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Penn State conference preview

Penn State enters play in a weakened Big Ten, hoping to steal a Leaders Division title.

Rob Christy-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The Bill O'Brien era got off to a rocky start on the field when the Nittany Lions dropped their first two games of 2012. The loss at Virginia in week two left a particularly bad taste in the mouths of many, as Penn State played well, only to lose on four missed field goals by Sam Ficken and a blocked extra point.

Things have turned around the last couple of weeks, though. Granted, Navy and Temple probably aren't the best measuring sticks for Penn State, even in its weakened condition, but nevertheless, the pair of wins against the Midshipmen and Owls have done wonders for the Lions' confidence.

And considering how the last year has gone for Penn State, from the firing of Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal to NCAA sanctions handed down over the summer, no one should downplay the effect a little good news might have around the program.

Now, Penn State will enter conference play ineligible for the Big Ten Championship game, but still with a shot to take the Leaders Division crown. Here are some reasons why the Lions can and can't take home the hardware come November.

Why Penn State Can Win The Division

Everybody else stinks. Take a look around, folks. There's no inspiring favorite in the group right now. Ohio State is 4-0 but hasn't been very convincing in getting there, and the Lions will host the Buckeyes Oct. 27. Wisconsin is 3-1, but lost to an Oregon State team coming off a three-win season and barely got by Utah State at home. Illinois has been blown out twice, most recently by Louisiana Tech out of the WAC. And though Purdue and Indiana are both off to nice 2-1 starts, they haven't beaten anyone of substance and haven't shown they can in the recent past.

In most years, Penn State as constituted wouldn't have much of a chance, and by no means can anyone expect the Lions to run the table and put a vice-grip on things. But if Ohio State and Wisconsin drop a game or two and Penn State is able to beat one of them, there's a very good chance the Lions could share the crown in a tie-break situation.

Consistency at quarterback. Matt McGloin is finally the sole starter, and he's flourishing in O'Brien's offense. He leads the Big Ten with 1,006 passing yards and 83 completions. He's also thrown nine touchdowns against just two interceptions.

His success hasn't just been in the stats, though. His teammates have praised his leadership qualities and fans have seen them first-hand when he changes the calls at the line (something that would have been unheard of under Paterno). In his fifth season, this redshirt season is finally coming into his own and is as stable a presence at the most important position, something Penn State has lacked since Daryll Clark's last season in 2009.

Playmakers have emerged. Much was made of Justin Brown's transfer to Oklahoma in the wake of the sanctions, but so far, Allen Robinson has done an excellent job of making everyone forget that Brown was supposed to be this team's No. 1 receiver. In just four games, Robinson has 29 catches, six short of the 35 Brown had all of last season. He's also caught five touchdowns and made three catches of 40-plus yards already.

Robinson's ability to stretch the field has helped tight end Kyle Carter make a big impact, too. The redshirt freshman already has 16 receptions, one more than Andrew Szczerba and Kevin Haplea had out of the tight end spot all last season. If Robinson isn't open, McGloin knows he can look to Carter to pick up the first down.

The big-play ability this duo brings to the table gives Penn State's offense hope of breaking things open at any time, making the Lions a lot more dangerous offensively this season than they were in 2011.

Why Penn State Won't Win The Division

Lack of secondary depth. The defensive backs have allowed the fifth-most passing yards in the Big Ten so far, even after facing very run-heavy offenses from Navy and Temple the past two weeks. That's most discouraging when you consider the group has stayed mostly injury free to this point.

This signals Penn State's secondary is vulnerable as constituted and potentially ripe for the picking if any of Stephon Morris, Adrian Amos, Malcolm Willis, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Da'Quan Davis go down.

Uninspiring rushing attack. Penn State is ranked No. 96 nationally in rushing yards per game, averaging 124.0. Part of that is a result of O'Brien's preference to pass, but it wasn't until this past week that backs started ripping off bigger gains on the ground. Against the bigger defensive fronts Penn State will see in Big Ten play, the line might have an even tougher time opening up holes.

All that, and the running backs are pretty banged up at the moment. Starter Bill Belton hasn't played since the opener after suffering an ankle injury against Ohio. Derek Day hurt his shoulder at Virginia and hasn't played since. Curtis Dukes has been nursing a bad thigh and Michael Zordich was popped in the knee against Temple. All are expected to be ready to go this week, but it's not clear how close to 100 percent any of them are, and that could be bad news moving forward.

Inexperience-Penn State is replacing four starters in the secondary, two on the defensive line, four on the offensive line, three at wide out, two at tight end and one at running back. There simply aren't many guys on this team who've been through the wear and tear of a Big Ten season, and the depth behind them has been depleted by transfers and dismissals.

That's hard to overcome.

The talent is there to compete in every game left on Penn State's schedule, but when it comes down to crunch time late in games, the Lions' inexperience will likely manifest itself and cost this team some games.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.