Best Case/Worst Case/Prediction: Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Shawney Kersey (81) receives a hand off from quarterback Matthew McGloin (11) during practice at the Lasch Football Building practice fields. (Rich Barnes-US PRESSWIRE)

Since these articles are about what happens on the field, I will do my best to keep that trend going, even though Penn State’s upcoming season will be surrounded by off-the-field news from the past 10 months.

Penn State’s 2011 season started hot with an 8-1 start, the lone loss to mighty Alabama. After a tight 10-7 win over Illinois, the news about Sandusky changed the course of a once promising season.

In the first game without former head coachJoe Paterno on the sidelines, PSU was very competitive, but ended up losing to Nebraska. The loss to the Huskers made the division race a lot more interesting.

After knocking off Ohio State, the Nittany Lions travelled to Wisconsin in a winner-take-all game. Wisconsin played a gem and “smoked” the Lions. The combination of a 1-2 finish to end the season, including a 45-7 humiliating loss to the Badgers, and the growing stigma surrounding the program, nine-win Penn State fell all the way to the Ticket City Bowl.

What could have been an easy bowl game, turned into a tall task of playing a solid Houston team in the Lone Star state. PSU came out flat, while Houston was still smarting from their stunning loss in the C-USA title game. The Cougars scored the bowl win to end Penn State’s season.

Lost in the shuffle of the hot start was the simple truth that the offense was never that good. Several of their nine wins were ugly. They beat Indiana 16-10, bested Iowa 13-3, Temple came up just short in a 14-10 final and the previously mentioned tight win over Illinois. When it was all said and done, the unit finished 110th in scoring. This gives way to two questions, how did it get so bad and how did they pull off nine wins?

Well the offensive issues can be traced to the passing game. A combination of conservative play calling, coupled with a foolish qb rotation to start the season, led to the nation’s No. 96-ranked passing attack. The good news on this front is that Bill O’Brien is not afraid to sling the ball around, and the QB carousel is done with Rob Bolden transfered to LSU. QB Matt McGloin always produced better results compared to the more athletic Bolden.

[Related: Best Case/Worst Case/Prediction: Ohio State Buckeyes]

The bad news for the Nittany Lions is what receivers are going to catch the ball. Derek Moye is now playing on Sundays. Justin Brown has transferred and Devon Smith has also departed. Yikes. Returning leading receiver, Shawney Kersey, caught just five passes for 108 yards and zero touchdowns. Double yikes.

The nine wins last season came from the “ground and pound,” paired with a ferocious defense. The rushing attack managed to be effective despite the lack of a passing game. Unfortunately, graduation and Silas Redd’s transfer leaves the running back unit very green as well. Penn State relied on the 5th ranked defense a year ago and they will be called upon once again. It’s a good thing they have several key pieces back, including Michael Mauti. When he is healthy, he is one of the scariest players in the nation.


  • Best Case represents best case record following each game.
  • Worst Case represents worst case record following each game.
  • Prediction represents predicted outcome of the game, and what their record will be following each game.

2012 Schedule:


Best Case (1-0): Sometimes MAC teams that are expected to have giant seasons aren’t used to such a high profile game, and struggle at the start. I saw this first-hand when Iowa dominated the Ben Roethlisberger led Miami RedHawks not that long ago.

Worst Case (0-1): Of course the above is just a working theory. Teams pegged to have a monster year expect to win games like these, despite the talent gap.

Prediction (W, 21-17, 1-0): I’m tempted to take the Bobcats, but this defensive unit will be unlike anything Ohio sees this season. Don’t know how they could have prepared for the Nittany Lions defense, let alone prepare to face it in front of a hundred thousand screaming fans. Frank Solich’s squad could run the table after this one though. He has a “helluva” team on paper this season.

@ Virginia

Best Case (2-0): Despite winning eight games a year ago, the Cavaliers never really excelled.

Worst Case (0-2): Who cares about their stats, this Cavs team was a scrappy bunch and used a late-season four game winning streak to propel them. Even more impressive, three of those four wins were on the road. The results speak for themselves.

Prediction (L, 17-24, 1-1): A sneaky tough opening two games for the Lions. UVA returns Michael Rocco at QB, and if he cuts down on his interceptions, he’ll be one of the ACC’s elite players this season. Also back is a rushing attack that had over 2,000 yards. This will be a tall order for any team, especially one with the unknows of Penn State.


Best Case (3-0): As discussed in Indiana’s preview, Navy was just 5-7 last year and Kriss Proctor is no longer under center. Could be a long year for the Middies.

Worst Case (1-2): Hard to see PSU dropping this one at home, especially if they do start 0-2.

Prediction (W, 28-21, 2-1): Navy is a questionable team most seasons, but in addition to the losses on offense, they gave up nearly 30 points per game a year ago. They would have to really show me something the opening weeks to give me any pause on this selection.


Best Case (4-0): The nine-win Owls of a year ago lost both their QB and “out of this world” running back talent, Bernard Pierce, to the NFL.

Worst Case (2-2): No Pierce, no win…no matter how mediocre Penn State proves to be.

Prediction (W, 21-10, 3-1): Not only was Temple deadly rushing the ball last season, but they had the third best scoring defense. The Owls return to quality football has been nothing short of amazing, but this does look like a rebuilding year.

@ Illinois

Best Case (5-0): The Illini are one of the biggest question marks coming into Big Ten play. They still have some talent, but if the new staff can get it going in the right direction in year one remains to be seen.

Worst Case (2-3): UI hung around in Happy Valley a year ago against a better PSU team. Not a stretch to see them scoring a huge win early in the Beckman era.

Prediction (W, 28-14, 4-1, 1-0): You know it’s crazy, way back when I did Illinois’s prediction, I picked PSU based on Redd, Brown and Smith. With all three gone now, I can’t get myself to change this pick. Illinois gives me the willies. Just too many unknowns for me to take them with much confidence. I might not like Penn State that much on paper right now, but at least I think I have a little bit of a gauge on them.


Best Case (6-0): The Nittany Lions defense is as good as last year and now the scorers have hit their stride. Look out Big Ten.

Worst Case (2-4): The fragile Mauti goes down for the season for the second straight year and a long season just keeps getting longer.

Prediction (W, 24-17, 5-1, 2-0): The Lion’s front seven dictate this game, as opposed to NU’s tempo gassing them. PSU makes life just hard enough to prevent the ‘Cats from getting the win.

@ Iowa

Best Case (7-0): There is a chance Iowa could be a real mess with so many faces on the coaching staff and roster. Meanwhile, the now red-hot Nittany Lions are ranked between No. 15 and No. 10 in the AP.

Worst Case (2-5): On the other side of the coin, there is a real chance Iowa could be a sleeper in the Big Ten, while PSU limps through a season no one in Western PA wants to remember for countless reasons.

Prediction (L, 14-17, 5-2, 2-1): One reason I had predicted this game so tight was big ole Silas Redd going against the youthful Iowa d-line. With that matchup now gone, I like Iowa’s chances a little bit more; however, this still looks like a toss-up.

Ohio State

Best Case (8-0): In a battle of nearly identical teams (great D/lousy O), Penn State gets a bit more out of McGloin than the Bucks do from Braxton Miller.

Worst Case (2-6): Ohio State is rolling, highly ranked and not missing a beat with a new coach. Penn State…not so much.

Prediction (W, 28-21, 6-2, 3-1): I’m still hesitant to pick the Buckeyes in games against good defenses because of their issues with the ball, so PSU gets the nod.

@ Purdue

Best Case (9-0): McGloin’s stellar season continues, as well as Mauti’s. The AP now has them sniffing around the top 5.

Worst Case (2-7): The talk of Purdue’s breakthrough year are true; meanwhile, the nightmare continues as PSU is in danger of going winless in-league.

Prediction (L, 21-24, 6-3, 3-2): A week after their biggest win, Penn State suffers it’s worse loss of the year. By this point of the Big Ten slate, Penn State has had a relatively easy go of things in terms of their defense being able to keep the game reasonable. Purdue has all their playmakers, but Justin Siller back. If the Boilermakers can get a couple defensive stops, they will have a chance to overwhelm Penn State with the ball.

@ Nebraska

Best Case (9-1): The national drama of “what does it mean if Penn State goes undefeated?” ends on a bitterly cold November day in Lincoln. Nebraska won this game last season at Penn State and has much more returning talent.

Worst Case (2-8): Only the Indiana game next week can prevent Penn State from going oh-for.

Prediction (L, 21-28, 6-4, 3-3): This would have been a tall order for Penn State, even without the roster turnover. Don’t know if they can score enough if Taylor Martinez breaks a play or two.


Best Case (10-1): After dropping their first, and only game of the season, Penn State punishes the overwhelmed Hoosiers and maintain a top-10 ranking.

Worst Case (3-8): Saved from 0-8.

Prediction (W, 31-14, 7-4, 4-3): Back when I previewed this game for Indiana I eluded that Penn State might be a nice story, with McGloin and Redd returning and this game being in Happy Valley, a tough place to play for teams as green as Indiana. Well, two of those three things are still true…


Best Case (11-1): Danny O’Brien regresses even more than he did last year, and with all the pounding Ball has taken thus far, he is out with an injury by the final week of the season. Meanwhile Penn State ends the year 4th in the AP and the de facto Big Ten title.

Worst Case (3-9): With the combo of sanctions and horrid results, the recruiting class winds up last in the Big Ten, and even behind Marshall, Louisiana Monroe and Texas El Paso nationally.

Prediction (L, 17-35, 7-5, 4-4): This one wasn’t close a year ago. Tempting to make the margin even larger, but I think Russell Wilson versus O’Brien is at least a ten point difference, so I’ll stick with 35 for now.

Final Comments:

So the natural question is…what would this post have looked like without the player departures? Well, Virginia is a win, Purdue is a win, Nebraska becomes a toss-up like Iowa and the Wisconsin game would probably be a lot closer, if not a toss up since it is in Beaver Stadium. That would give Penn State 9 wins, with Iowa/Nebraska being at worse a split.

What does seven wins mean in the real-world? A whole heck of a lot. Even without the sanctions, there was a great chance that Penn State would have been welcoming a new coach this season. Joe Paterno was close to retirement and the cancer most likely would have taken his life regardless of the timing during the Sandusky story. Penn State would ultimately still have had a lot of heartbreak and drama swirling around them. In that type of climate, any fan base would love to have seven victories. The question that remains is, will seven wins be enough for Bill O’Brien to keep some recruits around? I think so, but ask me again next summer.

Best Case/Worst Case/Predictions