There are many issues with this Penn State team. Entering Big Ten play, we're really not able to get a good feel for how the team will develop as the weeks go by. Some seasons, Penn State looks like a different squad by the time November rolls around. Sometimes it's a good monster, other times a bad one. I went with the title for this post because of two things: 1) the Big Ten is a terrible conference this year, with little out there that has really impressed anyone; and 2) Penn State's season so far has been anything but thrilling.
Enough of me (for now). Let's get on with this. Our staff got together this week, part of the informal season-so-far review I did yesterday, to pick Penn State's record going forward, specifically in the Big Ten. Most of the answers are similar, but for very different reasons. And just like the team, I'm not sure you'll feel necessarily better (or worse) than you did before seeing it. Enjoy, and be sure to give us your predictions in the comments thread!
Adam: Big Ten season begins and I'm still very uncomfortable with this team. I felt great about the defense until Mike Mauti's injury this past weekend. That could be a devastating blow to any team, but our depth at linebacker is so good that we can handle even that kind of loss. I think Stupar will play exceptionally well. On the other hand, the offense has been . . . inconsistent, to put it mildly. I'm concerned about our ability to score regardless of the quarterback we pick. Still, I think we can run with almost anyone in the Big Ten at this point, excepting Wisconsin and maybe Nebraska. At this point, I think we're looking at 5-3 in conference. I expect losses to both the Badgers and 'Huskers, as well as one more unusual loss. I feel good about Ohio State (our mirror image), but think we could get tripped up by Northwestern or Illinois.
Tim: This season has shades of 2004, except the offense has enough talent on it to avoid 6-4 Iowa style embarrassments. Speaking of which: I'll believe this team with its grossly inconsistent offense will beat Iowa when I see it on the field of play. Unless the offensive line magically figures out how to block, the coaching staff gets its shit together from a game management perspective (i.e. not taking 35 seconds to figure out what play to call next), and either Bolden or McGloin can do well against a defense with a pulse, I have a hard time seeing this team seriously competing for the Leaders Division title. Oddly enough though, I think Nebraska and not Ohio State is the most winnable game in that November gauntlet, the Huskers have a rather one-dimensional offense and their Blackshirts are having a bit of a down year. Plus, Taylor Martinez is going to get banged up like Denard Robinson did last year in Big Ten play if Bo Pelini continues to allow him to run 10-15 times a game. But I digress: PSU goes 5-3 in conference play and earns itself a second straight trip to the Outback Bowl.
Kyle: I think Penn State will be just fine in Big Ten play. Their defense is awesome and is going to keep them in a lot of games. As the season goes on, the offensive line should start to gel and will hopefully give Silas Redd some more running lanes and the quarterbacks more time to pass. I'm not sure we'll compete for the division title, but with Ohio State struggling on offense and Wisconsin with a suspect defense... it could be a fun season. Realistically though, I think Penn State will win 4-5 games in conference play and play in another New Years Day bowl game.
Peter: I'm extremely concerned about this team as it enters conference play. However, what may end up saving Penn State is that the rest of the Big Ten has just as many problems. Record-wise, I think they'll end up 4-4, with losses coming to Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The defense will keep them in a lot of games, but I'm not confident that the offense will be able to score when they really need to. I hope I'm wrong.
Mike: Penn State should finish around 5-3. Everyone is freaking out about Iowa in two weeks, but I'm not. You know why? 2007. If a team with as many issues as the '07 Nittany Lions could beat Iowa, the 2011 edition of this game should have every chance to turn out the same as it did four years ago. I'm also cautiously optimistic about Penn State leaving Columbus with another win. But that all depends on how Braxton Miller comes along. So that leaves Nebraska as a possible loss, and Wisconsin as a likely loss. Where does that third loss come in? Northwestern jumped on Penn State early last year, and kept things close the year before, but just can't beat the Nittany Lions. This year, Penn State is better, Northwestern isn't. That's not to say the Cats won't spook us all for a while. Purdue is, well, Purdue.
That leaves us with Illinois. I've been saying it since the summer. The Illini were a team to watch out for this year, and I'm being proven correct. Hosting Illinois at home is the only hope to offset this matchup in favor of Penn State. I know many of the comments will blast me for this, but Illinois scares the living crap out of me. It likely won't be close to the blowout it was last year, but another loss at home to the Orange and Blue shouldn't come as shocking to anyone. If Penn State beats Iowa and Illinois, 10-2 is very likely to finish out the season. A loss to Iowa means 6-6 or 7-5. A loss to Illinois puts them right on track to finish around that 8-4 zone. I'm hoping for Door No. 1.
Jeff: Like many others, I have mixed emotions as Penn State turns to conference play. The key components are there for a deep run in the Big Ten. Derek Moye and Justin Brown are starting to heat up, Silas Redd is one of the best backs in the conference, and even with the injuries to Mike Mauti and D'Anton Lynn, our defense is still top notch. The question marks, however, exist at the two most important positions - quarterback and offensive line. During their conference calls this week, both quarterbacks said that while they would prefer a one-QB system, playing with two isn't necessarily a bad thing and that the team is coming around to the idea. I'm not sure how much I buy that, but if they can settle into a rhythm and play like they did against Eastern Michigan, we just might be OK under center. On the line, the run blocking has to improve to allow Silas Redd to do his thing. There are some stout defenses in the Big Ten, and our guys can't afford to be pushed around and knocked over with a conference title on the line.
Luckily, the schedule opens up nicely for us. Of the eight conference games, the first five are all pretty winnable. After those five, PSU gets a bye week before heading into a brutal stretch to end the season, with games at home against Nebraska followed by trips to Columbus and Madison. There is no reason to think the team won't be 8-1 when the Huskers come to town, and I think they can win at least one of those final three games. My prediction is 9-3, but I could see anything between 6-6 and 11-1, depending on my mood that day.