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Can Penn State Be a Legit Contender for the Big Ten Crown?

There are plenty of reasons for Penn State fans to feel a real sense of optimism in 2015.

For starters, you can flash back to the Pinstripe Bowl win over Boston College last December. In that game, you saw the Christian Hackenberg that everybody in State College wants to see. In that game, Hackenberg threw for 371 yards and four touchdowns.

In his time at Penn State, Hackenberg has shown that when he has protection, he can sling it all over the place with the best of them in the country and in the Big Ten. He is on the Maxwell Awards watch list.

Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin is happy that he has four returning offensive linemen including Rimington Award candidate center Angelo Mangiro (6-3, 315) who now have some experience under their belts along with a couple of key transfers in former Stanford guard Kevin Reihner (6-3, 312), who may get some time at the center spot, and junior college transfer Paris Palmer (6-7, 278).

Franklin said what he likes about his offensive line is that they are hungry to prove themselves and looking for the opportunity show how good they are this season. Last season, the Nittany Lions offensive line gave up 44 sacks.

“So yeah, I think our offensive line has a chip on their shoulder,” Franklin said during his press conference at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago. “I think they worked like that during the offseason.”

While in Chicago, Franklin jokingly begged reporters to continue writing bad articles about his offensive line to motivate them throughout the season.

With the offensive line’s possible resurgence this season, Franklin is looking for redshirt junior running back Akeel Lynch to have a big year for the Nittany Lions. He’s on the Doak Walker Award watchlist. Last season, Lynch gained 678 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns.

“Akeel has had a great summer,” Franklin said. “Look at how productive he was in a limited role. As the season went on, that grew. He’s a mature guy. He’s big, strong, fast, physical, very, very intelligent. He’s doing it the right way. He really is.”

If Hackenberg can find some time to throw, he will have an experienced receiving corps. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver DaeShawn Hamilton led the Big Ten in receptions (88 for 899 yards) last year and is on the Biletnikoff Awards list for the nation’s outstanding collegiate wide receiver. In the overtime loss to Ohio State last year, he caught 14 passes, the most in Penn State history.

Redshirt junior Geno Lewis caught 55 passes for 751 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore Chris Godwin also contributed to Penn State passing game with 25 receptions and two touchdowns. Tight end Kyle Carter (6-3, 247) is on the John Mackey Award Watch for the nation’s best tight end. He’s expected to have some passes thrown his way as well.

The strength of the Nittany Lions last year and perhaps this season is their defense. Last season, it was one of the best in the nation. Penn State had the nation’s No. 2 ranked defense; No. 3 against the rush, allowing just 100.5 yards per game and they were ninth against the pass.

01 November 2014:  Penn State LB Brandon Bell (26) and   DT Anthony Zettel (98) celebrate Bell's sack. The Maryland Terrapins defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 20-19 at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA.

01 November 2014: Penn State LB Brandon Bell (26) and DT Anthony Zettel (98) celebrate Bell’s sack. The Maryland Terrapins defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 20-19 at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA.

Senior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel (6-4, 284) anchors the middle of the Nittany Lions defense and is coming off a year where he had four sacks. He also had six tackles for a loss. More than 35 percent of Zettel’s tackles, according the team media guide, resulted in lost yardage for the opposition.

Zettel is on several collegiate awards lists, including the Bednarik Award for Defensive Player of the Year, the Nagurski-Defensive Player of the Year; The Outland Trophy, nation’s best interior lineman; and the Lombardi Award for defensive lineman or linebacker. That’s a lot of award possibilities.

Safety Jordan Lucas leads the Penn State secondary and is a candidate for the Nagurski Award. In 2014, Lucas led the team in solo tackles with 45 (64 overall), 4.5 of his tackles resulted in a loss. He was third in the Big Ten in passes defended and was the team leader in pass breakups with 13 and one sack.

There’s no doubt the Nittany Lions will be a bowl team in 2015, but at what level? Penn State is in the tough Big Ten East, which includes defending national champion Ohio State and top-five finisher Michigan State. To be in the upper echelon of the conference, the Nittany Lions can ill afford to make mistakes.

The good news for Penn State is that it doesn’t have to leave the state of Pennsylvania for seven of its games. It does, however, face tough road games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Maryland. If the Nittany Lions are an elite team, they will have to win a couple of those.

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