The Good, The Bad And The Ugly: The 2013 Penn State Nittany Lions


When I was tasked with laying out the good, bad and ugly of my alma mater heading into the 2012 college football season, Penn State football was in complete disarray. No need to go into the particulars, since everyone knows about what happened. The thing is, no one knew exactly what would happen last season on any level.

As it turned out, Penn State football did not die. Far from it, in fact. Somehow, I correctly predicted the Nittany Lions' record, one in which new coach Bill O'Brien oversaw an 8-4 team that came together after a tough start to become one of the biggest stories in college football in 2012. O'Brien and his team earned respect across the nation, as Penn State turned the page on a new chapter.

The sanctions are still there, the postseason off the table and scholarships reduced, but Penn State football now has a clear, new identity, one that is about what happens between the lines on Saturdays.

So as my alma mater embarks on year two of the Bill O'Brien experience, here is an outlook on the good, the bad and the ugly for the 2013 Penn State Nittany Lions.

The Good: The best thing Penn State has going for itself this season is the fact that Bill O'Brien stayed on board instead of jumping ship for the NFL. Given the job he did last season — and with his background as offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots — O'Brien was a hot commodity for the plethora of vacant NFL head coaching jobs. By all accounts, a ton of teams had interest in him, but O'Brien — whom many would not have blamed at all (myself included) for chasing his dream of coaching at the highest level and leaving after only one season at Penn State — decided to keep his commitment to the university and the student-athletes he gave his word to.

After everything O'Brien has done over the past year-plus, with the success on the field, the character off it and the way he has truly engendered himself to the community, that was huge. O'Brien not only was the right man for last season, but he's the right man for Penn State as long as he is there.

ESPNU ran a short documentary called "Training Days," in which cameras followed O'Brien and the Nittany Lions during preseason workouts. It only reaffirmed the faith Penn State fans have in the man, who genuinely seems earnest, forthright and demanding all at the same time. I couldn't be happier that Bill O'Brien is Penn State's head football coach.

Added to the good list is that fact that nine of Penn State's starters for the opener up at MetLife Stadium against Syracuse this Saturday are seniors, giving a team short on depth plenty of experience. That group is led by right guard John Urschel, perhaps the smartest player in college football and easily the anchor of the offensive line.

Then there is the astonishing depth and talent at tight end. Everyone saw what O'Brien was able to do with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (yikes) up in New England, and he did the same things for Penn State's talented tight ends last year. The sophomore duo of Kyle Carter and Jesse James returns as two of the best pass-catching tight ends in the nation, along with senior Matt Lehman. That trio was so productive in 2012 that it may make things difficult for freshman Adam Breneman, the top tight end recruit in the nation, to see much playing time. That's a great problem to have, and I'd venture to say no team in the nation has a deeper, more talented stable of tight ends than the Nittany Lions.

Oh, and another very good thing is the return of junior wide receiver Allen Robinson, whose list of accomplishments during his sophomore season included being chosen as First Team All-Big Ten and the Big Ten Receiver of the Year. He led the Big Ten in catches — breaking the Penn State record for catches in a season with 77 — receptions per game (6.4), receiving yards (1,013) and touchdown catches (11). That's pretty damn good.


The Bad: The biggest bad news — outside of the smaller roster — is the loss of the leaders that really held Penn State together last season, namely Mike Mauti, Michael Zordich, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill. Mauti and Hodges were both drafted by the Minnesota Vikings and are fighting for places in a crowded linebacking corps. Zordich, sadly, is out for the season after shredding his ACL playing fullback for the Carolina Panthers. And Hill, who continued the line of dominance for Penn State defensive linemen, partially tore his bicep playing for the Seattle Seahawks. They were the key players who kept the team intact, particularly Mauti and Zordich. Their leadership and loyalty will be sorely missed on a team that still can see players leave for greener pastures without any penalty.

It's also bad that Penn State does not have a single quarterback on its roster who has taken a snap in Big Ten play. Because of that, O'Brien has yet to name a starter at quarterback. The competition is between two talented guys: sophomore junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and true freshman Christian Hackenberg, widely regarded as the best quarterback recruit in the nation. While it's always good to have competition, it's a bad sign that neither QB has been able to separate himself from the other. You know, the old adage … "If you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none."

The Ugly: That leads in to the ugly. By all accounts, Hackenberg has the tools to potentially be an NFL signal-caller one day. But the fact that the man he is competing with had already been rumored to leave the program — in reality, he was home with his mother, who reportedly has cancer — could provide a potentially ugly scene for O'Brien. If Hackenberg wins the job and ultimately becomes the starer, it could lead to Ferguson seeing the handwriting on the wall and looking to go elsewhere. That would mean Penn State has nothing but true freshmen at the position, which would be ugly in its own right.

It also could get ugly for Ferguson if he's named the starter but struggles. Fans and media alike will be calling for the heralded Hackenberg, putting pressure on both Ferguson and Hackenberg.

The funny thing is that, from a purely talent standpoint, Penn State is in a much better position than it was a year ago under center. Hackenberg and Ferguson are scholarship players who were supposed to be playing at the top level of the NCAA. Matt McGloin, last season's starter, was a former walk-on with a relatively weak arm. Yet the position is in much more disarray this season, as the team was McGloin's and McGloin's alone last year.

Also, given poor Sam Ficken's struggles in the kicking game last year, the special teams could be really ugly as well. But at least Ficken rebounded down the stretch after an awful start, so there's hope there.

Oh, and that game in Columbus Oct. 26 could get pretty ugly as well. Not looking forward to going up against Urban Meyer, Braxton Miller and the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Horseshoe.

The Prediction: Last year, I had no clue what the hell to expect yet correctly predicted an 8-4 campaign. In year two, I have a little handle on the team and expect roughly the same, either a 9-3 or 8-4 season highlighted by tough games on the road against Ohio State and Wisconsin, with Michigan and Nebraska heading to Happy Valley. So I'm bound to be wrong in this prediction.

I also predict that defensive end Deion Barnes, linebacker Mike Hull and cornerback Adrian Amos will take another step forward and become key standouts on defense, becoming some of the best players at their respective positions in the conference.

And one more prediction: Bill O'Brien will continue to garner respect from just about everyone.

Let's get this season kicked off.

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