OVERVIEW: What was a middling offense last season needs to improve. Penn State slumped down the stretch, losing three of its last four, and the main culprit was the offense. The Nittany Lions ranked ninth in the Big Ten in total offense (372.2 ypg) and scoring offense (24.5 ppg). A soft rushing game that averaged 142.5 ypg (ninth in the Big Ten; 74th in the nation) is a concern. The Nittany Lions use a pro-style attack, but they have added some elements of the spread of late and frequently use three-receiver sets.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: How good is this team in the trenches? The offensive line wasn't dominant in 2010, while the defensive front lacks depth and struggled to remain healthy last season.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: A consistent quarterback emerges, the offense is balanced and the front seven on defense is dominant, helping the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten's Leaders Division.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: A quarterback controversy is a divisive force on the offense, while injuries continue to hurt the front seven to compromise what could be a good defense. The Nittany Lions are a Big Ten also-ran and go to a minor bowl.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Penn State surrendered 165.6 rushing yards per game last season, which ranked 74th in the nation and was the most by a Nittany Lions defense since 2003. That number obviously needs to drop by 30 or so yards if Penn State wants to be a Big Ten contender.
BACKFIELD: Evan Royster, who ran for 1,014 yards in 2010 and became the school's leading career rusher, is gone. Still, there are few worries. The staff loves Silas Redd and Stephfon Green. The physical Redd ran for 461 as a true freshman last season, while the speedy Green will see his role expand. Brandon Beachum is back after missing last season with a knee injury. Joe Suhey and Michael Zordich - both "legacy recruits" - are the fullbacks. QB Robert Bolden started the first seven games before suffering a concussion against Minnesota. Matt McGloin, a former walk-on, took over and led the Nittany Lions to four wins. Both are back, though Bolden threatened to transfer in the spring. Keep an eye on this battle, as a quarterback controversy could ensue - and be harmful.
RECEIVERS: With three of the top four receivers from 2010 back, this is a good collection of talent. It's led by WR Derek Moye, who paced the team with 53 catches for 885 yards and eight scores in 2010. He teams with Justin Brown to form a strong 1-2 punch. There also are Devon Smith and Curtis Drake, who will try to contribute after suffering two broken legs. TEs Andrew Szczerba and Garry Gilliam need to become weapons after incurring season-ending injuries in 2010.
OVERVIEW: Coordinator Tom Bradley is one of the best in the nation. Last season's defense was solid but it made few big plays; only Indiana (13) forced fewer turnovers than Penn State (17) in the Big Ten. Where are the playmakers? Penn State ranked 101st in the nation in sacks and 75th in tackles for loss.
LINE: This group is on the spot. Es Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore have to bring the heat - and stay healthy after being nagged by injury. They headline a thin collection of ends. The transfer of T Brandon Ware hurts depth inside for a group looking to replace T Ollie Ogbu. Devon Still and Jordan Hill must be anchors on the interior. Still, a senior, hasn't reached his potential; perhaps this will be his breakout season.
LINEBACKERS: Chris Colasanti, the team's top tackler, and Bani Gbadyu are gone. Despite the losses, this may end up being one of the top corps in the Big Ten. Injuries have hampered Michael Mauti, who missed 2009 with a knee injury and played in just nine games last season because of ankle and shoulder issues. He's expected to be 100 percent this season and should challenge for All-Big Ten honors. Nate Stupar was third on the team in tackles last season, while youngsters Gerald Hodges, who has star potential, and Khairi Fortt are ready to shine for a speedy group.
SECONDARY: Led by CB D'Anton Lynn, the secondary is the strongest part of a veteran defense. Chaz Powell, a former wide receiver, and Stephon Morris play opposite Lynn. The safety duo of Drew Astorino and Nick Sukay, who is coming off a torn pectoral muscle that caused him to miss the last seven games, will be formidable.
P Anthony Fera is back after averaging 41.4 yards per boot as a sophomore to rank fifth in the Big Ten. Fera also is a candidate to replace K Collin Wagner, who is gone after nailing 20-of-25 field-goal attempts. The return teams are solid. Chaz Powell averaged 23.9 yards on kickoff returns with a touchdown in 2010. The coverage units did a solid job last season.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 28th
Buzz: It was a disappointing year in recruiting for Penn State in 2011. But it was a down year in Pennsylvania last year and the Nittany Lions did well in landing players such as DE Anthony Zettel from Michigan, ATH Bill Belton from New Jersey and OL Donovan Smith from Maryland. Things are going much better in 2012 for Penn State, with early commitments from Jarron Jones from New York, Jamil Pollard from New Jersey and J.J. Denman from Pennsylvania. - MIKE FARRELL
Keep an eye on true freshman Bill Belton, a dynamic athlete from New Jersey who could play wide receiver or defensive back. The four-star prospect initially committed to Pitt before flipping to Penn State.
A fast start is needed because the season ends with some heavy lifting. A September visit from Alabama will be the ultimate litmus test. But Iowa's visit on October 8 will be a better yardstick for the Nits, who have lost three in a row to the Hawkeyes. If Penn State - which gets a break not playing Michigan and Michigan State - needs a fast finish to bolster bowl hopes, it may be in trouble. No league school has more daunting November games, with a visit from Nebraska and trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin to close the season.
Coming off consecutive 11-2 seasons, Penn State wasn't expected to be a Big Ten title contender in 2010. Youth and inexperience were the by-words and, sure enough, the Nittany Lions delivered pedestrian results. Now, with those growing pains behind it, Penn State may be poised to deliver bigger results this season. Still, there is plenty for the Nittany Lions to work on as the program embarks on its 46th season under Joe Paterno, 84, who has no plans to leave his post. Penn State may not have the stuff to compete for the Big Ten title or win the Leaders Division crown. But never count out a Paterno-coached team. If the Nittany Lions can settle on a quarterback, juice up a soft rushing game and find some playmakers among the defensive front seven, Penn State could be a dark-horse Big Ten contender.