Let's just cut to the chase. Penn State is a lot better than people think. Head coach Bill O'Brien has done a terrific job handling the scandal, and the penalties that came along with it.
With the 43rd-ranked recruiting class in 2013, including #1 QB Christian Hackenberg (named the starter for week 1), and #1 TE Adam Breneman, the Nittany Lions are loaded with talent on offense. O'Brien's club will score plenty of points this year, making them instantly competitive in a typically defensive conference like the Big Ten.
With one of the best fan bases and atmospheres in the nation, it's hard to imagine Penn State having a bad season. Here are my game-by-game predictions for the Nittany Lions in 2013.
Week 1: vs. Syracuse, August 31 (at Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ)
What I'm Thinking: The Meadowlands will be packed for this one. Two programs with a ton of history and prestige, but that aren't living up to it as of now. Penn State is in the better spot. Both teams lost their starting QB's (Nassib, SYR and McGloin, PSU), but only Syracuse lost its head coach. The Nittany Lions, led by Bill O'Brien, will find a way to beat Scott Shafer's Orange.
Prediction: Penn State 27, Syracuse 17
Week 2: vs. Eastern Michigan, September 7
What I'm Thinking: This is the home opener. Penn State simply doesn't lose this game, especially when the opponent is a cupcake like Eastern Michigan. Nittany Lions roll.
Prediction: Penn State 40, Eastern Michigan 7
Week 3: vs. Central Florida, September 14
What I'm Thinking: Another home game for PSU. But this week, a much tougher opponent with UCF and standout junior QB Blake Bortles coming to State College. The Lions will have a hard time stopping the Knights, but should be able to get a win at home in front of 100,000+.
Prediction: Penn State 31, Central Florida 23
Week 4: vs. Kent State, September 21
What I'm Thinking: A third consecutive home game for PSU, and what should be freshman QB Christian Hackenberg's fourth start. He'll be settled into the offense by this point. Kent State is simply outmatched.
Prediction: Penn State 33, Kent State 21
Week 5: at Indiana, October 5
What I'm Thinking: The Nittany Lions kick off conference play on the road with a softer opponent in Indiana. While the Hoosiers won't be contending for the Big Ten title, this should be PSU's stiffest competition yet. The Lions learn to deal with some adversity, and squeak out an ugly win.
Prediction: Penn State 20, Indiana 14
Week 6: vs. Michigan, October 12
What I'm Thinking: Finally, six games in, Penn State faces a top 25 team. Michigan is always a force to be reckoned with, but luckily, the Lions get them at home. I don't think it matters. QB Devin Gardner will be the best player PSU will face to that point, and the Wolverines will overwhelm th Nittany Lions in Happy Valley.
Prediction: Michigan 28, Penn State 17
Week 7: at Ohio State, October 26
What I'm Thinking: Even with a bye week after week 6, it doesn't get much easier for PSU in week 7, as they travel to Columbus to take on Braxton Miller and Ohio State. The Buckeyes, if all goes according to plan, should still be a top ranked team by this point in the season. Penn State will be pumped to be playing on Saturday night in primetime, but won't be able to handle Urban Meyer's offense.
Prediction: Ohio State 37, Penn State 24
Week 8: vs. Illinois, November 2
What I'm Thinking: After facing Michigan and Ohio State in back-to-back games, Penn State will return home to face another conference opponent, Illinois. The Lions will find Illini' QB Nathan Scheelhaase much easier to handle than Devin Gardner or Braxton Miller.
Prediction: Penn State 24, Illinois 19
Week 9: at Minnesota, November 9
What I'm Thinking: Penn State has to travel to take on the Golden Gophers, but it won't matter. Minnesota has consistently been one of the worst teams in the Big Ten for years. Nittany Lions win this one big.
Prediction: Penn State 35, Minnesota 17
Week 10: vs. Purdue, November 16
What I'm Thinking: Penn State is at home, and Purdue is a laughing stock. But games aren't played on paper. The Boilermakers will catch some breaks and make this one interesting, but the Nittany Lions will get another win.
Prediction: Penn State 16, Purdue 13
Week 11: vs. Nebraska, November 23
What I'm Thinking: Penn State finishes the season with two tough games back-to-back, Nebraska (home), and Wisconsin (road). Nebraska is the easier matchup here. PSU's athletic defense matches up well against Taylor Martinez and the Huskers, especially considering Martinez's erratic passing. The Nittany Lions win in a shootout.
Prediction: Penn State 39, Nebraska 37
Week 12: at Wisconsin, November 30
What I'm Thinking: The only thing keeping Wisconsin from winning BCS bowls every year is a top-tier QB (or even a mediocre one). By week 12, the Badgers will have a reliable signal-caller. UW's star RB James White will have a day, and get his team a narrow victory at home.
Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Penn State 20
SEASON RESULTS: 9-3 overall, 5-3 Big Ten (ineligible for postseason play)