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Big Ten Football Preview 2015: Penn State's season outlook

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Penn State's season soured as Christian Hackenberg regressed. Can he turn it around as the Nittany Lions try to replicate a spectacular defensive season?

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State's 2014 season was a perplexing one. There were good moments, such as the 4-0 start and taking eventual national champion Ohio State to the brink in an overtime loss.

But the sour moments outweigh all of it.

The Nittany Lions were demolished by Northwestern on homecoming and beat by dreadful Michigan and Illinois teams. Add in Christian Hackenberg's stunning regression and you have a recipe for disaster.

This week, Maize n Brew takes a look at Penn State's 2015 season.

One step forward, two steps back

Penn State's 2015 season begins and ends with Christian Hackenberg. It's as simple as that.

The former 5-star talent took college football by storm two years ago as a true freshman, looking like one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. While many expected another level as a sophomore in 2014, Hackenberg looked like a completely different player.

In six of Penn State 13 games last season, Hackenberg failed to find the end zone through the air. He had five games with multiple interceptions thrown.

It was not all Hackenberg's fault, though. He was under duress a ton last season, being sacked 44 times. Only three teams — Wyoming, SMU and Wake Forest — allowed more sacks than the Nittany Lions. And a run game that complimented Hackenberg as a freshman was nonexistent in 2014.

Hackenberg's still one of the more enticing quarterback prospects in the land, and he will play a significant part in Penn State's success — or failure — this fall.

Replacing Hull

Penn State's defense was marvelous last season.  It was ranked the second-best total defense by cfbstats.com, averaging 278.7 yards allowed per game.

A huge part of this was Mike Hull, a senior linebacker who is now with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent. 

He earned the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award after a spectacular season, totaling 140 tackles in 13 games for a 10.77 tackles per game average.

The second-closest tackler on Penn State's roster was Nyeem Wartman, who had 75 tackles in 12 games. That's nearly half of Hull's totals, a mind-blowing number.

But now Penn State is tasked with replacing Hull.

Wartman and Brandon Bell, both rising junior linebackers, are a start. Bell totaled 47 tackles and two sacks in 11 games last season.

Four-star linebackers Manny Bowen (Barnegat, N.J.) and Jake Cooper (Warminster, Pa.) are incoming freshmen that could contribute at the position as well.

Key returnees

According to Phil Steele, Penn State welcomes 15 starters back, with nine of them being offensive players.

Hackenberg's top weapons at wide receiver, led by DaeSean Hamilton, return. Hamilton  shined as a redshirt freshman, hauling in 82 passes for 899 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Geno Lewis follows after totaling 751 reception yards and two touchdowns. And Chris Godwin did some damage as a true freshman with 338 reception yards.

Fifth-year senior Kyle Carter and sophomore Mike Gesicki will compete to fill Jesse James' void after forgoing his last year of eligibility for the NFL.

Four of Penn State's returning offensive starters are linemen, which should bode well for Hackenberg's safety.

On defense, the Nittany Lions have several talented players returning.

Seniors Anthony Zettel and Deion Barnes anchor the defensive line. Zettel had eight sacks and three interceptions, while Barnes sacked six. Defensive backs Jordan Lucas (senior) and Marcus Allen (sophomore) totaled 58 tackles each in 13 and 12 games, respectively.

To-do list

We've already noted that Hackenberg has to rebound and the offensive line has to better protect him in 2015.

But Penn State's running backs must compliment him more; Hackenberg cannot carry the load as he did last season.

Akeel Lynch returns after an OK sophomore season. He led the Nittany Lions in rushing with 678 yards. After accounting for more than half of their total rushing yardage, Lynch will be depended upon to take the next step in his development.

The schedule

Penn State plays nine, count 'em, NINE, home games in 2015. That's absurd, but staying in Pennsylvania until mid-October should definitely help the team improve its 7-win total from last season.

The Nittany Lions host Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State and Army in non-conference games and has Illinois as its crossover matchup.

Rutgers, Indiana (homecoming), Maryland, and Michigan all make the trip to Happy Valley come Big Ten season.

Penn State faces powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan State on the road, as well as a rematch at Northwestern. But do remember, it took the Buckeyes to the brink last year.

The non-conference matchups should be painless for the Nittany Lions. Although they lost to Illinois and Northwestern last season, things should be different this year.

A late-November game vs. Michigan will be an interesting one. James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh are two of the newest coaches in the conference and appear to be polar opposites in terms of attitude.

This season could be what Penn State fans have longed for with Hackenberg under center. Enjoy it while it lasts; he could bolt to the NFL in January.

Wins: Temple, Buffalo, Rutgers, San Diego State, Army, Indiana, Maryland, Illinois, Northwestern

Losses: Ohio State, Michigan State

Toss up: Michigan