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The Penn State Nittany Lions have a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the 2014 season and beyond. James Franklin was a high-profile coaching hire for the school after Bill O’Brien left for the head coach position of the NFL’s Houston Texans. Franklin should infuse some serious life into a program that desperately needs it after the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal decimated the program’s reputation and led to some serious NCAA sanctions.

It may take Franklin some time to put together a roster that can challenge the Ohio State Buckeyes and Michigan State Spartans in the Big Ten East Division, but recruiting class ranks should certainly go up as the program returns to a full number of scholarships and should be the first choice for in-state recruits after losing too many of them to Ohio and other neighboring states.

2014 Penn State Offense

The cupboard is hardly bare at Penn State, as sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg got valuable experience under O’Brien, who is highly regarded for his ability to work with and mold quarterbacks. Hackenberg threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns as a true freshman and was the Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year. The running game returns in tact with Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, a couple of seniors that combined for over 1,800 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

The production that returns may be overshadowed by what does not return. Allen Robinson, who accounted for 40.2 percent of the team’s 241 receptions, will play on Sundays with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The top returning receiver, tight end Jesse James, had just 25 catches for 333 yards, 72 less than Robinson for nearly 1,100 fewer yards. Four starters need to be replaced on the offensive line as the team learns new schemes under Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan.

2014 Penn State Defense

Defensively, the Nittany Lions had decent numbers overall, but the relatively light non-conference schedule causes the final tallies to be a little misleading. In conference play, the Nittany Lions allowed 264 passing yards per game and opponents completed over 60 percent of their passes. Some talent returns, as third-team Big Ten defensive back Jordan Lucas returns for his junior season as defending a team-high 16 passes last season. Senior safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser join Lucas in making this a secondary that should be vastly improved.

However, the lack of a pass rush and no playmakers in the linebacking corps could make life difficult for the secondary once again. Both defensive ends return, but the interior of the defensive line has to be replaced and the team’s biggest loss might be Larry Johnson, the team’s defensive line coach, who took a position with the Ohio State Buckeyes. DaQuan Jones led the team in tackles for loss with 8.5 and was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. Two starting linebackers return, but the days of Michael Mauti, Sean Lee, NaVorro Bowman, and Paul Posluszny are over, at least for the time being.

2014 Penn State Special Teams/Coaching

Special teams looks to be another area of concern for the Nittany Lions. Sam Ficken is just 30-for-46 (65.2 percent) on field goals during his three seasons and punter Alex Butterworth graduated. Ficken was just 10-for-17 from 30 to 49 yards last season and leaving points on the field with the current state of the Big Ten and how teams are built is a major problem.

From a coaching standpoint, the long-term gains should outweigh the down season that could be in store for the Nittany Lions. James Franklin is a home run of a hire, as he returns to the state of Pennsylvania to take his dream job. Both of his coordinators came with him and Vanderbilt went above and beyond their projected ceiling in Franklin’s last two seasons. He got the most out of the talent he had and the kids played hard for him. Along with his coordinators, Franklin brought some Vanderbilt commits with him to the Big Ten and SEC-caliber talent, no matter the program it came from, should be an upgrade.

Penn State Nittany Lions 2014 Football Schedule

The Nittany Lions open the season in Dublin, Ireland against the University of Central Florida, a team that may be scrambling early in the season to replace quarterback Blake Bortles. After hosting Akron, the Nittany Lions will be the first Big Ten Conference opponent for newcomer Rutgers on September 13 in New Brunswick, NJ. The first Big Ten home game for James Franklin will be two weeks later for Homecoming against Northwestern.

The Big Ten Conference schedule includes trips to Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, with home games against Ohio State, Maryland, and Michigan State to wrap up the season. The Nittany Lions are ineligible for postseason play again this season in light of the Sandusky scandal and subsequent sanctions.

Penn State Nittany Lions 2014 College Football Prediction: 7-5

James Franklin will get a lot out of this team, but there are major question marks at wide receiver and in the trenches on both sides of the ball. All five losses should come in conference play as the Nittany Lions benefit from Bortles’s departure for the NFL in the opener and a weak non-conference schedule with two MAC teams, Akron and UMass, and Temple from the AAC. The conference home games are rough and Penn State may only be favored in one of those (Maryland).

With 80 scholarships for the next two seasons thanks to a September 2013 appeal, and the standard 85 scholarships by 2016-17, Franklin will build this program back up in the near future, but the results won’t be seen in 2014.

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