TOP 25 COUNTDOWN
No. 22 Penn State
9-4, 4-4 Big Ten (beat Texas A&M, 24-17, in the Alamo Bowl)
8 offense, 8 defense
vs. Illinois, Sept. 27
Player to Watch
Maurice Evans, junior defensive end
Evans has developed into one of the nation's top defensive players, using speed and power to thrash his way into Big Ten backfields last season. He finished eighth in the country in sacks (12.5) and was named first-team all-Big Ten.
Why They're Worth Watching
A combination of continuity and one big change has given Nittany Lions reason for hope. Penn State returns a talented core on defense -- among them Evans, tackle Jared Odrick and safety Anthony Scirrotto -- and has an offense seasoned after one year together. But the prospect of a new quarterback has excited many Nittany Lions fans. Daryll Clark, a mobile threat, and Pat Devlin, a drop-back passer, are expected to invigorate the new offense. Either Clark, Devlin or some combination of the two will run the "Spread HD" -- an attack that uses multiple-receiver sets and an option rushing attack -- which is similar to the one employed when Michael Robinson led the Nittany Lions to an Orange Bowl title after the 2005 season. Clark, the likely starter, has a similar swagger to Robinson, a veteran line in front of him and two running backs, Evan Royster (Westfield High) and Stephfon Green, poised to break out.
Why They're Vulnerable
Losing linebacker Sean Lee, a likely all-American candidate, to a torn ACL during the spring was a big hit. Another blow came when defensive tackles Chris Baker and Phil Taylor were kicked off the team because of off-the-field issues. The Nittany Lions, though, have loads of depth at both positions. Assuming Penn State's players can stay out of trouble -- that's been a challenge over the past year -- the real question for the team also is what could make it exciting, namely its offense under the new quarterbacks. Clark, a senior, is unproven and has gone 20 of 36 for 147 yards and no touchdowns in his career, largely during mop-up situations. He impressed at the Alamo Bowl, flashing a blend of speed and power running the option, and caught Texas A&M unprepared. It remains to be seen if Clark can produce against the Big Ten on a week-to-week basis and whether Devlin might complement the offense with his different style.
-- Mark Viera
No. 21 Wake Forest
No. 25 Arizona State, No. 24 Alabama, No. 23 Cal