In the past two articles, I looked at the offense, defense, specialists and the team as a whole. In this article, I will look at the incoming freshmen, intangibles, and schedule, and I will give my final analysis as to how I think things might shake out for the Nits.
Both Scout and Rivals ranked Penn State's 2011 class sixth in the Big Ten, though that is slightly misleading, as that number had a lot to do with the size of PSU's class. With only 16 recruits, it is a very small class; the second smallest in the conference.
If one goes by average recruit ranking, PSU is third and fourth respectively.
One player that could have an immediate impact is defensive end Shawn Oakman. At 6'8", 240 lbs., he will need to gain some weight before he is physically where he needs to be. Moreover, depending upon where his skill set lies, he could end up on the inside of the line or on the offensive line.
Still, as previously mentioned, the Nits might need some help at defensive end and specifically at rushing the passer, and Oakman is a pass rushing specialist. He recorded 17 sacks in his junior year.
Another player that will have potential to compete for playing time on the defensive line is Philadelphia's Deion Barnes. Word is Barnes is raw but extremely athletic, and unlike Oakman, Barnes is a quintessential physical specimen for weakside defensive end.
Finally, the graduation of kicker Collin Wagner has opened the door for Indiana's Sam Ficken. He will compete for the starting job.
Joe Pa has been there. He's seen it all. There is nothing that is going to pop up that will take him by surprise.
It is because of that experience that Paterno knows that he can't control everything, and it is there where little things can pop up and bite Penn State in the rear.
The first issue is the aforementioned depth at defensive end. Two of the impact freshmen I mentioned were defensive ends. I do think the situation PSU is in at that position might require them to go to true freshmen, and that is not a good sign, particularly on either side of the line.
If Crawford, Latimore or Stanley go down, end could be a real liability on a team in which the front seven is usually the biggest strength. At that point, look for mobile quarterbacks and stretch plays to take advantage of inexperienced ends that fail to contain.
Secondly, the quarterback position has to be finalized ASAP.
Penn State is not like Wisconsin, where the offense is not designed around the signal caller, and whoever is under center is usually the same basic type of player. Penn State fields different types of quarterbacks and runs a quarterback-dependent scheme.
This is no more evident than in the previously mentioned stat that over the last ten seasons, the Nits have posted an impressive 33-5 mark when they have strong quarterback play. When they haven't, the results haven't been nearly as impressive.
As a direct consequence of the quarterback (and offensive line) issue(s), Penn State has to do a better job in the red zone. Last season, Penn State was 10th in the conference in red zone conversions. They were also 10th in red zone touchdown conversions.
I specifically recall the Iowa-Penn State game from last year, which the Nits lost 24-3. Penn State reached the Iowa red zone three times and came away with a total of three points. Two of those possessions saw PSU get inside the Iowa two-yard-line.
Over the last five years, the conference champion has had one of the three best red zone offenses four times.
09/03: Indiana State. Penn State is the heavy favorite
09/10: Alabama. Penn State is the underdog.
09/17: At Temple. Favorite.
09/24: Eastern Michigan. Heavy Favorite.
10/01: At Indiana. Heavy Favorite.
10/08: Iowa. Slight Favorite.
10/15: Purdue. Favorite.
10/21: At Northwestern. Favorite.
10/29: Illinois. Favorite.
11/12: Nebraska. Slight underdog.
11/19: At Ohio State. Slight underdog.
11/26: At Wisconsin. Underdog.
Best Case Scenario
Penn State decides the quarterback situation early on in camp, and by the time the Indiana State game rolls around, the offense is smooth and cohesive.
The Nits roll over Indiana State en route to the big meeting with Bama. They lose the game, but it is much closer than last year's 3-24 rout and isn't decided until the last possession.
Penn State wins a tight one against a good Temple team, but the close call brings the team closer together.
They go on to win the next two and move towards the Iowa monkey that has been on Joe Pa's back since Kirk Ferentz took over the Hawkeye head coaching job. They win another close game and proceed to roll over Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois.
The final three games of the season are their most daunting stretch. They win two out of three, and with a record of 10-2 (7-1 in conference), the Nits win the inaugural Big Ten Eastern Division.
They proceed to win the championship game and receive the conference's automatic berth in the Rose Bowl.
Worst Case Scenario
The quarterback issue is ongoing through camp and into the Indiana State game. Penn State juggles Bolden and McGloin throughout the game, and though they win handily, the signal caller issue is in no way resolved heading into the big Bama showdown.
In effect, Bama once again squashes Penn State.
The Nits head into Temple for a letdown game against a good Owls team. The Nits barely win, but things look somewhat shaky.
They manage to get it back together for Eastern Michigan and Indiana, but the Iowa monkey bites them on the rear again, making Joe Pa's record against Kirk Ferentz an ugly 2-9.
PSU posts a win against Purdue, but split the Illinois and Northwestern games.
At 6-3, they head into the bye week to try to put it all together for their toughest stretch of the season.
The Nits manage to win one of their final three, and at 7-5 for the second straight year, they get invited to the Gator Bowl.
It's difficult to posit a clue regarding how Penn State will do because so much hinges on the quarterback situation. The PSU brain trust have to decide quickly and definitively who will be under center, and they have to fashion their offense around that player, as Bolden and McGloin are very different quarterbacks.
I've already made my opinion clear as to who I think the better player is, though I can't say who the better teammate and field general is.
Nevertheless, I will assume the starting quarterback (whoever that may be) is decided early on, which gives the offense a chance to come together. I will also assume that the defense, while not back on a top-10 level, will be a top-20 defense and notably better than last season.
If the quarterback question is indeed settled and Penn State can finally get their offensive line issues on track, there is no reason why they can't win the Eastern division and earn a spot in the inaugural conference championship.
However, even more than the quarterback, I am still concerned about the offensive line, which has been an ongoing problem for three years.
I have Penn State going 9-3 with losses to Alabama, Ohio State and Wisconsin. And yes, that does mean I think the Nits will not only get the Iowa monkey off their back (at least for this year), but they will beat Nebraska.
This puts PSU in the Cap One Bowl. If they win that, they would have double-digit wins for the third time in four years, which certainly isn't too shabby, even by Penn State standards.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Northwestern Wildcats.