June 8, 2010

Phil Steele stops by LBU to chat Penn State 2010

You've been waiting for this day. An oasis in the vast expanse of the college football off-season, today is the official retail release date of Phil Steele's College Football Preview. And what better way to kick off the day than with a Q&A with the man himself, Phil Steele. So let's get to it...

LBU: The Big Ten's success this past bowl season--two BCS wins, plus two more wins over top-15 teams--tamped down the "Big Ten can't win big games" crowd a bit. You even ranked the Big Ten second-strongest conference following bowl season, behind the SEC. For 2010, you're projecting the Big Ten as the third-best conference, tied with the ACC, behind the SEC again and Big XII. Is the Big Ten capable this year of sustaining the momentum from the bowl season? Or will the doubters have new ammunition by season's end?

Phil: Without a doubt the Big 10 last year had their best season in at least four years and finished strong in the bowl season with four bowl wins over ranked teams, the most of any league. This year I feel the conference can sustain that momentum as they have 3 possible preseason top 10 teams in Ohio St, Iowa and Wisconsin. Plus I think Penn St has a shot at a double digit win season. The Buckeyes are legitimate national title contenders and if the Big 10 has another strong bowl season they could easily finish as high as they did last year.

LBU: You pointed out in this year's Penn State writeup that the Nittany Lions will be the first team ever to face THREE teams--Alabama, Iowa, Ohio State--that won BCS bowls the previous season, and that all three are on the road. You also put Penn State behind all three of those teams to start the year, indicating a probable 0-3 record against them. All that being said, how do you rationalize picking Penn State to finish tied for second place in the Big Ten this year?

Phil: While Iowa does have a more manageable schedule than Penn St with Wisconsin, Ohio St and the Nittany Lions all at home, I think the Hawkeyes could slip up somewhere a long the way in addition to losing the Buckeyes. Iowa has upset Penn St in 5 of the last 8 meetings including back to back years despite being outgained in each game. I have to think sometime that trend could turn around for Penn St (see Michigan series) and remember in 2008 the Nittany Lions won in Columbus and Iowa needed a FG with :01 left to beat them so a win in either venue would not shock me.

Mike Yancich (33) is one of the talented linebackers competing for a spot this fall.
LBU: Penn State loses all three of its linebackers to the NFL in the same year for the first time in recent memory. "Linebacker U" has been known to simply reload at its namesake position, particularly the last few years. But how big of a problem could the linebacker position pose for this year's Penn State defense overall, especially with potent offenses like Alabama and Ohio State on the slate?

Phil: While the Linebacker unit is naturally less experienced than a year ago I do not think it will be a huge problem for them for a couple of reasons. #1 they have a great system with great coaches that has allowed players to step right in and fill the void quickly. #2 they have recruited the position very well. Despite the losses this year the Lions still have TEN VHT’s in the three deep! Also since 2004 they have held their opponents to under 310 ypg and 18 ppg each year and there is no reason to believe that the trend won’t continue. I also feel that after a couple of years of having injury problems at the position, they probably will be healthier this year and while less experienced they will have one of the best LB units in the Big 10 again by the end of the year.

LBU: Penn State returns four of five starters on the offensive line. However, two or more will likely end up at different positions this fall than they played last season. Yet, you still wrote that this year's line could be stronger than the 2009 edition. More than a few readers are sure to raise an eyebrow to that one. With so much uncertainty remaining along the line, how do you justify calling for improved line play in 2010?

Phil: When I write my position write ups I like to look at how each position did in past years and compare it to what the situation is heading into this season. Last year they had to replace three starters including the Rimington Award winner, a 3rd TM AA G and a 1st TM B10 LT. They did shuffle the OL at times and the numbers only dropped to 170 ypg rush (4.7) with 17 sks (4.3%). This year I think Wisniewski goes back to his more natural position and he is one of the best in America. With four starters back, I just feel that they will improve upon last year’s numbers with added emphasis on their run game and you certainly cannot question the talent at all of the positions.

LBU: What's the single biggest "land mine" game on Penn State's schedule this season? Northwestern? Illinois? Or (gasp!) Temple?!

Phil: All three games could be trouble for Penn St as Temple is my pick to win the MAC this year and the Nittany Lions have Iowa on deck. However Penn St is 27-0 against Temple since 1952 and they have outgained the Owls by 268 ypg the last four years including two shutouts! Illinois follows the Iowa game so they could be in letdown mode. However, it is homecoming and the Lions have a bye on deck. That leaves us with Northwestern which is the classic “sandwich” game between Michigan and a road game at Ohio St. Last year’s game was very misleading as Northwestern led 13-10 at halftime and it was tied going into the 4Q before Penn St scored 3 TD’s in 3:40 to win 34-13. Also the Wildcats seem to win at least one game a year on the road as a big underdog. In 2005, they beat #22 Michigan St 49-14. In 2006, they beat Iowa 21-7 as a 20 pt dog! In 2007, they again beat Michigan St on the road 48-41 (+16). Two years ago they beat Iowa, Michigan and #20 Minnesota all on the road! Last year they beat #8 Iowa (Stanzi hurt) so I think Wildcats could definitely be Penn St’s “land mine” game in 2010.

For more info on Phil's preview, and year-round college football coverage, visit PhilSteele.com.

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