Rutgers fans are no doubt extremely excited to begin playing in the shiny new B1G conference, and luckily we won't have to wait that long for the first game. Even better, the first conference matchup is against an old foe that musters up lots of hate within the Scarlet faithful: Penn State. Yes, tTFP will be the program to welcome Rutgers into the Big Ten, except the welcome party will be held in the confines of High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, NJ. In case you need reminding, avoid the temptation to sell those tickets to fans wearing a dark hue of blue to the game. Now, let's take an early look at what the Nitty Kitties have to offer come September 13:
Head Coach: James Franklin (1st year)
Key returning players: QB Christian Hackenberg, RB Zach Zwinak, LB Mike Hull
2013 Record: 7-5 (4-4 B1G)
The offense might have the star player in Hackenberg, but the defense will most likely be the deciding factor for the 2014 Lions. By most accounts, Hackenberg lived up to his five-star billing. Sure, he had a superstar receiver in Allen Robinson, but you need a quarterback to make the most of that talent, and for a true freshman immediately thrown into the starting role, Hack did pretty well.
Bad news for Hack though - Robinson is scheduled to play on Sundays now. Note this from college football guru Bill Connelly:
Penn State ranked 106th in IsoPPP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of the magnitude of your big plays. The Nittany Lions had only 48 gains of 20+ yards in 2013 (95th in the country) and only 11 20+ rushes (99th). Any big-play potential came from the passing game, and most of that was derived from Robinson, who averaged 14.8 yards per catch.
So Penn State wasn't exactly an explosive offense last season, and the best chance for a big play is now gone. To make things worse, the number two receiver in Brandon Felder is also gone. The next two leading receivers to return for the Lions had 43 catches combined in 2013. We're about to see how far five-star talent can go.
That's not to say the cupboard isn't bare for Franklin. PSU signed three four-star receivers, including a well-known prospect out of Manalapan High School. Still, those recruits are all unproven. It's optimistic to say Hack can be as good, let alone better, when you lose a guy like Robinson. And we haven't even begun to discuss the offensive line, which lost LG Miles Dieffenbach to a knee injury in the spring. The lone returning starter is LT Donovan Smith, who brings a meager 20 starts to the entire line. I respect Hackenberg as a real talent, but the cards are stacked against the true sophomore for 2014.
The defense is a different story. A front seven led by senior MLB Mike Hull should be stout against the run, and the 74th-ranked pass defense returns basically the entire secondary, so like Rutgers, the young defensive backs should improve. The Big Ten is known for physical defense, and Penn State will be a good test to see if Rutgers can compete within the conference.
And then there's the bald man himself, James Franklin. He's proven himself an ace recruiter so far, and he brought success to a program in Vanderbilt that had lived in the SEC basement for years before his arrival. Still, his best win there was against a #15-ranked Georgia team that finished the season 8-5 (that Georgia squad did suffer some key injuries down the stretch). Can he do better with more talent, but also more scrutiny? If your answer is yes, that is, at best, an assumption. I understand the excitement from the fanbase in Happy Valley. A great recruiting class in your first year will do that. But it doesn't make me a homer to say that I'm skeptical.
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The Scarlet Knights play two games before a date with our friends from the west. This game is of such epic proportions that a loss in the home opener won't really affect the excitement for September 13. A night game at the Point, with BTN GameDay on campus, and a near sellout already will mean the most frenzied atmosphere since that November night in 2006. That fall Saturday can't get here soon enough.