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Lowered expectations for Penn State in 2013? Only in win total

Zach Zwinak Penn State

Penn State won eight games last year to the surprise of almost everybody. Not me. I had them pegged as an eight win team despite the players lost to NCAA transfers following the sanctions falling on the program. This year marks year two under Bill O’Brien and I am interested to see if the Nittany Lions can find a way to match last year’s win total.

There are some things to like about Penn State. The Nittany Lions return the Big Ten’s leading receiver in Allen Robinson and one of the best overall tight end units in the conference allowing for some versatility in the passing game. The running game also returns 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak and could mix in some an improved Bill Belton. The defense should be good, but not great. Penn State’s linebackers may lack sizzle but they should be dependable as most Penn State linebackers tend to be. The defensive line features last season’s freshman of the year in the Big Ten, defensive end Deion Barnes, and the secondary could be one of the rare strengths of this year’s team. Penn State also will also likely add in some young players in key spots such as tight end Adam Breneman, running back Akeel Lynch and linebacker Nyeem Wartman to name a few. There’s also blue chip quarterback Christian Hackenberg who has fans salivating over the possibilities under O’Brien’s tutelage.

Can Penn State win eight games on what is actually a challenging 2013 schedule? Right now, at the start of August, I would not count on it. In fact, I am now on record of saying Penn State will not match their 2012 season win total. This week I participated in the latest Athlon Sports game-by-game prediction round table focusing on Penn State, just as I have done now for Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State. As my previous predictions will show, I already had Penn State pegged for three losses, although I will suggest home games against Michigan and Nebraska could very easily be flipped to wins if things go well for Penn State. I will of course revisit game predictions and base my updated predictions based on having watched what has unfolded throughout the season when we get to those points, but for now I start Penn State with three losses right off the bat.

To me, Penn State’s non conference schedule is not exactly the easiest. Syracuse is coming off a successful season and gets to play the role of home team in a venue they have adopted as their new home-away-from-home, MetLife Stadium, in a season opener against Penn State. Although the Orange have a new coach and a new quarterback, I suspect Syracuse will be more than capable of putting up a decent fight this season, and is a much more competitive team than the last time these old regional rivals collided not that long ago. For now, I’m leaning toward Syracuse until I see what Hackenberg (or Tyler Ferguson) can do in his first game. I also have Penn State dropping a home game to Central Florida, last year’s Conference USA runner-up and a team I suspect capable of giving Louisville a scare in The American this season. In a podcast for The B1G Time yesterday I explained I would actually call for a Penn State split between UCF and Kent State, who is on the schedule the following week. Regardless, Central Florida and Kent State are both teams that should not be taken lightly. Each are capable of beating Penn State in Beaver Stadium. After four non-conference games, I have Penn State at 2-2. Combine that with the three Big Ten losses I have already predicted, that leaves little wiggle room to finish the year at .500 or above.

The regular season finale at Wisconsin could go either way, because right now I just have no idea what to make of the Badgers heading in to the season, never mind what they will look like at the end of the year. The same goes for Penn State. For now, I’m giving the Badgers a home victory, but I feel Penn State should be able to win the rest of the games on their schedule.

While I do not see Penn State managing to pick up eight wins this season, I will suggest O’Brien continues to move the program forward in a positive direction.

To define success for Penn State right now you must dig deeper than just a simple win total. In some respects Penn State’s win total is about as meaningful as a starting pitcher’s win total in baseball. To judge either simply on total wins and nothing else is unfair and not informative enough. There is much more going on at Penn State with O’Brien than any amount of wins might show this season. He has been recruiting beyond expectations given the circumstances and if he can prove to be able to develop that talent then Penn State will be in good shape once the NCAA’s sanctions expire at the end of the 2015 season.

Check out how my picks compared to members of the Athlon Sports team as well as Big Ten Network blogger Brent Yarina. How many wins are you predicting for Penn State in 2013?

See my rundown for Ohio State,  Michigan and Nebraska as well.

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