NCAA Football Preview - Penn State Nittany Lions

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Penn State won seven games to become bowl eligible for the second straight year under head coach Bill O'Brien, although the team is still serving a postseason ban through 2015 from the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal.

There were some lows, such as an early-season home loss to UCF (34-31), as well as lopsided road setbacks to Indiana (44-24), Ohio State (63-14) and Minnesota (24-10). But there were also a couple of signature wins, beginning with a four-overtime 43-40 triumph over 18th-ranked Michigan, marking the Nittany Lions' fourth straight win in the head-to-head series. In the regular- season finale, Penn State went into Madison and toppled No. 14 Wisconsin, 31-24. That outcome sent the team into the offseason on a positive note, although another coaching shakeup loomed on the horizon.

In January, O'Brien accepted the vacant head coaching gig with the Houston Texans. Nine days later, Penn State replaced O'Brien with former Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin.


OFFENSE: Guiding the PSU offense is quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who last year won the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award. Hackenberg threw for nearly 3,000 yards (246.2 ypg) with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He seemed to get better as the season progressed, culminating in a four-touchdown effort against Wisconsin in the final game.

"I think Christian's got a lot of tools," coach Franklin said at Big Ten media day when asked if he thought Hackenberg is the most talented college quarterback in the country. "There's no doubt about it. The thing I'm probably most impressed is you talk about a kid that started as a true freshman, gotten all type of attention. There's been a lot of things that have gone on at Penn State through his recruiting process. Once he arrived on campus and now being a starting quarterback at Penn State is a big deal. The thing that I'm most impressed is how humble and how hungry and how open he is to coaching."

Replacing all-conference wideout Allen Robinson will not be easy, but Hackenberg has heaped steady praise upon this year's wide receiver group.

Top rushers Zach Zwinak (989 yds, 12 TDs) and Bill Belton (803 yds, 5 TDs) both return.

DEFENSE: The defense brings back seven starters from a year ago. Senior defensive end C.J. Olaniyan headlines the group up front after posting 11 tackles for loss, including 5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles.

At linebacker, senior Mike Hull is a popular preseason all-conference pick after ranking second on the team with 78 tackles in only 10 games.

In the defensive backfield, the Nittany Lions return three starters. Cornerback Jordan Lucas and safety Ryan Keiser both picked off 3 passes a year ago, and that duo combined for 27 passes defended.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PSU is in good shape at kicker, where Sam Ficken returns for his senior season. Ficken owns the school record with 15 consecutive field goals made, and that streak ended only because he just missed a 57-yarder at the end of the first half against UCF. He kicked a 54-yarder at home against Kent State.

OUTLOOK: A native of Pennsylvania, coach Franklin wasted little time making his imprint on the PSU football program, as his first recruiting class drew virtually unanimous rave reviews. Suddenly, a program still reeling from the 2012 sanctions is now boasting the slogan, "Dominate the State," a nod to the historically rich recruiting grounds in the state of Pennsylvania.

"Right now we have some challenges and issues that we need to overcome," Franklin said. "So guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and impact the roster quickly."

To kick off their 2014 schedule, the Nittany Lions will board a nearly eight- hour flight to Ireland for the season opener against UCF. Other than that, the road schedule is not particularly daunting, at least on paper. The toughest Big Ten road game is at Michigan on Oct. 11, and that game is sandwiched between two byes.

However, national title hopefuls Ohio State and Michigan State both come to Beaver Stadium this fall. With the postseason ban still in place, the best PSU can hope for is an East Division crown, although the Buckeyes and Spartans both call the division home in the newly realigned Big Ten.