Bill O'Brien plans to return to Penn State in 2013, which is the most important thing to the football program. All bets are off if some NFL team makes him an offer he can't refuse, but presuming he is back, these are the biggest issues facing the Nittany Lions:
Some players will take advantage of the NCAA's transfer-and-play immediately policy, which runs until August, but the key will be keeping all of the young standouts. They've said they're coming back, but once they start fielding offers from powerhouse programs -- and some will, such as left tackle Donovan Smith, receiver Allen Robinson, cornerback Adrian Amos and defensive end Deion Barnes -- then they'll have tough decisions to make.
There is some outstanding young talent on the roster, and if Alabama or LSU or some other national title contender comes calling, it might be hard say no. Just ask Silas Redd. However, as the "departed Lions" link below shows, things didn't work out all that great for Redd and the others who transferred prior to this season, so that could be a deterrent to the players thinking about leaving.
Some players might transfer this month so they can be at their new schools for the start of the spring semester, while others on the fence might wait until after spring drills to see where they are on the depth chart. Two who would seem to benefit from transferring are running backs Bill Belton and Curtis Dukes, and there are others like those who have slipped back on the depth chart who could seek greener pastures. Even if no stars leave, overall depth will take a hit if more than a handful of players transfer.
SUBHD: No bowl practices
Despite what Allen Iverson said, practice makes players better. Not being able to go to a bowl game will cost the Lions 15 practices plus the game itself, and that hurts the development of younger players. Multiply it by four years, and that's a lot of missed opportunities for players to improve.
SUBHD: Recruiting sanctions
The Lions can offer only 15 scholarships next year, instead of the usual 25, and that will last four years. Then in 2014, the team will be maxed out at 65 scholarships for four years, instead of the usual 85.
The coaching staff simply cannot miss on players in recruiting, which is almost an impossible task. And while offensive players seemingly would love to come play in O'Brien's system, secondary help will be a major focus since there's so little depth there.
Penn State still has a lot to sell despite not going to bowl games and competing for conference titles, but make no mistake about it, the Lions are going to have a very difficult time attracting elite four- and five-star recruits. They need to keep the top players they already have committed and find some hidden gems who can be coached up by O'Brien and his staff.
SUBHD: Find JUCO QB
Prized quarterback recruit Christian Hackenberg is on board, but he might not be ready to step in as a true freshman and succeed in O'Brien's very complex offense. The coaches have been working on landing a junior college quarterback and have a good shot at Iowa Western standout Jake Waters (39 TDs, 3 INTs, 72 percent, 3,194 yards), who also is considering Kansas State.
Hackenberg can't enroll early because his military academy high school won't allow it, so Steven Bench currently is the only quarterback on the roster for the spring. Whether it's Waters or someone else, the JUCO quarterback who enrolls in January will have a lot of time to learn the offense and should have a good chance to win the starting job next season.
SUBHD: Assistants alert
It wouldn't be a surprise if one or two assistant coaches decide to leave for another job or, in the case of offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, retire. There are some outstanding assistants on the staff, they deserve good opportunities and there shouldn't be any hard feelings if some decide to pursue other options. Things should be OK if it's just one or two, but if there's a major overhaul on the staff, that would be problematic.
SUBHD: O'Brien's future
This isn't about keeping him around for next year, it's about the university potentially having to pony up a lot more money if it wants to keep him for the long haul. O'Brien is due to make $2.3 million a season for the next eight years, which is very good money but not top-dollar pay in college football by any stretch.
O'Brien's buyout is substantial ($9.2 million now, decreasing by $2.3 million for the next four years), but as the number decreases and it becomes easier for him to leave, Penn State should find a way to boost his salary by another million or so per year to stay competitive with the marketplace.
Who will be the leaders on the team next season? This year's senior class did a phenomenal job of it, but most of the best players next season will be juniors and sophomores, not seniors, so defining the leadership roles early will be vital.
Leadership gets tested when losses mount, and that's a possibility next season given how much talent the program is losing. The behind-the-scenes team building that takes place between now and August will need to bring forward strong leaders who can keep everyone focused in spite of adversity.
SUBHD: 2013 projected starters
Offense: Jake Waters or Steven Bench (QB), Zach Zwinak (RB), Allen Robinson (WR), Brandon Moseby-Felder (WR), Donovan Smith (LT), Miles Dieffenbach (LG), Ty Howle (C), John Urschel (RG), Adam Gress (RT), Kyle Carter (TE), Jesse James (TE).
Defense: Deion Barnes (DE), C.J. Olaniyan (DE), DaQuan Jones (DT), Anthony Zettel (DT), Mike Hull (OLB), Glenn Carson (MLB), Nyeem Wartman (OLB), Adrian Amos (CB), Da'Quan Davis (CB), Stephen Obeng-Agyapong (S), Malcolm Willis (S).
Special teams: Sam Ficken (PK), Alex Butterworth (P).