STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- With a fresh-faced quarterback and a revamped defense, no one is going to confuse Penn State with a national-title caliber team this season.
True, the sanctions will prevent PSU from making a bowl game through the 2015 season anyway. But PSU's still striving to win, still aiming to be one of the country's best. The 2013 season might not be the season PSU knocks off the Alabamas of the college football world, but just how close are they?
Better yet, what will PSU have to do to get there?
Michael Rothstein recently took a closer look at the eight characteristics the last seven national title winners shared. From 2006-2012, only three teams -- including the 2008 PSU Rose Bowl team -- met every criterion without adding the crystal football to their trophy cases.
Here's a closer look at the criteria PSU will have to meet to bring home that national title and/or compete with the country's best, and here's where it will likely stack up:
1. Rank 38th or better in rushing offense (all except Florida in 2006 ranked 16th or better and averaged more than 214 yards per game). Penn State ranked 83rd here last season, and it'll undoubtedly improve in 2013 -- but not by another 81 yards a game. PSU reached 214 yards just once last season, against Iowa (215 yards), but that number isn't completely impossible in future years. (Oklahoma State reached that last season and averaged less than one carry more a game than PSU.) They key is the offensive line -- something that'll improve greatly with the new strength and conditioning program -- and finding a second dependable tailback. And redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch is already turning some heads.
2. Rank 23rd or better in scoring offense (all except Florida in 2006 averaged more than 30 ppg). The good news? PSU scored an average of 29.08 points a game last year. The bad news? That ranked just 62nd overall, as scoring has increased since Florida's 2006 run. PSU's patchwork offense exceeded expectations last year, but it's debatable if PSU can improve those numbers with a first-year signal-caller. Regardless, if last year was an indicator, PSU should have no problem meeting this number in another season or two. It would need to average about 35 points per game to rank in the top 23, and Christian Hackenberg should be in top form by then.
3. Rank 15th or better in rushing defense. The Nittany Lions were oh-so-close last season, as they finished 23rd and allowed 128 yards a game. With three or four new faces on the front-seven, that'll be a hard number to top this season. But PSU has historically been a strong rushing defense team -- it met this criterion from 2005 through 2009.
4. Rank 37th or better in passing efficiency. Matt McGloin had 24 TDs to five interceptions last season ... so you have to figure that's a good passing efficiency, right? Not the way the NCAA calculates it. PSU ranked 59th (135.25), behind a school like No. 49 Air Force (138.28) that had nine TDs to eight picks. Why the difference? For you math nerds, we broke it down between Penn State and Air Force. Basically, PSU ranked so low because its yards-per-attempt wasn't very high. For PSU to improve here, it'll have to rely less on short passes. It won't be one of the 37 most passing efficient teams this year, and it'll need more big plays for it to rise in the future.
5. Rank within the top 40 in sacks. Finally, here's one number that PSU already met. It ranked No. 15 in the country last year by averaging 2.83 sacks a game. Deion Barnes is only a redshirt sophomore, and he's already one of the most-feared pass-rushers in the Big Ten. PSU ranked in the top 40 all but once in the past eight seasons.
6. Have at least one player selected in the first round of the draft following the national championship. The Lions have been shut out of the first round the last three seasons, and that's not going to change in the next draft either. Still, with players like Barnes, Donovan Smith, Allen Robinson and Adrian Amos, that unkind streak won't last for too much longer.
7. Have a player combine for at least 10 rushing or receiving touchdowns. A-Rob had 11 TD catches last season, and Zach Zwinak had six rushing TDs despite not seeing considerable time until Week 4. The odds are likely even this year that one of these players will reach double-digit TDs. But going forward, once PSU has a seasoned quarterback, this is something that should be relatively easy to meet.
8. Do not lose a nonconference game in the regular season. Obviously, PSU opened last season with losses against Virginia and Ohio before reversing its fortunes. And, this year, the nonconference slate figures to be an easier one. Eastern Michigan and Kent State should be pushovers, and Syracuse is retooling. UCF is the one team PSU needs to concern itself with. There's really not a powerhouse nonconference opponent scheduled in future years, and PSU won't face a harder test here than in the conference slate.
In a best-case scenario this season, PSU should be able to meet three of these criteria. And, in the future, the two biggest question marks appear to be ranking higher in rushing offense and improving passing efficiency.