After a 2008 season that came within nine minutes of a cold Iowa evening from ending in the BCS Championship game, Joe Paterno and his revamped Nittany Lions could find themselves in the middle of another title run in 2009.
Penn State already looks strong, thanks to a downgraded schedule that includes eight home games and leaves one strong Big Ten program off (Wisconsin and Purdue rotate off of the Penn State schedule for the next two seasons).
Paterno and his staff do have some serious work to do when spring camp starts in a couple of weeks. The team that appeared in Pasadena on Jan. 1 will have 2/3 of a new offensive line, an entirely new defensive backfield, and a fistful of new wide receivers when it lines up against Eastern Michigan on Sept. 5 at Beaver Stadium.
Helping the defense rebuild will be the return of All-American linebacker Sean Lee, who sat out all of 2008 after blowing out an ACL in camp. Early word is that Lee is completely recovered and will likely be moved to inside linebacker for his final year with the Nittany Lions.
There are potholes, to be sure, in the 2009 schedule, and maybe a surprise or two before the season runs its course, but here is where the Lions season will likely be made or broken:
Sept. 26 vs. Iowa—There is nothing in the world of sports sweeter than paybacks, and the Lions will have this game circled on their calenders. After three quarters at Iowa last year, the Lions seemed to be set to continue an unbeaten season despite a ragged offense.
But an interception on the Lions' last drive set the stage for a season to unravel. Nobody in that Penn State locker room last year needs to be reminded about the guys on the other sidelines in the Steeler uniforms.
Oct. 24 @ Michigan—The Big House remains the House of Horrors for Penn State. Be it horrific officiating or phantom time back on the clock, the Lions haven't been able to catch a break in Ann Arbor since the Clinton administration.
It's been 14 seasons since Paterno's team has carted a W home with them from Michigan. With Rich Rodriguez still smarting from a 3-9 season and still seemingly a couple of years away from being truly competitive, this could be the year the Lions roar.
Oct. 31st @ Northwestern—They call this a trap game for a reason. Sandwiched in between a trip to Michigan and what could be another title game against Ohio State the following week at home, this is the game that could wreck the season for a Nittany Lion team that overlooks it.
Penn State's last trip to Chicago in 2005 featured a last-second pass from Michael Robinson to Derrick Williams that won the game for Penn State and launched them toward the Orange Bowl.
Nov. 7 vs. Ohio State—What has become the most physical game played in the Big Ten every year could be the conference title game for the second year in a row. With last year's 13-6 win in Columbus a glaring exception, this series has largely been a home team series since Penn State entered the Big Ten.
Neither team appears to be as strong as it was last season, but that won't stop both sides from knocking each other's heads off.
Nov. 21 vs. Michigan State—Penn State fans have come to expect this game to decide the Lions fate and be the strangest game of the season. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten and made this the now-traditional final game of the season for both squads, each side has a win or two to show that records and trends say they had no right claiming.
There is no indication, at least from this distance, that this game will be any different. Roll the dice and see where your season lands.