UNIVERSITY PARK - While the national media predicted doom and gloom for Penn State in the wake of the NCAA sanctions last year, statewide reporters covering the Nittany Lions had higher expectations.
Most, in the Mirror's annual survey of reporters on media day in 2012, predicted the Lions would go 7-5, and Bill O'Brien's team surprised some by going 8-4. If they hadn't started slow, with frustrating losses to Ohio University and Virginia in the first two games, the Lions could have gone 10-2.
In a survey of 23 reporters at Thursday's media day, the overwhelming pick was for the Lions to again go 8-4. Fifteen media members went with 8-4, while four predicted 9-3 and four went with 7-5. For the record, of the four Mirror reporters, three different records were predicted.
Many in the survey said there were big questions about the quarterback position, where junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson and blue-chip recruit Christian Hackenberg are battling to start after the graduation of Matt McGloin, as well as depth on the defensive line and at linebacker.
In addition to McGloin, the Lions also lost linebackers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges, who were both drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, defensive tackle Jordan Hill, drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, and fullback Michael Zordich. Mauti and Zordich were the most vocal players after the NCAA handed out the sanctions.
There are advantages, though, the survey says, as 1,000-yard rusher Zach Zwinak and heralded redshirt freshman running back Akeel Lynch, return, as does leading receiver Allen Robinson, talented tight ends like Jesse James, offensive guard John Urshel, defensive end and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Deion Barnes and safety Adrian Amos are among those returning for the 2013 season.
One of the other keys is the kicking game, and not many figured Sam Ficken would struggle so much early on, including his nightmarish game against Virginia. Ficken came on toward the end of the season, and his success could be key early as new guys get used to their roles.
Games against Michigan (Oct. 12), Ohio State (Oct. 26), Nebraska (Nov. 23) and Wisconsin (Nov. 23) weighed heavily in the predictions. The reporters gave reasons to support their picks, which you can read below. Last year only four predicted 8-4.
Philip Cmor, Altoona Mirror - Record: 9-3. Comment: "You've got a couple potential missteps there, but I think that they have eight pretty solid wins. With the playmakers they have like Robinson, Amos on defense and guys like Zwinak, and with the coaching staff and their ability to come up with something, I honestly think they can steal one from those four games people are predicting them to lose."
Cory Giger, Altoona Mirror - Record: 8-4. Comment: "I think there's enough talent on offense at all the positions to where the quarterback won't have to carry the entire burden. I do have some concerns more defensively, which is unusual for Penn State, but I think with O'Brien's offensive mindset, they'll be able to score enough to win eight games."
Todd Irwin, Altoona Mirror - Record: 7-5. Comment: "I'm not sure there are leaders like Mauti, Zordich, Hodges and McGloin in camp, and it might be hard to maintain that us-against-the-world attitude. There's obvious questions at QB and defensive depth, but Zwinak, Robinson and Jesse James on offense and Deion Barnes and Adrian Amos on defense are big advantages."
Neil Rudel, Altoona Mirror: Record: 8-4. Comment: "I think it's a middle of the road pick. I think the road schedule, even games at Indiana and at Minnesota, will not be automatic with the young quarterback, let alone games in Columbus and Madison."
Bill Albright, Billy Boy Sports - Record: 8-4. Comment: "I think a lot will depend on the quarterback. You just heard O'Brien say you've got two kids that are really competitive, really skilled, but neither one of them has taken a snap under center at Penn State. They have four outstanding tight ends. I think if they stay relatively healthy and a couple kids step, 8-4 is a realistic thing."
Mark Brennan, FightOnState.com - Record: 8-4. Comment: "As I look at the schedule, it's pretty clear the teams they'll be favored to beat and the ones that will be favored against them. I wouldn't be surprised they lose one they're supposed to win and win one they're supposed to lose. The real big key is staying healthy. If they get a couple key injuries, things could go south in a hurry. But if they stay healthy, I think they're 8-4."
Ben Brigandi, Williamsport Sun-Gazette - Record: 9-3. Comment: "I really don't think it matters that much who the quarterback is going to be because of the returning talent around him. I feel like whoever it is going to be in a better position to succeed under this regime."
Jon Christoff, The (Clearfield) Progress - Record: 9-3. Comment: "I think the team overall is going to be stronger physically this year because of the offseason training program. I think that will translate into another win or two, potentially. There are some question marks defensively replacing [Michael] Mauti and [Gerald] Hodges. That being said 9-3 isn't out of the realm of possibility."
Neil Corbett, Wilkes-Barre Citizen's Voice sports editor emeritus - Record: 7-5. Comment: "Depth will be a concern because of the cutdown in scholarships, but I think O'Brien will have them ready."
Andy Elder, The Associated Press - Record: 8-4. Comment: "They should sweep the non-conference [schedule], and I think there are a lot of winnable games on there, but I'm not sure if they have the depth of talent to compete with the elite in the conference."
Fran Fisher, retired Penn State radio play-by-play - Record: 8-4. Comment: "It's an interesting year. In one respect, it's a tough act to follow. In another, O'Brien has a year under his belt."
Bob Flounders, Harrisburg Patriot-News - Record: 8-4. Comment: "You could make a case for 9-3, but with the depth issues and the fact they're going to break in a young quarterback, I wouldn't be surprised they lost a game in the first four that surprised fans. I think they're going to play their best football in the second half [of the season]. They can't get a lot of injuries on defense, especially at linebacker."
Phil Grosz, BlueWhite Illustrated - Record: 8-4. Comment: "I think it depends on injuries. I'm not convinced that Penn State can't do what they did last year and go 8-4. I think people are putting too attention on the quarterbacks. I don't think you're going to see Bill O'Brien, with all the skill people that surround Hackenberg or Ferguson, throw 440 passes like he did with Matt McGloin. I think you're going to see a more balanced offensive attack."
Travis Johnson, Centre Daily Times - Record: 8-4. Comment: "I think they've got a lot of experience coming back. I think their offense will be pretty good and score a lot of points. Their defense isn't questionable, but they can't afford to suffer an injury. They don't have the linebackers that have the experience. They don't have the defensive line guys that have the experience.
Jacob Kaucher, WTAJ-TV - Record: 8-4. Comment: "I think they've got some pretty tough Big Ten games. Their non-conference schedule isn't the easiest, but it's not particularly difficult either. I've been telling people all summer [they have] top talent, and their starters are as good as anybody else's in the conference, but it's a matter of staying healthy."
Matt Maisel, WJAC-TV - Record: 8-4. Comment: "I went with 7-5 last year, and they proved me wrong. So, they have my expectations raised. Whoever starts at quarterback, whether it be Christian Hackenberg or Tyler Ferguson, I think both of those guys, at least going from what Coach O'Brien was saying, can have a handle of the offense and are going to be OK. I don't expect them to have the same type of slow start as last year now that everybody has a year under the Bill O'Brien system."
Walt Moody, Centre Daily Times - Record: 9-3. Comment: "It will obviously be interesting to see how the new quarterbacks perform. I would say certainly Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin are obviously going to be the toughest teams on the schedule."
Chris Morelli, Centre County Gazette - Record: 8-4. Comment: "There's some questions marks along both sides of the ball. My concern is, not only the quarterback position, which you're looking at somebody brand new, but also the defense. There are so many stars they have to replace. Depth is, obviously, key. If there's an injury, it could be crushing. I think O'Brien will get them going, and the schedule is built for success, especially early on."
Greg Pickel, FightOnState.com - Record: 7-5. Comment: "I wonder if one of those non-conference games is going to be a little tricky. I think Ohio State is a tough game. I think Michigan is a tough game. We all know what Nebraska and Wisconsin have back. I think this is a team that will be very interesting to see."
Jeff Rice, Lions 247 - Record: 8-4. Comment: "I think the defense should be pretty solid. They've got some questions with their defensive line depth and linebacker depth, but the secondary should be pretty good. I don't the quarterbacks will be as productive as McGloin was last year, but I don't think either one will be a disaster. The running game will be good. The receivers are good."
Rich Scarcella, Reading Eagle - Record: 8-4. Comment: "Much, of course, depends on the quarterback, whoever that is, and how quickly he progresses. Other big factors are injuries and depth. I think they have enough talent at other positions, so 8-4 and finishing second in the Leaders Divisions are realistic goals."
Andy Stine, The (Clearfield) Progress - Record: 8-4. Comment: "If the quarterbacks progress even better than we think they will, that could even bring them one more win. The schedule early on is definitely favorable for them."
Mark Wogenrich, Allentown Morning Call - Record: 7-5. Comment: "I think there's going to be injuries we don't know about yet, situations we don't know about yet, where they're going to be juggling players in positions, and they might not have the gas to finish."