Maybe the most unpredictable Penn State football season will begin Saturday.
It certainly also could be considered the most unique one, when considering a new head coach for the first time in 46 years, the stifling NCAA sanctions and the ongoing blowback from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Figuring out an upcoming season in August was difficult enough with the most familiar of staffs.
Now, a Nittany Lion team, emotions flowing fast, will attempt to overcome shaky depth that was exacerbated by losing key transfers at the last moment.
They must succeed while still ironing out a new offense.
And tweaking their blood-and-guts defense.
And with no bowl game or titles possible, it’s hard to know where these Lions’ heads and hearts will be throughout.
Will they use incentive and motivation, along with some of the best defenders in the Big Ten and an improved offensive line, to win eight or nine games?
Or will all of the turmoil lead to a slide similar to the end of last season?
And so here are 10 key points that will decide which way the Lions go:
10. The impact of Craig Fitzgerald
Head coach Bill O’Brien seemed to trumpet no new hire more than of his strength and conditioning coach.
And maybe for good reason.
Rumors were that O’Brien was less than pleased at his initial view of the Penn State weight room (lots of machines instead of free weights).
Enter Fitzgerald, a Philly guy plucked from Steve Spurrier’s staff at South Carolina. Regarded as one of the top men at his position nationally, he went to work reshaping bodies with an emphasis on Olympic-style lifts and explosive movements.
Players have raved about the new, team-spirited workouts since the winter — and seem to look the part with increased size.
The key is a young offensive line full of potential that now weighs in at over 300 pounds a man. Eyes will be on them first to judge Fitzgerald’s initial success.
9. It’s finally his job
Matt McGloin is ready to be a starting quarterback for the third-straight year, but this will be the first with the job all to himself from the start.
The former walk-on has shown flashes of bold success to go with repeated breakdowns in his decision-making abilities.
Now, his level of improvement working under O’Brien (a former NFL QB coach) and assistant Charlie Fisher should determine if the Lions are middle-of-the-pack and impotent or are a surprise team in the Big Ten.
8. Calling all kickers!
Arguably the most crucial loss among the summer transfers was Anthony Fera, the team’s talented kicker, kickoff man and punter.
He was among the best in the Big Ten at all three.
Now, the Lions must rely on young, scholarship kicker Sam Ficken and somewhat experienced but unsteady punter Alex Butterworth as well as a host of unknown walk-ons for insurance.
If McGloin and the passing game falter, the kicking game could need to bail everyone out.
And that is a huge concern, at least for now.
7. Running and blocking
The offensive line’s potential has been noted, led by senior center Matt Stankiewitch and the Baby Beast, 316-pound redshirt freshman tackle Donovan Smith.
Give these guys some time to work together — and stay injury-free — and it seems likely that new line coach Mac McWhorter will turn them into a formidable unit by midseason.
But the telling point will be how so many new linemen fit with the new tailbacks.
Remember that Bill Belton has only been a running back since the spring and only a starter since preseason camp. Promising Akeel Lynch is just a true freshman.
Beyond them are only spare parts and specialists.
Can a running game with so many unproven pieces be expected to click anytime soon?
Maybe O’Brien’s offensive creativity will help offset the growing pains.
6. A dominating front seven in need
If the Lions most anticipated advantage comes from their defensive line and linebackers.
Here, the team is fairly deep, talented and proven, as usual.
The thing is, this also is an area where slow-starts and reduced production cannot be tolerated for survival each week.
Which means the burden falls hard on the recovering knees of linebacker Mike Mauti and defensive end Pete Massaro. As well as the maturity and expected breakthroughs from linebacker Mike Hull and massive defensive tackle DaQuan Jones.
5. Grading the opposition
The upcoming schedule is most unique for Penn State. While there are no soft, guaranteed victories for the first time in recent memory, there also are no improbable mountains to climb, either.
The grade is difficult but steady and manageable. The question is how will this football team deal with the very real possibility of losing every time out?
It could be a blessing.
While the non-conference schedule is tougher than it looks on paper, it still allows the Lions to gain a most important confidence boost in September.
Though the Big Ten opener at Illinois is tricky, a solid effort each week, as well as a few breaks, could place O’Brien and his new team in a most startling position of success for that big home showdown with Ohio State just before Halloween.
4. Learning on the run
Everyone will learn about O’Brien and his assistants from week to week.
Though O’Brien appears ultra-comfortable and even confident so far, and even though he worked with most everyone on his staff before, he still is a new head coach with ultimate decision-making power at key moments.
How good will he and his staff be in tight game-day situations?
How will he handle his players after a tough loss?
We could truly begin to get a handle on this staff by the time Northwestern comes to town in early October.
3. Secondary concerns
The thinnest spot on the team is the last line of defense.
The Lions lost all four starters at cornerback and safety from last year — then lost three more key parts since when Curtis Drake and Derek Thomas were dismissed from the team and Tim Buckley left for N.C. State.
The starters, which include future star Adrian Amos, may not even be the problem.
It’s that there is absolutely no formidable depth whatsoever behind them, making any injuries or off-field problems potentially devastating.
The potential saviors to the situation?
That would be true freshmen Jake Kiley, Jordan Lucas and Da’Quan Davis.
2. Fan support
It’s a given that supporters, including a load of former players and O’Brien followers from New England, will help fill Beaver Stadium for the opener.
But what happens after that?
Penn State fans already were disillusioned by the STEP program and increased seat prices even before the Sandusky scandal and the washing away of Joe Paterno and the NCAA sanctions.
Will they continue to break the 90,000 attendance barrier as October unfolds?
Because even in those not-so-far-off losing seasons, crowd support defined the program. And the revenue produced kept all of the university’s other athletic teams afloat and more.
If disenchanted fans get used to not showing up and giving their money this fall, it only figures to get substantially worse in the following few years when scholarship reductions produce the toughest times.
1. Emotion and incentive
Certainly, there will be large, extra doses readily available for all Penn State football players.
But it’s not easy to distinguish how much that actually will help or hurt?
Emotional but experienced leaders such as Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich and Gerald Hodges should be fueled by the nation’s doubts and negativity.
If anything could help, though, is that players are not being expected to harness all of this properly in a matter of a few days, as was the case last November before the Nebraska game.
They have had time to let it build in stages.