How 2013 Went: Well, it ended with the stunning-but-not-really-all-that-stunning departure of coach Bill O'Brien, who did nothing less than help save a program that just two years ago found itself on the brink of extinction. But before that whole thing went down (and before Penn State ended up hiring a guy who just might be even more effective than O'Brien proved to be), the Nittany Lions turned in another good-if-not-great season under the most difficult of circumstances. Though there were a few definite lowlights--the 44-24 loss to Indiana, Penn State's first-ever defeat to the Hoosiers, was a humbling experience, and the 63-14 beatdown at the hands of Ohio State was downright embarrassing--O'Brien managed to X-and-O his way to a respectable 7-5 record that included wins over the likes of Syracuse, Michigan and, most notably, Wisconsin. That season-ending win in Madison stunned just about everybody, not least the Badgers, and hinted at what O'Brien might be capable of if only he had a full roster. Of course, now he's coaching the Houston Texans, so that's a moot point.
How 2014 Looks: Pretty good. Though the Nittany Lions will have to deal with the loss of their best player, standout wide receiver Allen Robinson, there is a decent core of young talent returning, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who threw for 2,955 yards and 20 touchdowns (against just 10 interceptions) as a true freshman in 2013. Though there were obviously concerns that Hackenberg might leave once O'Brien's departure became official, the quarterback has decided to stick around in Happy Valley--and his new coach is probably a big reason why. While losing O'Brien was certain painful for Penn State, in the the end, the program might actually find itself with a better coach now than it had a few months back. That's because, despite the fact that the program remains under tough NCAA sanctions for two more years, Penn State athletic director in January engineered the hire of one of the hottest names in the coaching business--James Franklin. Franklin, who worked wonders during his tenure at Vanderbilt, won over the Penn State fan base with his introductory press conference and quickly went about the work of energizing the program's recruiting efforts, too. He brings an energy and excitement to this program that even O'Brien couldn't provide, and for that reason, things are looking up in Happy Valley.
Schedule Breakdown: The highlight of the season very well might be the opener, in Dublin, Ireland, against UCF. Given that the Nits can't play in a bowl game for another couple of years, this is essentially their bowl game, and with Franklin leading the charge, you can be sure this team will be ready to play in this one. Beyond that, the schedule offers intriguing new league matchups against longtime Eastern rivals Rutgers (Sept. 13) and Maryland (Nov. 1), along with the usual highlight battle against Ohio State (Oct. 25). The season-ending matchup against much-improved Michigan State (Nov. 29) should offer some indication of how far the Nits need to go to catch up to the league's best.
The Season Will be a Success If ...: Franklin matches O'Brien's moderate level of success. It will take Franklin a couple years to get this team ready to challenge for a league title, but in the meantime, he'll only need to keep the program on the same trajectory that O'Brien had it moving in before his departure. Given the ongoing sanctions, the fan base will be forgiving, and 7- or 8-win seasons will probably be enough.
The Season Will be a Failure If ....: The Nittany Lions finish any less than .500. It's a minor difference in reality but a large difference in perception, but 7-5 will be greeted much more favorably than 6-6. Franklin would be wise to avoid the latter.
The Verdict: The loss of Robinson will be massive for this team, and even with a talented group of wideouts coming in with the new recruiting class, the reality is that Franklin isn't going to find anybody capable of replacing this guy. That being said, the combination of the roster's existing talent and the incoming talent and Franklin's high-energy approach should enable Penn State to turn in another decent season. Nine wins aren't out of the question, and anything less than six seems highly unlikely. Starting in 2015, though, look out--this program will very quickly find itself back among the elite. Prediction: 7-5