For Penn State football, it's tough to complain following a second straight 11-2 season, especially one capped off with a victory over the SEC's Louisiana State in the Capital One Bowl.
But it's certainly easy to worry.
Practice for the 2010 season opened last Thursday, and there's an ominous cloud of doubt sailing over Happy Valley, despite the Nittany Lions No. 14 preseason ranking.
With 400 wins on the horizon, Joe Paterno enters his 45th season as head coach with some serious insecurities in his starting lineup. Most notably at quarterback, defensive tackle and all three linebacking positions—yeah, Linebacker U. has no linebackers.
Quarterback is arguably the most pressing issue. Replacing Daryll Clark, the school's leader in all-time passing yards, is no simple task. There is a significant lack of experience, with the leaders of the pack, Kevin Newsome and Matthew McGloin, being only sophomores. But according to the son-of-the-legend quarterbacks coach, Jay Paterno, no candidate is ruled out. That includes freshmen Paul Jones and Robert Bolden.
It's sort of like Lost. You can speculate and theorize all you want, but when it comes down to it, it could end up being Hurley who rules the island. Or something like that.
On the bright side, much of the rest of the offense is returning starters.
Senior running back Evan Royster dons his blue and white No. 22 to lead this iteration of the Nittany Lion offensive attack.
He begins the year on the radar for both the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award. Both honors highlight the country's best player, a sort of poor man's Heisman, and both awards are held by Colt McCoy.
Royster is currently eighth all-time on Penn State's rushing yardage list. He needs just 481 to become the most prolific Nittany Lion rusher in school history. The team will need a big season from Evan if they expect success, as JoePa's boys are 12-0 when Royster eclipses 100 rushing yards in a game.
Royster's success, or lack thereof, will reflect the progress of a patchwork offensive line. Junior tackle DeOn'tae Pannell and senior guard Lou Eliades return as starters, and the improvement of fifth-year senior Doug Klopacz allows 2009 All-Big Ten lineman Stefen Wisniewski to move back to guard, his natural position.
Wisniewski, also a senior, enters the year on the radar for the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation's best interior lineman, and the Rotary Lombardi Award, given to the best down lineman or blitzing linebacker.
On the outside, the team's three top receivers all return. Derek Moye, Graham Zug and Chaz Powell hope to make life a little easier for whichever player lines up under center.
On defense, Joe Paterno is responsible for replacing four notable players, all of whom heard their names called in April's NFL draft.
Linebackers Sean Lee, Navorro Bowman and Josh Hull were selected in the second, third and seventh rounds, respectively. Lee was recently held out of a Cowboys preseason game because he was "too intense."
That kind of passion, and talent, isn't easy to find. But Penn State has done it before.
Perhaps the gaping-est hole on either side of the ball is the one left by 6'5", 304-pound defensive tackle Jared Odrick. His presence on the interior of the line skyrocketed him into the first round of the draft, where he was selected to be a Miami Dolphin.
Luckily, the rest of the line is made up of veteran Lions, led by d-end Jack Crawford. Crawford comes into the season in the eyes of the Bednarik Award panelists. The Bednarik goes to the nation's top defender. Penn State has a record four Bednarik winners, and would certainly love to add another.
Even with the holes in the starting lineup, the scariest aspect of 2010 may be PSU's schedule.
After a cupcake opener September 4 against the Youngstown State Penguins (not very intimidating unless it's the one from Happy Gilmore), Joe Paterno's squad travels to Tuscaloosa to take on defending champions and No. 1 ranked Alabama for the first time since 1990.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide could be Penn State's toughest match-up since Mark Sanchez's USC in 2009 and their toughest regular season opponent in a decade.
The Nittany Lions will also be the first team in NCAA history to play three BCS bowl-winning programs on the road in the following season (at Alabama, at Iowa, at Ohio State).
It will be a monumental season if Penn State wins one of those games, never mind all three. Consider that and tough match-ups with Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota, and a third straight 11-2 record seems like a pipe dream.
The five biggest questions that will determine the victoriousness of the blue and white in 2010 are:
1) Who will be the Nittany Lions' starting quarterback and will he be effective enough to lessen the load for Evan Royster?
2) Does Royster have enough in the tank after a 200-plus attempt 2009 to contend for the Maxwell, Walter Camp and Heisman Trophy awards? If he does, will that be enough to keep Penn State afloat?
3) How will the transitioning offensive line fare in creating lanes for Royster (and Stephfon Green) and can they protect the quarterback with a new left tackle?
4) Can the coaching staff fill the holes on defense and can the atypical Nittany Lions contend with a stronger offensive unit?
5) Is the 2010 schedule simply too tough to overcome? Will the final record of this team accurately reflect their talent with a a Nebraska-enhanced, 12-team, conference-championshipped Big Ten looming in 2011?
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