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Column: Sleepers or sliders?

As the college football season inches a bit closer and preseason publications leak out a few at a time, discussion about contenders and pretenders builds. Very few writers, bloggers or fans around the country are predicting Penn State, which won eight of its last 10 games of last season but will enter its second year of sanctions, to make much noise on the national stage or even in the Big Ten.

Jesse James is only one of several talented targets at Penn State's disposal.

Are they right? Or will Bill O'Brien and the Nittany Lions surprise again? We look at the key factors that are most likely to determine exactly how much noise -- and what kind -- Penn State will make in 2013.

Three reasons why Penn State will exceed expectations:

1. Receivers aplenty. The Nittany Lions return all of their top targets from last season -- 77-catch wideout Allen Robinson, tight ends Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Matt Lehman and veterans Brandon Moseby-Felder and Alex Kenney -- and will add gifted true freshmen Adam Breneman and Richy Anderson to the mix. Skilled targets with the ability to get open are a quarterback's best friend (next to a solid left tackle), and O'Brien proved last season he knows how to create mismatches in the secondary.

2. Improved secondary. In 2012, the defensive backfield was unquestionably the weakest link of a very sound defense, even after making some strides toward the end of the year. That won't be the case in 2013. If Adrian Amos handles the transition from cornerback to safety as seamlessly as he handled his transition from part-time player to starter last season and athletic cornerbacks Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams can cover consistently and tackle well, the backfield could not only be solid but the kind of playmaking, turnover-causing unit Penn State hasn't had in a while.

3. Young stud quarterbacks. Yes, Tyler Ferguson and Christian Hackenberg are raw and inexperienced (more on this below), but they both have the kind of talent that could be lethal given the weapons around them and O'Brien's playcalling savvy. The Syracuse and Eastern Michigan defenses they'll face in the opening weeks are unlikely to provide much resistance against the run or the pass, which should allow whoever emerges as the starter to build the confidence and rhythm they'll need later in the season. A veteran offensive line and three capable running backs should ease the relative burden on the starting quarterback as well.

Three reasons why the critics could be correct:

1. Questions up front. We've all seen what Deion Barnes can do, Austin Johnson looks very much like the next NFL player off the Larry Johnson assembly line and Anthony Zettel could be a terror for opposing offenses on the interior or off the edge, but the fact is that the Nittany Lions lack proven defensive linemen on both the first and second teams. O'Brien's primary goal on defense is stopping the run, and a defense that allowed 234 yards rushing (4.4 per carry) to Ohio State and 267 (4.7 per carry) to Nebraska WITH Jordan Hill in the lineup must replace four of its top players, and Barnes and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones are the only returnees with significant experience. LJ's track record speaks for itself but his skills will be put to the test this fall.

2. Right or wrong? Penn State has three primary options -- Adam Gress, Eric Shrive and Garry Gilliam -- at right tackle and, though all three players are in their fifth year with the program, none has yet inspired a heap of confidence at the position. Gress has had trouble with speed rushers, Shrive has looked far more comfortable at guard than tackle and Gilliam's transition from tight end to tackle was slowed during the spring by a calf injury. If one of them can't step up and hold down the job, there could be a lot of long afternoons for the quarterback and the running backs.

3. Young stud quarterbacks. Matt McGloin did not have the measurables that his two young replacements have. What he did have was four years of college experience and a full offseason to absorb the playbook. When Penn State's offense worked last season -- which was often -- it was when McGloin made quick, smart decisions with the football after getting the Nittany Lions into the right play. When it didn't, it was when he was under duress and/or tried to do too much. If Ferguson and Hackenberg can make those kinds of quick decisions, Penn State's offense could excel. But that's a lot to ask out of any first-year Division I player, especially at the most important position on the field.

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