STATE COLLEGE - Welcome to the new era of Penn State football, and to a season that will be unlike any other in the history of the program. Here are the 10 biggest story lines to look for from the 2012 Nittany Lions:
1. NCAA sanctions cast shadow over start of Bill O'Brien era: The 42-year-old O'Brien has arguably the toughest job of any college football coach ever. He's not just replacing Joe Paterno, which would be extremely difficult in and of itself, since history shows you never want to be the guy who replaces a legend.
When Penn State was conducting its coaching search late last year, one anonymous source told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the job was "toxic." That seemed to be an exaggeration, even in the fallout of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, because Penn State is still a place with tremendous tradition, facilities, fan support and resources.
After getting the job, O'Brien was able to enjoy a few months of relative normalcy - through spring drills and even during a hectic Coaches Caravan that saw him spread his vision for the program throughout the northeast.
Then came July 23, when the NCAA dropped a bomb on Penn State with massive, unprecedented sanctions. The Lions can't go to a bowl game for four years and will face severe scholarship reductions (65 maximum, down from the usual 85, from 2014-17) that will greatly diminish the overall talent on the team until 2018 at the earliest.
As it turns out, in light of the sanctions, calling the Penn State job "toxic" may have been an understatement.
O'Brien knew he was in for a challenge, but no one could have expected that challenge to be this great. With a nine-year contract worth $2.3 million per year, the coach is guaranteed a long time to try and return the program to national prominence and will be extremely well paid for his efforts.
Will O'Brien be up to the challenge? Would any coach be up to this challenge?
Since nothing like this has ever occurred in American sports, the straight truth at this point is we simply don't know.
2. Win now to help stabilize the program: Under most circumstances, an 8-4 season would be disappointing for Penn State. This year, it would be phenomenal.
If O'Brien can pull a rabbit out of his hat and win eight games, it would show players currently on the team and recruits interested in Penn State that the Lions can still enjoy a level of success even without being able to go to a bowl game or compete for conference and national titles.
A 7-5 record, good showings against the top competition and an exciting offense also might be enough to retain current players and lure quality recruits.
But 6-6 (or worse) and getting beaten soundly by the likes of Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin or others could be a big blow to O'Brien's hopes of keeping a solid foundation in place the next few years, when the sanctions really start to take a toll.
It's a shame that one high school kid's decision can be so important to a college program, but that's just the way the recruiting world works. If prized quarterback commit Christian Hackenberg likes what he sees from the team this season and stays committed, then PSU might be able to hold its own in recruiting.
But if Hackenberg sees the Lions struggle as a team and on offense and decommits, it could be the first - and the biggest - of many dominoes to fall for Penn State's recruiting.
3. Keep the team together after the season: This isn't a pressing issue today, but come December, it will be a huge aspect and could largely shape the football team for the next few years.
The NCAA's loose transfer rules for PSU players extends all the way to next August, meaning anyone can leave at any point up until then and still be eligible to play for the 2013 season. If players are going to leave, it most likely would be in December - after the school semester ends at PSU and in time for them to enroll in classes in January at their new school so they can take part in spring drills.
Many Penn State players faced a tough decision about possibly transferring when the sanctions were announced, and nine did so, most notably standout running back Silas Redd (USC), kicker Anthony Fera (Texas) and receiver Justin Brown (Oklahoma).
But the sanctions came out a mere six weeks before the start of the season, and by that point, the players already had gone through the team-bonding experiences of winter conditioning, spring drills and summer workouts, plus they knew transferring so soon before the start of the season and school year would have meant throwing their entire lives into upheaval.
Just because players didn't leave then doesn't mean they won't consider transferring at the end of this season. They've got four months to think about it, and if things don't go as planned for them this season at PSU, a significant number could look for greener pastures elsewhere.
It may not just be primarily backups leaving, either. Say sophomore running back Bill Belton has a breakthrough 2012 season, rushing for 1,100 yards. It could be the Redd scenario all over again, with powerhouse programs across the country tripping over themselves to recruit him knowing that he has two years of eligibility remaining.
The same goes for receiver Allen Robinson, cornerback Adrian Amos and quarterback Paul Jones, all sophomores who could be highly coveted free agents at the end of the year.
The NCAA's 65-scholarship limit sanction doesn't take effect until 2014, but because of transfers and others leaving the team, the Lions will compete with far fewer than the 85 scholarship maximum this season. A school spokesman said the number is in "the low 70s" - an exact number won't be known until O'Brien discloses which walk-ons may have been granted scholarships - but PSU will be at a clear disadvantage numbers-wise.
Looking ahead, the Lions will lose 12 seniors to graduation, leaving roughly 60 scholarship players next year, and they can only add a maximum of 15 because of the sanctions. If a sizable number of players transfer out of the program after this season, PSU could be competing with only 65-70 scholarship players in 2013.
4. Changes to the uniforms: It's blasphemy to some but a welcome change moving toward the future for others. Getting away from the iconic, basic blue and white uniforms, PSU players will for the first time have their names on the back of their jerseys.
O'Brien wants to reward the players who have stuck it out through the incredible adversity and for the world to be able to recognize them. All of the program's wins from 1998 through 2011 were vacated - costing Paterno the Division I wins record as it dropped his total from 409 to 298 - and the players on this team feel a strong obligation to help the program take the first step in the image recovery process.
Putting names on the jerseys has been a big topic of debate, but in the grand scheme of things it really is small potatoes compared to everything else that's been surrounding the program since November. And here's a prediction: Many of the people who are upset about the names now probably will get over it a few weeks into the season and come to accept the change.
The players also will have a blue ribbon placed on the back of their helmets to show support for victims of child abuse, which is a nice and appropriate touch.
5. Fantastic front seven but a suspect secondary: The front seven on defense will keep the Lions in a lot of games this season, but the secondary could take them out of games.
The linebacker group features two stars in seniors Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges. Mauti is an inspirational leader and a leader by example, and he needs to stay healthy after two serious knee injuries (missed all of 2009 and the final nine games last season). Hodges might be one of the best linebackers in the country and could excel in new defensive coordinator Ted Roof's aggressive scheme.
Senior Jordan Hill is expected to be one of the best defensive tackles in the nation and will lead a strong defensive line that, along with the linebackers, will have to pressure the quarterback and force turnovers.
One of the team's biggest question marks is the secondary, which has four new starters and little depth. If that weren't bad enough, projected starting safeties Malcolm Willis and Williamsport's Jake Fagnano battled injuries in training camp. Amos has star potential at cornerback, plus senior cornerback Stephon Morris has a lot of experience, and those two will be counted on to lead the secondary.
Still, the defensive backs have to prove they can handle their coverage assignments and stay healthy as a group because, as inexperienced as the primary guys are, the ones behind them mostly haven't played much at all.
6, Let's see how good this Patriots-style offense can be: If O'Brien can get the right personnel running the offense, at some point Penn State could be a very exciting team to watch. Problem is, it would have taken O'Brien at least a few years to get all the right pieces in place under normal circumstances, and the task will be even tougher because of the NCAA sanctions.
As it stands, the new offense will have to make due with what's already in place, which is: a talented yet inexperienced running back in Belton; some speedy receivers (Robinson, junior Shawney Kersey, sophomore Alex Kenney) who have yet to prove themselves; and a quarterback in senior Matt McGloin who could be a decent fit as long as he plays within the system and doesn't try to do too much, which has always been an issue for him.
There will be more passes to the tight ends - so get used to names like redshirt freshman Kyle Carter and junior Garry Gilliam - but O'Brien was wise to caution everyone against the inevitable comparisons to Patriots stars Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
One big change in the scheme will be trying to get the ball to receivers in open space so they have room to run after the catch. The Patriots excel at that, and PSU's receivers have been working on that element in their route running. Also look for McGloin to check down and throw a lot of underneath passes, which again is something the Patriots do a great deal with Tom Brady.
If Belton (or a backup, such as freshman Akeel Lynch) proves to be a standout running back, if enough receivers show they can run good routes and catches passes, and if McGloin proves he can make the smart throws, then the offense has a chance to be successful.
Those are a lot of ifs, and until those things are proven, the offense will be a major work in progress.
7. Keep the team healthy: It's something no football coach can guarantee because, after all, this is a violent sport with bodies crashing into each other all the time.
As mentioned previously, the Lions appear to have enough talent in enough key positions to field a quality team week in and week out. But injuries always take a toll on football teams, and with only about 70 scholarship players and depth concerns in numerous areas, key injuries will be a bigger problem for this PSU team than most others.
O'Brien is used to working with smaller rosters in the NFL, so he already knows how to take it a little easier on players in practice to make sure they're game ready. Still, in a smashmouth conference like the Big Ten, the Lions will just have to hope for a lot of luck in the injury department if they want to be able to compete as the season grinds on.
8. Play to win instead of playing not to lose: Look for O'Brien and his younger, hungrier assistants to be able to coach up the talent on the team better than the previous staff did and to take a very different, more aggressive approach than Paterno when it comes to decision-making.
Paterno was always a defensive-oriented coach who played it safe, took few chances on offense, didn't mind punting and loved playing the field-position game. Any successful coach must do those things at times, but O'Brien has an offensive background, and he's more likely to take risks and see if his offense can get the job done using all its weapons and thinking outside the box.
Now, that could be the case more often in the future rather than this season, if O'Brien realizes he just doesn't have the right personnel to do what he wants to do on offense.
The defense also will be playing a more aggressive style under Roof, who likes man-to-man coverage and blitzing frequently, as opposed to the safer zones and bend-but-don't-break schemes former defensive coordinator Tom Bradley utilized, most likely at Paterno's insistence.
9. They're building them better, stronger, faster: That great quote from "The Six Million Dollar Man" applies to Penn State football players now that the team is utilizing a new strength and conditioning program that should pay big dividends on the field.
The old-school machine weights are out, the more modern free-weight system is in place and new strength coach Craig Fitzgerald has earned rave reviews from the players and O'Brien for revamping the entire conditioning program.
The first place fans will notice changes should be the offensive line, where the players are expected to be more explosive off the ball and stronger holding their blocks because of the new strength program. The defensive line and linebackers also benefit greatly from Fitzgerald's system, which isn't just about becoming stronger, but about competing and giving max effort at everything the players do.
The changes should be evident on the field this season and will become more so in the coming years as all players, from freshmen to upperclassmen, learn to realize their strength potential.
10. They can't be kicking themselves: Some have suggested that kicker extraordinaire Fera was actually a bigger loss for the team than Redd. Fera handled place-kicking (14-of-17 FGs), punting (42.0 yards) and kickoff duties last year, becoming the first PSU kicker to do all three in 36 years.
Sophomore place-kicker Sam Ficken is unproven but at least has a stronghold on the job. The punting situation could be a big problem, with junior Alex Butterworth (38.5 yards per punt last season) and redshirt freshman Matt Marcincin both proving to be inconsistent during training camp.
Penn State doesn't have the kind of talent where it's going to run away and beat teams easily, so many of the games likely will be close and could be decided by a big field goal or punt at some point. Even against Purdue at home last year, it took a 69-yard punt by Fera in the final minutes to pin the Boilermakers inside their own 5-yard line to essentially seal a 23-18 win.
Can Butterworth deliver that kind of punt? Can Ficken nail two clutch field goals (46 and 43 yards) on the road at Ohio State to help win a game, like Fera did last year? If they can't, then Penn State could well lose more than its share of close games.