Throughout August, we will be counting down the top 25 teams (as listed here) going into the 2009 season.  Today, we take a stroll up College Avenue, stop by for a cone of Peachy Paterno, visit with the crazies at Paternoville, and close out the night with some ponies at the Rathskellar.

That’s right, boys and girls… WE ARE… PENN STATE!

First Impressions

It’s 8:00 AM on a football Saturday.  You need only listen to the hustle and bustle of downtown State College to understand the electricity surrounding Penn State football.  Close your eyes and listen; the sounds of the crowd tell the story.  The pitter-patter of thousands of shoes wandering down College Avenue is purer than raindrops on a tin roof.  The trumpets emanating from the Student Bookstore are crisper than the cool, autumn air of central Pennsylvania.  The chants of students echo throughout Beaver Canyon like a megaphone in a bandshell.

It’s four hours before game time, and this is Penn State.  WE are Penn State.

I proudly say “we”, because it wasn’t all that long ago that I was a student.  I know that football means a lot to this place, because it built this place — it transformed the area from a small farming school in 1855 to the tier-one university it is in 2009.  It’s an institution that built an institution.  Its profits are the bricks for the state-of-the-art buildings that dot campus.  Its coach’s impact has been, both literally and figuratively, monumental.

And so it is, again, with Joe Paterno‘s humble attitude that the Nittany Lions take the field this season — for the 44th time, to be exact — in hopes of getting over the humps and bumps of yesteryear and returning back to the glory of 1986, their last championship year.  A BCS championship was oh-so-close last season, but with veteran leadership returning this year Penn State lies in the weeds, lurking as a darkhorse contender, ready to pounce on an opportunity that has eluded the program for 23 years.

Last Year

Plain and simple, Penn State was one game away from playing for a BCS title.  A letdown 24-23 loss at Iowa only two weeks after beating Ohio State was all it took to knock the Lions from national championship contention.  Though a Rose Bowl matchup against USC was a respectable consolation prize, it was painful to be that close to the BCS Championship and come away empty-handed, especially for a exciting contingent of senior receivers named Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood.

You could argue that Penn State played a weak schedule — and it did — but outside that disappointing Iowa game, it outplayed every single opponent, including an Oregon State team that beat USC and an Ohio State squad that almost upended Texas in the Fiesta Bowl.  In a season as crazy as 2008, that feat was absolutely something of which to be proud.

The Lions used a “Spread HD” attack crafted by the much-maligned Jay Paterno to fuel its offense.  Led by veteran Daryll Clark, a breakout season by RB Evan Royster, and the aforementioned contingent of WRs, Penn State averaged 206 yards per game on the ground, and nearly 250 yards per game through the air.  Likewise, the Lions’ defense was just as successful, holding opponents to a mere 2.8 yards per rush and less than 200 passing yards per game.

People

This season will be known as the year of Daryll Clark, Evan Royster, Navorro Bowman, and Sean Lee.  Clark, who seems like he’s in his 85th year of eligibility, will need to improve his passing game in order to excel with a less-experienced group of receivers including Graham Zug, Brett Brackett and Chaz Powell.  However, Evan Royster — fresh off a 1,200-yard campaign in 2008 — should help alleviate some of that pressure, running behind an offensive line that is less-experienced than last year, but still fairly solid.

Defensively, the return of Lee from an ACL injury will make the Lions’ defense that much tougher.  Lee, who most definitely would’ve been a top NFL pick if not for his injury, will join up this season with Navorro Bowman, who led all Penn Staters last year with 106 tackles, 12.5 of which were for losses.

This Year

Penn State’s conference schedule is slightly more difficult than last season, meaning that another potential run at a Big Ten / BCS Title is a distinct possibility, but arguably harder.  Look for the Lions to roll through September with big wins over Akron, Syracuse, Temple, and an Iowa team that ruined its season in ’08.  But as the calendar turns to October, Penn State will face its first true test on the road against an Illinois team picked by many to be a Big Ten contender.  Three weeks later, the Lions hit the road again and travel to Michigan, for what should be a closer game than last year’s 46-17 massacre.  November poses two challenges: Ohio State in State College and Michigan State in East Lansing.

Conclusion

Penn State should be considered a favorite to win the Big Ten championship and be selected to a BCS bowl game.  However, there is no escaping the fact that the Lions lost a considerable chunk of their offense when their receivers graduated, and I just cannot see this team going undefeated, not with potential losses looming in the form of Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan State.  Consider the matchup with Illinois to be a bellwether for the remainder of the 2009 season — the Lions are 3-6 since 2000 in Big Ten road openers.

That said, there are at least 10 wins on this schedule.  No question about it.  The question, though, is can the Lions get back to 11 wins like they did in 2008.  The Big Ten will be better in ’09, and quite honestly, I’m just not comfortable saying they will.

Prediction

10-2

Highlights Set To Sweet Music From Varsity Blues and Aerosmith

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXJv_32KC4M

–Ty