2011 Record: (9-4, 6-2 in Big Ten)
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien (first time head coach)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 Ticket City Bowl: lost to Houston 30-14
Revenge: 11/10 at Nebraska, 11/24 vs Wisconsin
Stats to Cheer: allowed only 14 sacks in 2011 (1st in Big Ten) and had 31 sacks (3rd in Big Ten)
Stats to Fear: converted only 36.27% of third downs in 2011 (last in Big Ten); allowed opponents to score on 91.67% of red zone trips (last in Big Ten)
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 5; Defense: 4; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Gerald Hodges (106 tackle, 4.5 sacks), Glenn Carson (74 tackles), DE Sean Stanley (4.5 sacks), DT Jordan Hill (3.5 sacks)
Key Offensive Returnees: RB Silas Redd (1241 rush yards, 7 TD), WR Justin Brown (35 rec)
CFBZ: What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about Penn State football in 2012?
The Nittany Lions Den: Change, a breath of fresh air and a new offensive philosophy. Whether you started watching Penn State football in the 1960s, 1980s or 2000s you could tell what the offensive game plan was generally going to be no matter what game you were watching. This should be a noticeable difference right out of the shoot under Bill O'Brien, well known for his tight end schemes. It may take some time before Penn State starts to show what they can do, and run the new offense effectively but with an entire new staff fueling new life in to the program in a time of need, there is clearly an optimistic field with the future of the program on the field.
The new staff is already putting together one of the better recruiting classes Penn State has seen in a while, and that could continue if O'Brien can prove he can win some football games. While there are some dark times to still get through at Penn State, on the field appears to have some bright spots coming up.
CFBZ: The Ted Roof hire as defensive coordinator was a surprise. Now that he's been on campus for a while, what are your impressions on the hire?
The Nittany Lions Den: The decision to add Ted Roof, given his track record still comes off as a bit of an underwhelming hire, but considering the help he has on the staff could put Roof in a position he has never been in before. While this will still be Roof's defense, having defensive line coach Larry Johnson and linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden remain on the staff (the only holdovers from Paterno's staff) was a terrific move by O'Brien. If he could only have two guys return, these are the two to have. It also means that Roof may arguably have two of the best assistants he has ever had to help him out. Also, Penn State's defense should have more talent overall as well as depth than he has ever had before.
Like O'Brien though, it might be unfair to really judge and evaluate what Roof means to the team until we see how things shape out on the field. Penn State's defense will be tested in non-conference games as well as in the Big Ten, so staying healthy would be a tremendous boost for Roof.
CFBZ: Who are some under the radar guys that you think will have an impact for the Nittany Lions this season?
The Nittany Lions Den: With the lack of depth in the secondary this season from graduation and with the premature departure of a couple others due to various reasons, pay close attention to Adrian Amos, who can play defensive back and safety for Penn State. For now Penn State has him listed at right corner, and that will probably be where he ends up unless some injuries pop up at the safety postitions. Based on his limited role as a freshman last season he has the ability to bring some pop and make some plays against the pass. He comes to Penn State as a player with terrific upside potential, and with a starting job likely to be his to lose, many expect him to grow quickly this season.
Staying on defense I have to mention linebacker Khairi Fortt, who is in a battle for a starting job at middle linebacker with Glenn Garson (last year's starter in the middle). Allow me to channel my inner-Gruden when I tell you that this guy is a prototypical linebacker to play at place many refer to as Linebacker U. He brings good size, solid tackling skills and could be a great fixture in the middle with Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti anchoring down on the outsides. Even if he does not win a starting job, expect him to see plenty of time on the field in some sort of rotation or based on defensive packages.
CFBZ:What is your gut feeling on the final record for 2012 and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
The Nittany Lions Den: I recently broke down the entire schedule by month and tried to assess what would be considered a good record for each. When I went back and added them all together I came up with an 8-4 record being a realistic expectation given what we know at this point. The quarterback switcheroo last year was a significant detriment to the flow of the team. This year they start with one guy, for better or worse (Matt McGloin). Key defensive players went down to injury. his year they look to be healthy (defensive end Pete Massaro and linebacker Mauti). I think those are pretty significant circumstances. Ten wins is probably a reach right now, but should not be considered totally out of the question. Seven wins might even be more realistic, but should be considered a disappointment.
The 2012 season can best be summed up as questionable. Questionable because there are a lot of questions about this Nittany Lions team. First and foremost is the decision to hire Bill O'Brien. While this hire was initially a surprise, I have a feeling that he's going to work out in the long run. Of course, following a legend like Joe Paterno is almost a no-win situation so he's going to need to have some success in the first few years unless he wants to get some backlash. The big question for me (as referenced above) was the hire of defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Roof is just two years away from winning a National Championship with Auburn but that team was more about players than about scheme. Last year, Roof's defense at Auburn flat out gave up on him in a game in Athens and that is a concern. With a new environment and a new support staff maybe a fresh start is what Roof needs.
On offense, it's really tough to win without a good quarterback. That's the next question. Last year, Matt McGloin got the bulk of the snaps and he completed just 54% of his passes with 8 TDs to 5 INTs. In Penn State's three losses he threw just one TD and completed 42% of his passes. The other QB who got playing time was Rob Bolden and he completed just 39.3% of his passes with a TD to INT ratio of 2 to 7. Yikes! McGloin is going to start the year as the Penn State starter and we will see if Bill O'Brien is a genius pretty quickly. The one proven weapon the Nittany Lions have is running back Silas Redd and he's one of the top RBs in the B1G. Expect him to be a huge part of the gameplan especially early on in the season. The Penn State offense will be interesting to watch if for no other reason than to see what changes O'Brien makes.
Defense has always been a strength of the Nittany Lions. The offense has been vanilla and it's been the defense that's helped them to victory. That's why the Ted Roof hire was such a head scratcher to me. Despite all of the distractions last year, Penn State finished first in the league in points allowed. The secondary is a big question mark for the Nittany Lions. They will be starting a new pair of corners and safties. That's a scary proposition. The strength of this team will have to be the front seven (which also has to replace a few impact players).
One thing that lines up very well for Penn State is the schedule. It's likely that they won't face a Top 25 team until their seventh or eighth game of the season (Iowa or Ohio State). They have a few interesting games early against the likes of Virginia, Navy and Temple. Those aren't freebies but they are games that a team the stature of Penn State should win. The Virginia game is especially important because Mike London has built that Virginia squad into a tough team (although they got scorched when they played tougher competition at the end of the year in 2011). There is no Michigan and no Michigan State on the schedule and those might be the best two teams in the conference this year. Penn State got dealt a winning hand in terms of their schedule and that should help them flirt with the Top 25 this season as Bill O'Brien figures out what he's doing and what kind of players he has on campus.
2012 Prediction: 8-4
Previous 2012 Previews:
SEC: Texas A&M