For the second time in as many years, Penn State fans won't have visions of a bowl victory dancing in their heads this holiday season.
Though they're on the outside looking in due to NCAA sanctions, there is a lot to be excited about in Happy Valley. With the emergence of Christian Hackenberg and young talent on both sides of the ball, the future is bright for the Nittany Lions.
Yet there's always chances to get better and help the program develop. It may be an improved level of play from a certain group of guys or the resolution of an off-the-field issue, but they are all important in the grand scheme of things.
Here are some items, in no particular order, on head coach Bill O'Brien's wish list this holiday season.
It's hard to argue that the line isn't the unit lacking the most depth on the Nittany Lions offense.
Right now, Penn State has only nine offensive linemen scheduled to be on scholarship in 2014. That includes Scranton product Noah Beh, who is the only offensive lineman verbally committed to Penn State's 2014 class.
After losing out on top targets Kareem Are and Alex Bookser, Penn State recently extended a scholarship offer to Jared Cohen. A verbal commit to Maryland at the time, Cohen decommitted when the Nittany Lions came calling. He addressed the situation on Twitter, saying Penn State "was my top school" when he began his search.
A 4-star recruit according to Rivals.com, Cohen would add needed depth on the offensive line. Penn State has offered other offensive linemen along the way, but Cohen is the only one still uncommitted who has legitimately reciprocated the interest.
Here's to hoping his affinity for Penn State can help scratch this item off O'Brien's wish list.
The secondary is the biggest defensive concern for O'Brien heading into the 2014 season.
The Nittany Lions will return Jordan Lucas and Adrian Amos, both of whom played well in 2013. Outside of them, Penn State will round out the unit with some question marks.
Penn State's pass defense ranked 78th in the country last year, according to cfbstats.com. It gave up an average of 237 yards per game through the air. Some of this could be attributed to the play on the back end of things.
Amos started the year at safety, but he was eventually moved to corner alongside Lucas. If defensive coordinator John Butler sticks with that lineup, he'll have Jesse Della Valle, Ryan Keiser and Malik Golden as his safeties.
Della Valle and Keiser are both former walk-ons, while Golden is a converted wide receiver who hasn't played significant snaps. One of those three will need to replace the production and leadership of Malcolm Willis, who just graduated.
O'Brien would like for the holidays to deliver him a more cohesive secondary unit. With another year of spring practice to jell under Butler's scheme, that might be a possibility.
O'Brien would surely love to see star wide receiver Allen Robinson come back for his senior year.
Over the past two seasons, Robinson has blossomed into one of the best wideouts in all of college football. Over the course of 24 games, he's caught 174 passes for 2,450 yards and 17 touchdowns.
When compared to the rest of the offense, it's easy to see why O'Brien wants—and needs—him to return. In two years, Robinson's caught 30 percent of the passes thrown by Penn State's quarterbacks. He's also accumulated 38 percent of all receiving yards and scored nearly 38 percent of Penn State's receiving touchdowns.
In summary, Robinson has been responsible for basically one-third of the Nittany Lions' receiving attack.
With Brandon Felder having graduated, Penn State would be out its top two receivers from 2013 if Robinson bolts. Yahoo! Sports currently has him projected as a first-round selection.
Getting his most productive player back for 2014 would surely put O'Brien in a jolly mood.
Being unable to play in the postseason the past two years has had an effect on Penn State's recruiting and player development.
From a recruiting standpoint, being able to compete for a conference title and appear in a bowl game are big draws for recruits. Playing on a stage like that is probably something a player considers when picking a school.
In terms of player development, the lack of postseason play cuts down on additional practices. John McGonigal of The Daily Collegian detailed how teams that play in bowl games get extra practice time leading up to the game:
Basically, coaches have an extra few weeks to work with players, especially underclassmen, to have fun and progress.
Instead of practicing and getting younger players like Geno Lewis, Brandon Bell and Adam Breneman more reps, the Lions are now in their winter workouts. That’s not the same as strapping on a helmet and pads and practicing.
When the NCAA reduced Penn State's scholarship penalties, it didn't rule out lifting the bowl ban sooner than expected. While it probably won't happen before the 2014 national signing day, it would be a big lift to both recruiting and player development if it happens before the start of next season.
If there's one thing that would make O'Brien's job easier, being able to compete for a conference title and play in a big bowl game might be it.