If you listened to some of the experts around Penn State Football heading into last season, then you had an idea it was going to be a tough season. An inexperienced group of quarterbacks, the loss of a bunch of talented seniors and a hard schedule to boot had many predicting a 6-6 or 7-5 record.
And true to their word, the Nittany Lions finished the regular season 7-5 and finished the season 7-6 after a loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl. For many programs, seven wins and a bowl game would be considered a successful season.
But in State College, it was considered a down year. Especially when you consider it was the first time since 2004 the Nittany Lions had finished with fewer than nine wins. Still, hope springs eternal every summer in Happy Valley and the expectations are high again for Joe Paterno and his crew.
He still has to decide on a quarterback, with Rob Bolden still on campus after Paterno denied his transfer request and Matt McGloin struggling at the end of the season. There's also the issue of replacing graduated senior and school rushing leader Evan Royster. But we'll start to find out some of those answers as the spring goes on.
In the meantime, here is the game-by-game breakdown of what you can expect from Penn State football in 2011.
There are few things like the first Saturday of college football, and the first football Saturday in Happy Valley is one of the better atmospheres around.
Of course like most Division I powers, Penn State will open up with what should be an easy win against the Sycamores. So the bigger question entering week one will be who is the Nittany Lions' starting quarterback?
Bolden and McGloin will be the leaders entering the spring, and redshirt freshman Paul Jones is still a wild card after an impressive showing at last year's Blue-White game. But it may come down to the last few days like last season before a starter is named.
But expect the Nittany Lions to run with Silas Redd most of the day.
Prediction: Penn State 44-7
Season Record: 1-0
This is the first real test for the Nittany Lions, and it'll go a long way towards defining what type of season it will be.
By the time the clock hit zero on the Crimson Tide's 24-3 win last season, you could tell Penn State was a young team in awe of the situation. Especially considering it might've been a much different game if the Nittany Lions don't turn the ball over twice in Alabama territory in the first half.
That being said, this year it'll be the Crimson Tide that'll be on the road in a hostile environment under the lights with a new quarterback. Unfortunately for Penn State, Trent Richardson will still be there in the backfield and the Nittany Lions had no answer for him last year. Add that to the quarterback concerns for Penn State and it could prove to be the team's downfall.
It's a closer result than last year, but Penn State still falls.
Prediction: Alabama 31-21
Season Record: 1-1
The schedule might say a road game, but in Penn State's first trip to Philadelphia and Lincoln Financial Field since 2007, it'll feel like a home game.
Still, Temple provides a much tougher contest than it has in years past. Remember, this was the closest thing to a quality win Penn State had last season and Temple held the Nittany Lions without a touchdown until the fourth quarter.
With the Owls getting Bernard Pierce back healthy, it will be a big assignment for Penn State to try and slow him down. But the Owls have a new head coach and will be missing their defensive tackle extraordinaire in Muhammad Wilkerson, who's heading off to the NFL. If the Nittany Lions can get the offense going, they should get the win.
Temple's getting closer though.
Prediction: Penn State 31-17
Season Record: 2-1
The non-conference schedule for the Lions ends with a meeting with Eastern Michigan, whose two wins last season were against MAC powerhouses Ball State and Buffalo.
Again, it should be an easy win for the Nittany Lions, who will play half of its non-conference schedule against the MAC for the third straight season. But then again, the Nittany Lions made their fans sweat during the non-conference season as well, so we'll have to wait and see.
Prediction: Penn State 38-7
Season Record: 3-1
Penn State opens up the conference schedule on the road against the Hoosiers. And hey, they're actually playing the game in Bloomington this year after the game was moved to Fedex Field (otherwise known as Dan Snyder's World of Delusions) last season.
Indiana is always a tough matchup, especially with their pistol offense that can exploit secondaries with their short passing game and getting their receivers in space. But the Hoosiers' defense allowed almost 200 rushing yards a game last season.
And considering the Nittany Lions have two pretty decent backs in Redd and Stephon Green, Penn State should be able to run away with a victory in a high-scoring game.
Prediction: Penn State 38-24
Season Record: 4-1 (1-0 Big Ten)
I don't know what it is, but there's something about Kirk Ferentz in that he just finds ways to beat Joe Paterno.
Whether it was derailing back-to-back undefeated seasons in 2008 and 2009 or winning perhaps one of the ugliest college football games in recent memory (the infamous 6-4 game), Ferentz and Iowa constanty beat the Nittany Lions.
Ferentz has lost a lot of talent this year, between defensive studs Adrian Clayborn and Tyler Sash heading to the NFL and quarterback Ricky Stanzi graduating for starters. So if there was a chance for the Nittany Lions to beat Iowa, this would be the year.
Still, I've heard that about Iowa teams before and the Hawkeyes still found a way to win. So look for the Hawkeyes to find a way again.
Prediction: Iowa 20-17
Season Record: 4-2 (1-1)
Danny Hope has struggled to bring Purdue back to where the program was at the height of the Joe Tiller era, but he is making progress with the Boilermakers.
Still, this is a game Penn State should win, because of their talent and the skill on both offense and defense. Then again, the Nittany Lions were supposed to beat Illinois last season and the Illini blew out Penn State at home on homecoming.
By this point of the season, we should have a better idea of what the Nittany Lions are going to be in 2011 and how the personnel is used. We might not know who the quarterback is, but Penn State should have an identity by the seventh game. Plus, Penn State needs to pile up the wins at this point before the toughest part of the schedule.
Prediction: Penn State 31-14
Season Record: 5-2 (2-1)
The same way Iowa owns Penn State, the Nittany Lions have dominated Northwestern. They've usually been dramatic victories (Nittany Lions fans will remember the fourth and 15 conversion that sparked the run in 2005), but they've been victories nonetheless. The highlight of Penn State's season was Joe Paterno getting his 400th win as the Nittany Lions erased a 21-point deficit against the Wildcats last season.
Long story short, Northwestern always plays Penn State tough. This game should be no different, but it's also pretty clear if you watched the Wildcats at all last season that they're a much different team when Dan Persa was out of the lineup. With him in there, the Wildcats have a very good chance, not to mention they've knocked off teams at home before.
But expect Penn State to be able to win.
Prediction: Penn State 28-17
Season Record: 6-2 (3-1)
Most will say the Nittany Lions' turning point last season was after Penn State was thumped by Illinois at home, as the team won three in a row to get to six wins and eventually get the Lions back to a bowl.
But this is the critical part of the schedule for Penn State and also the toughest, because the Nittany Lions had problems stopping the run last season and all four remaining teams on the schedule can run the football. Illinois won't have Mikel LeShore anymore (who ran through Penn State last year), but the Illini still do have Nathan Scheelhause.
This will be a close game, and one Penn State will have to win. In the end, I think Penn State does win, but it will be very close.
Prediction: Penn State 31-28
Season Record: 7-2 (4-1)
The toughest part of the schedule kicks off now for Penn State, with the last three games of the regular season coming against three very good teams.
The first of those three games comes after Penn State's bye, as Nebraska comes to State College for the first time since 2002 on Senior Day. Like I said before, Nebraska presents a problem as a running team, especially as an option team, which has given Penn State problems in the past. And one thing that will have to be a focus for the Nittany Lions defensively will be forcing Taylor Martinez to throw the football.
It should be an electric atmosphere around Beaver Stadium for the Cornhuskers, but don't be surprised to see Nebraska leave State College with a win.
Prediction: Nebraska 24-14
Season Record: 7-3 (4-2)
This could very well be one of the games (along with Ohio State-Wisconsin) that decides the Leaders Division and who goes to the Big Ten Title Game.
I'm still getting used to the Leaders and Legends Divisions, but thats a different story.
Either way, it will be interesting to see how things play out by the time it gets to this point. Ohio State will be somewhat of an unknown considering that Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel will miss the first five games of the season on suspension. Both will be back by that point, but it remains to be seen what kind of team Ohio State will be.
Like with Nebraska and Illinois, it will be imperative for Penn State to stop the run and not turn the ball over, both of which came back to haunt the Nittany Lions in Columbus last season. It'll be close, but Ohio State will eventually pull out the victory.
Prediction: Ohio State 38-24
Season Record: 7-4 (4-3)
The three-game stretch for the Nittany Lions finally ends with the season finale and a trip to Camp Randall.
Not exactly a walk in the park, but a bit of an easier matchup for Penn State. They still will have to deal with a team who can run the football in Wisconsin, especially with the two-headed monster of Montee Ball and James White. The offensive juggernaut Wisconsin's assembled all of a sudden can also go downfield with Nick Toon.
Out of the last three games of the season, this might be the one Penn State has the best chance of winning. But they'll have to find a way to keep White and Ball in check. Either way, it's a tough way for any team in the Big Ten to close out a season and don't be surprised to see Wisconsin take this game as well.
Prediction: Wisconsin 24-14
Final Season Record: 7-5 (4-4)