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Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Contender or pretender: Penn State

By Adam Rittenberg

We're taking a page from our friends at the ACC blog and examining whether certain Big Ten teams will be contenders or pretenders in the 2013 season. The series does not include Ohio State, Michigan or Nebraska -- three teams that, in our view, have earned the "contender" label entering the fall. For each team, we'll make a case for why they're contenders and pretenders and provide our final verdict. We invite you to vote on whether a team is a contender or a pretender or send us your thoughts for mailbags here and here.

Next up are the Penn State Nittany Lions, a team that can't contend for a Big Ten championship because of NCAA sanctions but, like Ohio State in 2012, can win the Leaders division.

Why they're contenders: After winning eight of their final 10 games in Bill O'Brien's first season, the Lions no longer have to adjust to new coaches and new systems. Although quarterback is a significant question mark, Penn State will surround its new signal-caller with plenty of weapons. Junior Allen Robinson, the Big Ten wide receiver of the year in 2012, returns along with the league's deepest group of tight ends. O'Brien likes what he has at running back with Zach Zwinak (1,000 yards last fall), Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, who stood out in the spring game. The offensive line was a pleasant surprise last season and should be solid again as Ty Howle fills the center spot vacated by All-Big Ten selection Matt Stankiewitch. Penn State has good depth in the secondary, which could be the strength of the defense this season. Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes returns at defensive end, and DaQuan Jones is stepping up to lead the line. Mike Hull finally moves into a starting spot at linebacker and will help fill the production void left by Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. The biggest reason to Bill-ieve is O'Brien, who has developed players extremely well during his short time in State College. If he can develop a quarterback, Penn State should win eight or more games again.

Why they're pretenders: There's a school of thought that at some point, the severe NCAA sanctions imposed on Penn State will catch up with the program. It could be this season. Although Penn State looks good at most starting positions, depth is a concern on both sides of the ball. Linebacker U isn't very deep at linebacker, and if Hull or Glenn Carson goes down, the defense might be in big trouble. Barnes looks like a superstar at end, but he'll face increased attention this year and won't have Jordan Hill for protection on the interior. The biggest question mark is quarterback, as Steven Bench barely played last season, while junior-college transfer Tyler Ferguson and incoming freshman Christian Hackenberg have yet to take a snap in an FBS game. O'Brien is a quarterback guru and transformed Matt McGloin, but at least McGloin had a lot of experience at this level. Although kicker Sam Ficken made an impressive turnaround down the stretch last season, Penn State struggled mightily on special teams and was fortunate the kicking game only proved costly in one loss (Virginia). The Lions' division road schedule isn't easy with trips to both Ohio State and Wisconsin.

Final verdict: Contender. O'Brien has given us no reason to doubt him, and while quarterback is a significant question mark, it's also the position O'Brien knows best. The supporting cast will ease the transition for whoever lines up under center this fall. Penn State is thin on defense at positions where it traditionally produces All-Big Ten players, and while the unit can't afford to lose certain pieces, a major drop-off seems unlikely. Penn State should build some confidence during a favorable early season stretch before facing Michigan and Ohio State in a three-week span. Don't be surprised if the Lions' Oct. 26 game in Columbus once again determines the Leaders division champion.