010. Two of Iowa's wins were in overtime and a 6-4 Iowa victory in 2004 defied all offensive logic.
Iowa's 2008 last-second win kept No. 3 Penn State from an unbeaten season. The No. 5-ranked Nittany Lions expected payback in 2009, but Iowa mercilessly pounded Penn State to a 21-10 win. The Nittany Lions rebounded in 2011, shutting down Iowa 16-3 before exploding past the Hawkeyes 38-14 at Kinnick Stadium last year.
The teams won't meet until at least 2016, but it's expected for the programs to get a healthy dose of one another. The Big Ten adopts a nine-game league schedule that year, and it will implement parity-based scheduling where the league's top teams battle each other more often. Iowa and Penn State were among the league's six-best historical programs, so expect the series to continue somewhat regularly.
Quotable: “ I definitely agree with the coaches, they said they wanted to redshirt, give me the extra year, and when I look back on it, being able to be on the scout team, going against guys like Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti day in and day out, I appreciated them so much for doing that for me.” — Penn State running back Akeel Lynch, a former Iowa target competing for time with Zwinak and Belton