Penn State (11-2, 7-1 Big 10)
Returning Starters: 5 offense, 4 defense
Whenever I get a gut feeling about something, I'm usually right.
I had a bad one when I saw a preview for the movie Stepbrothers (hated it), a good one when deciding to work this past summer in Alaska (best decision I've ever made) and a queasy one when I bought an egg salad sandwich at some back woods gas station a week ago (was on the toilet for three days).
My track record is pretty impeccable when it comes to gut feelings, and I just don't have a good one about Penn State. I know they're coming off an 11 win season. And that their out of conference schedule is softer than Rosie O'Donnell's midsection. They get both Ohio State and Iowa in Happy Valley, and return an All-Big 10 quarterback in Daryll Clark.
But here's my thing on Penn State. Last year so much of their effectiveness offensively was through the passing game. The ability to spread the ball to several receivers opened up the rushing attack for Evan Royster.
Well this year Clark and Royster return, but Penn State also loses three of their top four receivers, not only from last year, but in school history- with Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams now graduated. More pressure than ever is going to be on the running game.
Now Royster has proven he can handle a big workload, but the line in front of him- replacing three starters- may struggle. Especially when a couple of the new additions are going to be an unproven redshirt freshman, and a true sophomore.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions- as always- have a nice linebacking corps, but must replace their two defensive ends, including 1st round NFL Draft pick Aaron Maybin.
So for the record, there's uncertainty on the offensive line, and in the pass rush. Now I don't claim to be the world's foremost authority on football, and I never will. But I've also seen enough games to know this: if you can't control the lines of scrimmage, you won't beat good football teams. You just won't. Ask Georgia fans how their season ended up last year. Same with the folks at Clemson.
And while the Nittany Lions schedule isn't quite a run through the SEC, Iowa and Ohio State are far from sure-fire victories, nor are trips to Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. And don't sleep on Minnesota either, a team which returns 18 starters after winning seven games a year ago.
So thats my take on Penn State. The good news of course is that after winning 11 games in 2008 Joe Paterno's job is as secure in Happy Valley as it's been in a long time. Double digit wins aren't out of the question in 2009.
Unfortunately, there are going to be at least two or three games that are going to make Paterno's stomach uneasy as well. Just like my egg salad sandwich.