The early part of the schedule shapes up very well for a team with big questions at key spots. I don't think anyone would be that surprised if PSU enters the Michigan game at 5-0. But the season's final 6 games are a gauntlet. Michigan is beatable, but I have hard time marking that down as a 'W' at this point. Ohio State is just simply better at this point, and Sparty may be the best team in the league again. Those are 3 likely losses right there. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a young team without much depth drops another late season game that seems like a win going into the year.
The schedule's a gift. UCF, Akron, UMass, and Temple in the non-con; jNW and Illinois for our cross-division games; plus BTPR, The Marygers, and Indiana. I've seen more difficult schedules. Under normal circumstances PSU starts the year with 9 wins practically in the bank. But we're years removed from normal. One last season of playing with half a deck, and then we'll have enough scholarship players to run practice. On a side note, how sweet will it be beating The Marygers and BTPR dopes this year with half a team? Hilarity ensues on the internets - and that's reward enough for me in 2014.
The biggest asset to this Penn State team is the unknown. Even though the first couple of weeks are where we'll see the majority of the wins, it's the losses that can be forecasted better than the wins. UCF isn't a walk-through even though everyone thinks so because they are without Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson. This was a team with a defensive line that wreaked havoc and lose only two starters from the defense. UCF, Rutgers (because it's a prime time game in Piscataway), Northwestern, Maryland and Illinois are all toss-up games to pile on top of the losses to Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana and Michigan State. We know this much out of Penn State from the last two years: they will pull a game out we don't see coming (Wisconsin in '12 & '13) and they'll drop a game that will make us scratch our heads afterward (Ohio & Virginia in '12 and Indiana in '13). If this team gets rolling and some confidence after stringing together a 5-0 record heading into Ann Arbor, then maybe this could be an eight or nine win team. The unknowns are great for the start of the season, but the same unknowns surrounding this team make it so tough to see an above .500 record. Finishing 6-6 would be an unbelievable year.
Nick Polak: 8-4
I say 8-4, but it could truly be anywhere from 6-6 to 11-1. It all depends on how quickly the team gels together and shows mastery of the new schemes. Big Ten schedules don't get much easier than what Penn State has been given this season, which is quite lucky due to the limitations this team still has thanks to the sanctions. However, even with a new coaching staff and less than stellar depth, this team still has the talent and the good scheduling fortune to go into the Michigan game undefeated.
UCF will still fight, and I'm not foolish enough to think their cupboard is bare simply because they no longer have Bortles (bortles) and Storm Johnson, but it should be a win for the Lions. The Michigan game could go either way, but I'm still just not scared of them. Indiana's offense scares me, but Penn State should be able to take better advantage of their horrendous defense this time around. Maryland doesn't scare me, but Stefon Diggs does. If this game is close towards the end, I'll be pretty uncomfortable when the Terps have the ball. Ohio State and Michigan State are probably losses, although I'm not entirely sold on Sparty this year. The defense will be slightly worse, putting more pressure on Connor Cook. We'll see if he can handle it. So what will happen in the end? Losses to Ohio State and Michigan State are pretty clear. A loss to Michigan would be unsurprising. Then a disappointing/anger-inducing loss to one of UCF, jNW, Maryland, or Indiana is probably how the season will play out. As I said at the beginning however, don't be surprised if this team pulls it together quicker than expected and rides the schedule to greater heights.
Again, this is a team with more question marks than, uh, periods. We don't know how well a cobbled-together offensive line will hold up, we don't know whether a linebacker corps with no margin of error will live up to the standards of Penn State linebacker corps past, we don't know how Christian Hackenberg will look without his favorite target, we don't know if good Sam Ficken or bad Sam Ficken will show up more often, and, oh right, we don't even really know what Bob Shoop's new defensive schemes and John Donovan's new offensive game plans are going to look like.
But here's what we do know: the schedule is soft, this team--a team that is staring down the worst of the sanctions this season--is going to give everything they possibly can for James Franklin, and depth concerns be damned, there's still talent on this team, talent enough to avoid slipping past the bulge in the middle of the Big Ten. The realistic ceiling for this team is 9 wins, 10, perhaps, if everything goes according to plan; the downside seems to be around 5-7. We'll split the difference. This is going to be a young team at some spots that matter, and although the horizon keeps getting bigger and brighter--especially with every passing 4-star that Franklin reels in--we've known for years that 2014 would be the darkest of the days, relaxing of the sanctions be damned. Christian Hackenberg might well take the step forward to becoming the surefire stud we all know he can be, and a revamped secondary might finally be a strength, and the defensive line will likely be one of the Big Ten's best. But there are just too many weak spots to conclude that this is a winning team, not yet. Penn State will lose to Ohio State and Michigan State, probably lose in Ann Arbor, and they'll beat Temple, Akron, Rutgers, UMass, and probably Illinois. That leaves 4 toss-ups: Things ought to break right enough for them to win two and lose two, and I wouldn't dare guess which.
That's, of course, barring any more additional catastrophic injuries, and with the hopes that our offensive line looks half decent. It'll be a success if we break even, but the schedule is so favorable there's only two games that on paper look flat-out unwinnable at this point. We'll know more after the team takes the field in Dublin, but the fact that we have veterans at several key positions bodes well, and Dieffenbach should be back by November. Our toughest games are at home, and we should be able to weather the harshest year of the sanctions without a losing season--setting Franklin up well for the future.
I hate to say this, but this should be the year the impact of the sanctions is felt the most when it's all said and done. Penn State will be severely undermanned in several key positions this season, and when the inevitable injuries occur here and there as the season progresses a few weak spots could become even worse. Of course, there are many reasons to believe Penn State could put together an impressive season.
Christian Hackenberg may be on the verge of becoming a legitimate Heisman contender. The team is loaded with talent at defensive end and tight end. The secondary is experienced and should hold its own against even the best passing offenses in the Big Ten. The inexperienced players at wide receiver and offensive line may be able to step in and play like savvy veterans from day one. There are just too many "ifs" to consider. Add that to the team acclimating to another new coaching staff, and it's difficult to be terribly optimistic about the team putting together an 8, 9 or 10 win season.
However many wins Penn State collects in 2014, savor them all. They will be a nice bonus as we prepare for bigger and better things with an experienced roster deep with talent in 2015 and beyond.
This should be the last year where Penn State's record creeps right around the .500 mark as a results of the scholarship sanctions causing depth issues across the Nittany Lion roster, most notably on the offensive line and at linebacker. There will be plenty to be excited about early on in the season as Penn State should start off with five straight wins, given the losses endured due to graduation by Central Florida and the Venric Mark transfer/Christian Jones injury at Northwestern. A trip to Ann Arbor in October will begin a hellish stretch for the Nittany Lions which includes the Wolverines, College Football Playoff contender Ohio State and Maryland who returns almost their entire squad and who should be able to hold their own in their first season in the Big Ten. Outside of Temple, there aren't any gimmes in the second half of the schedule, especially considering we don't let know how the mixed-and-matched offensive line will gel together. I have a feeling depth and talent disparities (when facing Ohio State and Michigan State) come into play down the road and Penn State goes 2-5 to end the season with wins over Temple and Illinois. Still, 7-5 is more than a respectable result and a launching pad for what should be an incredible 2015.
Tim A.: 8-4
I'd be a lot more bullish about this season if it weren't for those damned offensive line issues. That being said, if the line is even remotely serviceable, you'll have a trio of tailbacks in Belton/Zwinak/Lynch who can run the ball, a group of experienced tight ends, and a young but talented receivers for Christian Hackenberg to sling the ball to, all with the potential to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Defense and special teams is where you'll see real improvement, #FiurButler jokes aside, Bob Shoop seems to be a clear upgrade at defensive coordinator and even the players are raving about how they are doing a better job grasping his concepts and schemes compared to last season. Not to mention, Sean Spencer should have himself an experienced and beastly defensive line with the potential to be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Futhermore, it appears that either DeAndre Thompkins or Grant Haley should give us a game breaking kick returning threat we haven't had since Derrick Williams graduated.
A timely turnover or punt return setting up superb field position could end up being a difference-maker in some of the toss-up games. Much like last season, with the sanctions still having a significant effect on the he roster, I figure to lose a game or two that we otherwise shouldn't, but also pull off an upset win or two. In the end, I think the favorable schedule, particularly those first five games, (even though UCF returns almost their entire receiving corps and defense, Rutgers will be an electric night game atmosphere, and Northwestern is still pesky until proven otherwise) will allow this team to once again avoid a losing record during the sanctions period, and possibly earn themselves a trip to a December bowl game if the bowl ban is lifted as rumors appear to be alluding to.
Tim H. 7-5.
There are good times ahead. In fact, I think there are truly great times ahead. But the great times are still at least a couple seasons away, and in the meantime, James Franklin and his staff are going to have to make the best of a still less-than-ideal situation. We’ve been talking about it for two years now, but really, this is the year when the lack of depth becomes a real concern. All you’ve got to do is take a look at the two-deep for either the offensive line or linebacking corps and it’s clear just how hamstrung this staff is at the moment; they just don’t have many options, and this team really does appear to be one or two key injuries away from a real nightmare. All that being said, there is some obvious talent at key spots—Christian Hackenberg seems destined to become perhaps the best passer Penn State has ever had—and the schedule, while not a cakewalk by any means, is hardly a murderer’s row.
I like the Lions to emerge from their opening five-game stretch (UCF, Akron, at Rutgers, UMasss, Northwestern) at 4-1 (the loss most likely coming against UCF, but possibly at Rutgers—I’ve just got a bad feeling about that one), and from there, well, it will be a crapshoot, with the only close-to-guaranteed losses coming against Ohio State (we don’t have the linebackers to deal with them) and Sparty (we don’t have the depth to deal with them). An absolute best-case scenario has this team finishing at 9-3. The worst-case scenario is 5-7, with potential losses against a dangerous Indiana team (seriously, the Hoosiers will be a handful this year) or Maryland, which at the very least will bring to the Big Ten a truly exciting playmaker in Stefon Diggs. All things considered, I think 7-5 is probably the safest bet. Starting next season, the bar will be set a lot higher.