Penn State confident it can reload

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Sixteen years after Penn State entered Big Ten play tabbed as the league's third powerhouse, the program has the chance to truly earn the title this fall.

The Nittany Lions can win consecutive Big Ten titles for the first time and call themselves league champs for the third time since 2005. They can be the first team in some time to put a scare in Ohio State, which has dominated the Big Ten this decade.

But to stack up with the Buckeyes, Penn State must mirror what has been done in Columbus throughout head coach Jim Tressel's tenure -- reload.

No two Big Ten teams said goodbye to more key contributors from 2008 than Penn State and Ohio State, which return just 10 and 12 starters, respectively. The Lions lose a bit more than the Buckeyes, but they also bring back the Big Ten's top quarterback (Daryll Clark), top running back (Evan Royster) and one of the top linebackers (Navorro Bowman) from last season. Plus, star linebacker Sean Lee also returns from a knee injury, and Penn State has a more favorable schedule than Ohio State and hosts the Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium, the last place where Ohio State lost a Big Ten road game (2005).

So why do most prognosticators, including yours truly, give Ohio State a slight edge heading into the fall? A history of filling big gaps. Whether it's running back, quarterback, linebacker, defensive end or cornerback, the Buckeyes have lost national award winners and been just fine the next year.

Penn State has the chance to prove it can do the same thing this fall.

"People have been saying that we're not going to be able to do it, but proving people wrong is obviously a real good motivation," senior wide receiver Brett Brackett said. "That's definitely one of our goals, to show people we can do that.

"We have as much talent, if not more, than last year."

Brackett is one of several receivers pegged to take on a greater role after Penn State lost multiyear starters Derrick Williams, Deon Butler and Jordan Norwood. The Lions also lose three starting offensive linemen and their entire starting secondary from a team that was seconds away from a possible trip to the BCS title game.

Many players stepping into key roles this season come from the less-heralded recruiting classes of 2007 and 2008. Penn State took some heat for its recruiting, particularly in 2008, and some questioned head coach Joe Paterno's involvement in the recruiting process.

Those questions have been put to rest, as Penn State signed an excellent class in February and might have the league's best class in 2010. But many of the older players on the 2009 team still fight the stigma from back on signing day.

"It's definitely a chance for us to show that we do get recruits in every year," Royster said. "We've got a lot of guys on the offensive line and at receiver that look like they're ready to play."