Penn State Football: Predicting Where Nittany Lions Will Finish in the Big Ten

Ian HanfordFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 15:  Head coach Bill O'Brien of the Penn State Nittany Lions walks off the field after defeating the Navy Midshipmen 34-7 at Beaver Stadium on September 15, 2012 in State College, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Penn State Nittany Lions dropped their first two games of the season, but they've crawled their way back to 2-2 with two consecutive victories.

Now, with a trip to Illinois looming in Week 5, the road will only get more difficult. The Big Ten isn't as strong as it was last year, but beating up on Temple and Navy in Weeks 3 and 4 wasn't necessarily a steep hill to climb.

Penn State won't be eligible to play in the conference championship game, leaving this team to wonder what could have been regardless of how they finish. Let's get one thing out of the way though: this team isn't as bad as many anticipated.

In fact, a first or second-place finish in the Leaders division is not out of the question.

The grouping doesn't have a clear cut leader; not with the Wisconsin Badgers losing to Oregon State in Week 2 and struggling ever sense.

Throw Ohio State into that mix as well. The Buckeyes' record is an unblemished 4-0, but they've been tested more than expected. On paper Urban Meyer's crew is the Big Ten's best; maturity-wise, they're still a year away.

That leaves Penn State as the obvious, and unanticipated, darkhorse. You could throw the 2-1 Purdue Boilermakers into that mix as well, with a November 3 matchup between the two being the possible difference, but it's very close.

Bill O'Brien's system, like it or not, is working. Matt McGloin is leading the conference in passing yards with 1,006. His 9-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio is outstanding, especially when you consider how abysmal he's been in years past.

For all intents and purposes, McGloin isn't even the same player. He leads the Nittany Lion attack with a steady hand, showing leadership at all times, even if he does lack some physical skills.

It helps to have Allen Robinson on the receiving end, as well. O'Brien's system has made McGloin feel comfortable; Robinson (29 catches, 404 yards and five touchdowns) gives him a dynamic presence to work with on the outside.

Injuries have kept Penn State's ground game below average, at No. 96 in the nation, but the offensive line has been stellar. Mac McWhorter has injected life into a unit that entered the year as a potential concern, replacing four starters. Now, they're a strength.

Defensively, Penn State is mostly Penn State. As a unit, it's allowing just over 15 points per game. The secondary could tighten up, and will have to against better opponents, but it's still an above-average unit.

Look at it this way. The Nittany Lions have been left for dead. No one, I mean no one, expected them to sniff the upper crust of the Big Ten standings for years.

O'Brien's crew has this year's team on the right track. Don't be surprised if they surprise some folks at year's end.

My guess? Penn State finishes the year with at least eight wins, with the Ohio State game on October 27 being a potentially giant swing. Look for them to finish no lower than third in the Leaders division, a huge victory no matter how you slice it.