2013 Season Previews: Penn State Nittany Lions

They're already planning the statue - Rich Barnes-US PRESSWIRE

Illinois coaches will be back on Penn State's campus on November 2, though they'll be bringing the team with them this time.

While Penn State remains on Illinois' schedule in 2014 and 2015 -- they're off it in 2016 and 2017 -- this year's meeting will be the last time the two schools meet as members of the same division, as Penn State will move east while the Illini go west.

Which means the three-year long tradition of these schools being division rivals is coming to an end, destroying all the history and memories.

I know, I'm tearing up too. It's just so damn sad.

Basics

Name: Penn State Nittany Lions
From: State College, Pennsylvania
2013 Record: 8-4 (6-2)
Returning starters: Eight offense, six defense, both specialists

Head Coach

It's good to see that Penn State fans learned their lesson with Joe Paterno when it came to coach worship because, after only one season in charge, Penn State fans pretty much worship Bill O'Brien as well. He is the hero that came in during the program's darkest time and not only re-invented the offense, but kept most of the team together and went out and actually won football games.

O'Brien's first season in charge was certainly successful, even with an 0-2 start that saw the Nittany Lions lost at home to Ohio and then on the road against a Virginia team that finished 4-8. He's done excellent work on the recruiting trail given the limits imposed on him, and he also helped make Matt McGloin look like a real life quarterback.

There's no question that O'Brien is a good coach, and he seems to be locked in for the long haul, but it will be interesting to see how he handles things in the coming seasons when the NCAA penalties against the school should have a greater impact.

History With Illinois

While these two schools met a few times before Penn State joined the Big Ten, the history really didn't begin until 1993, and the results are weighted heavily in Penn State's favor. in the first 20 meetings Penn State has won 16 of them, including last year's 35-7 ass-kicking. However, while Penn State won seven straight in the series from 1972 through 2000, things have been a bit more even the last 13 years.

And I mean a bit.

Of the four wins the Illini have managed against Penn State three have come since the 2001 season, though the Illini are still only 3-7 in that span. Though the Illini did win at Beaver Stadium in 2010. The only time they've ever done so.

What Do We Know About The Offense?

Well, there's a lot of talent returning. Zach Zwinak rushed for 1,000 yards last season and he returns, as does Penn State's top seven receivers from last season. That includes Allen Robinson who pretty much came out of nowhere last year to have a monster season, catching 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns. Tight end Kyle Carter (36, 453, 2) is back as well.

Of course, the real question about this offense is the quarterback, but I can't answer that because I don't know who the quarterback is yet. It'll either be junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson or five-star freshman Christian Hackenberg. If I had to wager a guess I'd lean Hackenberg simply because of the fact that Penn State's playing for nothing but pride, anyway. Why not get your freshman phenom out there for some experience?

No matter who it is, they'll probably play pretty well. Again, Bill O'Brien made Matt McGloin a more than competent quarterback. The man is a wizard.

How About The Defense?

I do have some questions about this unit in 2013. I fully expect the Nittany Lions to be solid on defense because they're always relatively solid on defense -- except in 2010 -- but only six starters from last season return. They also lose four of their five leading tacklers, including Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti. Only three starters from the front seven return, though Mike Hull saw plenty of time on the field last fall.

That's a lot of losses from a defense that gave up 19.1 points a game last year, while allowing only 4.90 yards per play. If it was an important defensive statistic, Penn State did well last year, but where the front seven losses could hurt is in the red zone.

Last season Penn State was the best red zone defense in the Big Ten, and ranked fourth in the nation behind only Utah State, BYU and Alabama. Will a defense with four sophomores or freshman in its front seven be as successful in in 2013? I'm not so sure.

Who On This Team Should I Be Aware Of?

I mentioned the youth on Penn State's defense, but it wasn't entirely fair because one of those sophomores was defensive end Deion Barnes who led the Nittany Lions with six sacks last season. Odds are he's going to be even better this year, and he could prove to be a giant pain in the ass for the Illini offensive line.

On the other side of the ball there's Allen Robinson. Yes, by the time November rolls around the Illini secondary will have a lot more experience, but the 6'3 Robinson might be the best receiver they've dealt with -- I say might because Kasen Williams and Kenny Bell don't exactly suck -- to that point. I can envision Robinson having a monster day against the Illini.

Isn't it amazing how the two players who worry me the most will be going against the Illini offensive line and Illini secondary? Strange how that happens.

Where Will They Finish In The Big Ten?

While Ohio State is going to win the Leaders Division, I have Penn State finishing third with second being in play yet again. A lot will depend on the health of this team because there's not a lot of experience or depth overall on this roster thanks to NCAA fun.

However, the deciding factor in my decision to put Penn State behind Wisconsin is the fact that the Nittany Lions play both the Buckeyes and Badgers on the road this season and their cross-divisional games include Nebraska and Michigan.

That's a tough schedule and I have a hard time seeing the Nittany Lions going 6-2 in the Big Ten again.

Can The Illini Win This Game?

History says no.

This game will be played in the first weekend of November yet it'll be only the second time the Illini are playing a true road game, with the first being at Nebraska. I also just feel that matchup wise the Illini aren't a good fit with Penn State, as this is a team that is going to air it out on offense and the Illini defense isn't built to stop good passing offenses at the moment.

Sure, it's possible that injuries could derail Penn State's season much the same way they did ours last year, but there's just too much working in Penn State's favor here.

Follow The Champaign Room on Twitter at @Champaign_Room and Like us on Facebook. You can follow Tom Fornelli on Twitter at @TomFornelli.

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