A disappointing end to a disappointing 2010 has many Penn State fans eager to start the new season on September 3, when the mighty Sycamores of Indiana State travel to Happy Valley for what should be a tough battle. In addition, the return match of an old foe; a new conference rival; and a second consecutive trip to one of the hardest places to play football figure to be difficult stops for the 2011 Lions. Fortunately, there are some great weapons on the team, warriors prepared for a grueling 13-week battle with an eye toward the first ever Big Ten Conference Championship and beyond. Here are just a few of them.
Team MVP and Defensive MVP: Michael Mauti. The Lousiana-born linebacker is the next face of Linebacker U, and a very refreshing one after the unit as a whole turned in a disappointing season last year. Mauti was a very hyped freshman in 2008, and immediately saw action on special teams and defense. Unfortunately, a knee injury kept him out of 2009. Mauti returned in 2010 with decent results. Now a member of the starting corps (one that has many fans thinking of some of the great linebacker lineups of the past), Mauti will likely team up with Glenn Carson and Gerald Hodges to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. They will be put to the test in Week 2, when Trent Richardson and the Alabama Crimson Tide head to Penn State, a year after their 24-3 drubbing of the Lions in 2010. It will be incumbent upon Mauti and the others to contain Richardson. If not, if could be a long day in State College.
Offensive MVP: Silas Redd. After four great years with Penn State, Evan Royster, the school's all-time leading rusher, has left town and some big shoes to fill. Fortunately for fans, Redd has already shown he's more than capable of filling those shoes. He was second on the team in rushing last year, passing other running backs on his climb up the depth chart. He now sits squarely at the top and will be expected to shoulder more of a load in 2011. He will get help from some major beasts in short-yardage and goal line situations, but Redd will be the primary back, and the 2011 season's success will be directly related to the level of success Silas Redd can achieve.
Strongest Position Group: Linebackers. As many Penn State fans know, Joe Paterno is prone to playing a senior member of a position group, despite younger players having an edge talent-wise. That was no different in 2010, when departed linebackers Chris Colasanti and Bani Gbadyu saw a majority of the action while uber-athletes like Carson, Hodges, Mike Hull, and Khairi Fortt played more sparingly. In 2011, the top six linebackers are all highly-rated, highly-recruited, typical Penn State linebackers with serious noses for the football. While they will face some tests throughout the season (Richardson, Wisconsin's one-two punch of James White and Montee Ball, and Ohio State's Dan "Boom" Herron, among others), this unit should anchor a defense that is expected to be strong.
Weakest Position Group: Offensive line. Unfortunately, this entry is like a broken record. Rather than reloading up front like Wisconsin and Ohio State, Penn State tends to have a great offensive line once every four years or so, and then a mediocre-at-best line the rest of the time. Portions of the line were good in 2010, but the run blocking was atrocious and gone is second-round NFL Draft pick Stefen Wisniewski. The tackles should be serviceable in Chima Okoli and Quinn Barham, but the interior has some questions with Wisniewski and starting center Doug Klopacz departed.
Nittany Lion Most Likely Be In GQ: Derek Moye. The well-dressed receiver showed off his duds at the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this summer. Luckily, he plays as well as he dresses, leading the Lions in receptions, yards, and touchdowns in 2010 and hungry for more in 2011.
Freshman Impact Player And Nittany Lion Most Hated By Pitt Fans: Bill Belton. In the wake of the Dave Wannstedt firing/Mike Haywood debacle, Belton dropped his commitment to the Panthers in favor of the Nittany Lions. Thanks (unfortunately) to injuries on the depth chart, Belton has a good chance to see action as a slot receiver or kick specialist in 2011. Thanks, Pitt!
Head Coach Most Likely To Play Nine Holes After Each Home Game: Joe Paterno. An offseason injury limited Paterno near the end of summer, causing him to hold court for the media at Penn State's Media Day from a golf cart. At 401 wins, the man could speak to the media stark naked in an empty cafeteria and he would command attention.
Season Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 Big Ten), Capital One Bowl. Others will cite the brutal schedule as evidence that nine wins isn't attainable, but this team returns a lot of seniority to go along with a lot of youthful talent. They won't get through a difficult three-game November stretch against Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin unscathed, but they won't go 0-3 either. I could make a colorful argument for anywhere from six to 12 (yeah, I said it) wins, but nine seems most plausible.