Penn State's shot at winning Big Ten 

April, 22, 2011

Here is this week's mailbag:

From @JohnTCpsu: What will it take for the Penn State Nittany Lions to win the Big Ten?

The Big Ten race is going to be more fascinating this year than it's been in a long time. Some of that is to due to the uncertainty surrounding the Ohio State Buckeyes heading into the season, stemming not only from the five-game suspension of five key players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, but also the status of coach Jim Tressel as the program awaits the word of the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. OSU has won or tied for first in the Big Ten six consecutive seasons, so obviously it plays a key role in the conference race. But on top of that, you have the Wisconsin Badgers and Iowa Hawkeyes having to replace solid starting QBs and a bunch of outstanding linemen, the arrival of a powerful Nebraska Cornhuskers team and the upswing of Penn State and the Michigan Wolverines.

I expect both the Nittany Lions and Wolverines to be much improved in 2011, but the real question is how much.

PSU first needs to figure out who will be leading the offense, as the coaches decide between Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin. Joe Paterno raved about Bolden's ability, but it's hard to dismiss McGloin's poise and presence in sparking the team. I believe they can have a big year with either player under center. In 6-foot-5 wide receiver Derek Moye, the Penn State QB will have one of the best wideouts in the Big Ten at his disposal. Moye caught eight TDs in PSU's last eight games.

They need Silas Redd Jr., the speedy rising sophomore tailback, to blossom into a star. He looks like he can be a big-time future NFL talent. Evan Royster, who was a very solid, productive back, is gone. Now we need to see if Redd is ready to get 18 to 25 carries a game in Big Ten play. Expect Brandon Beachum, who missed last year, to also be effective in the run game. Up front, I'm sure they'll miss Stefen Wisniewski, who was their rock, but word is the light has finally come on for massive lineman Johnnie Troutman, and he can be a real factor for them.

One other key for the offense: Whenever the Nittany Lions have had a really good running game, they've had a big, formidable tight end (or tight ends) sealing the edge. They should have that this season because their tight ends are pretty massive.

On defense, they can get back to looking like a Penn State defense with standout linebacking play, but only if some of the young talent that emerged this spring (LB Khairi Fortt, CB Mike Wallace and DE Kyle Baublitz) can make an impact in the fall.

Losing defensive end Pete Massaro with a knee injury for the spring is a hefty blow, but you still have Devon Still as a good anchor, and longtime defensive line coach Larry Johnson has always been very adept at cranking out good fronts loaded with difference-makers.

Last year's PSU team was extremely young, but this group now has a lot of seasoning. I read a stat somewhere that said the Lions return 22 players who made at least three starts last year. That's a good base to build on. The bad news is the schedule is not friendly at all. After a cupcake opener against Indiana State, the Nittany Lions get a visit from an Alabama Crimson Tide team that figures to be a preseason top-five squad. After that things settle down, since they have only two road trips in their first seven games, and those are to play the Temple Owls (which will be a de facto PSU home crowd) and Indiana. But then there's a nasty final three games, at home against Nebraska and then road games at Ohio State and Wisconsin.

One Penn State insider I really trust told me that if the Nittany Lions can be 8-1 going into the Nebraska game and have no controversy at the quarterback position, they'll have a realistic shot to win the league. The earlier the staff settles on its QB choice, the less chance there will be for division in the locker room. My source told me there were two different camps in the locker room last year. One guy has to emerge and put all that stuff to rest.