- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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We've got just a few more Best Case/Worst Case scenarios to go through before actual games begin.
As a reminder, these pieces are not in any way predictions. They are meant to illustrate the realistic potential highs and lows for a team's season, and any game-by-game breakdowns are more of a means to an end than anything else. And we're trying to have some fun here.
Let's move on to Penn State, which knows a thing or two about worst-case scenarios right now. But maybe better things are ahead.
The best thing for the Nittany Lions is that they finally get to play some football. Outsiders underestimate the amount of talent still on hand, especially on defense. The arrival of Bill O'Brien and his modern offensive system means that Penn State might finally put some points on the board with regularity. And while the schedule offers no true cupcakes, the Lions might face only one ranked team on the road all season.
The O'Brien era begins on a high note with an easy win over Ohio in the opener. Matt McGloin throws three touchdown passes and no interceptions, and the defense stifles its MAC opponent. The Lions then go to Virginia and make a statement with a 31-7 win. Bill Belton runs for 150 yards and two scores, and the offense looks like a light version of the New England Patriots' attack.
The Nittany Lions' fan base starts to get really excited about this team as it slaps around Navy and Temple for a 4-0 start. Big Ten play opens at Illinois, where Penn State takes out some anger on Tim Beckman's aggressive recruiting tactics with a four-touchdown victory. Near the end of the game, O'Brien keeps calling for sweeps that end up barreling into the Illini sideline. Beckman is fired after a disastrous 0-12 campaign.
Penn State wins its next two against Northwestern and Iowa to stand at 7-0 heading into the Ineligi-Bowl against Ohio State. The Lions become a national feel-good story for the media, and "GameDay" comes to Beaver Stadium for the Buckeyes matchup even though neither team can reach the postseason. McGloin gets a pregame pep talk from Tom Brady and goes on to throw three touchdown passes in a 24-21 victory. Penn State students flood the streets to celebrate, peacefully.
The momentum stalls when the team loses its next two road games, at Purdue and in the snow at Nebraska. But after thrashing Indiana, Penn State gears up for Senior Day against Wisconsin. Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Jordan Hill are among the seniors who play out of their minds on defense to lead a shutout victory.
The 10-2 record inspires recruits to sign up with O'Brien despite the sanctions. The inspirational season, along with the school's good behavior, prompts the NCAA to announce that it will consider lessening the penalties. Joe Posnanski begins work on his new book, "O'Brien." USC and Oklahoma have disappointing seasons.
Pretty sure that this already more than qualifies as a 2012 worst-case scenario. So we'll take it somewhat easy on battered and bruised Nittany Lions fans with this fictional account.
Penn State still has talent, but its depth took a hit with the transfers and the offensive skill positions remain a question mark. McGloin is more like Marcia Brady than Tom Brady, and his backups show why they couldn't beat him out in practice. The Lions desperately miss Silas Redd and Justin Brown and have all kinds of trouble scoring points.
Disaster is narrowly averted in the opener, as Hodges intercepts a pass at the goal line in the final minute to ward off an Ohio upset bid. But that's an omen for the season. Penn State loses 14-3 at Virginia as McGloin is picked off three times. The Lions squeak past Navy but are then are upset at home by Temple. The impact of losing kicker/punter Anthony Fera becomes apparent as two missed field goals and a blocked punt contribute heavily to the loss.
Penn State limps into Big Ten play and is shellacked by Beckman's Illinois team. Several Lions players get tackled out of bounds on the Illini sideline and never return; five of them announce after the game that they're transferring to Champaign. Beckman will go on to win Big Ten coach of the year honors.
The next week brings a win against Northwestern, but it's a costly one as several key Penn State players are injured. Paul Jones gets a long-awaited start at Iowa, but he completes only four passes as James Vandenberg & Co. cruise to an easy victory.
Injuries mount, and depth becomes a real concern. It's a good thing there are names on the backs of the jerseys this season, because fans have not heard of many of the new starters. Ohio State crushes the home team in the most half-hearted White-Out ever seen at Beaver Stadium. The Buckeyes finish 12-0 and assert themselves as the new Leaders Division powers as Urban Meyer extends his recruiting reach into Pennsylvania.
With a bare-bones roster and little offensive firepower, O'Brien's team doesn't put up much of a fight at Purdue or Nebraska. Penn State manages to eke out a victory over Indiana before a half-empty Beaver Stadium. That's the final bit of good news, though, as Wisconsin rolls to a 52-6 blowout in the finale.
The Lions finish 4-8 and endure a new wave of offseason transfers while struggling to persuade recruits to play under NCAA sanctions. Rob Bolden quarterbacks LSU to the national title over USC, which features Heisman Trophy winner Redd. Oklahoma wins the Fiesta Bowl behind Biletnikoff winner Brown, while Texas claims the Rose Bowl on Fera's game-winning kick. Pitt wins the Orange Bowl. Mark Emmert wins the Nobel Prize.
16hJosh Moyer and Mitch Sherman