Several key players decided to transfer before the 2012 season, while a handful of notable recruits decommitted. Despite the turmoil, Penn State got off to a surprising 5-2 start. Both of those losses came in the first two games, and the Nittany Lions held second-half leads in both. The only other losses of the season came against unbeaten Ohio State and at No. 25 Nebraska.
Included in the team's notable victories were a 39-28 triumph over Northwestern, and a 24-21 overtime win against Wisconsin in the final regular season game.
OFFENSE: Quarterback Matt McGloin has moved on, leaving it up to juco transfer Tyler Ferguson to battle it out with true freshman Christian Hackenburg for the starting position. While neither player has thrown a pass at the FBS level, Hackenburg brings the pedigree of being the top-rated QB in the 2013 recruiting class, according to a number of publications.
At Big Ten Media Day, coach O'Brien said he would not consider it unusual to start a true freshman, and that he expects to make a decision on the starter about halfway through training camp.
"You know, one thing that's really exciting about working with young quarterbacks is that you get a chance to really mold that quarterback," added O'Brien, who previously worked with Tom Brady in New England. "You get a chance to really teach that quarterback. And (quarterbacks coach) Charlie Fisher and I are going to do that and work hard at teaching our quarterbacks how to play in our offense and managing a game and play smart, tough Penn State football.
"We are going to have to make a decision at some point during training camp to allow the starter to get enough reps to be ready for the Syracuse game."
The winner of the battle will have the luxury of throwing to junior Allen Robinson, a First-Team All-Big Ten wideout who caught 77 passes for 1,013 yards and 11 touchdowns. Robinson is the complete package (6-3, 204) and is regarded as one of the nation's best receivers. Robinson will be aided in the vertical game by a slew of athletic tight end options. O'Brien is known for getting the most out of the position and players like sophomore Kyle Carter (6-3, 240), a First-Team Freshman All-American in 2012, fellow sophomore Jesse James (6-7, 258) and senior Matt Lehman (6-6, 254) could get their number called early and often in 2013.
The ground game doesn't have a true workhorse that Penn State is usually known for, but running back Zach Zwinak did eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground last year despite starting only four games. A big back at 6-1, 234 pounds, Zwinak should see an increased role in the Penn State offense this season.
DEFENSE: Defensive end Deion Barnes was last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year after racking up 10.0 tackles for loss. The Nittany Lions need even more production in 2013 from Barnes, as the front-seven was hit hard by graduation.
If there is any school that can replace leading tacklers Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges at linebacker, it's Linebacker U. Glenn Carson (85 tackles) mans the middle and will assume the role of senior leader. Junior Mike Hull made big strides in the offseason to earn one of the outside spots, while redshirt freshman Nyeem Wartman is poised to grab the other. Sophomore Ben Kline, coming off shoulder surgery, provides solid depth at the position.
The player drawing perhaps the most praise throughout camp has been Adrian Amos, who compiled 44 tackles, two interceptions and 2.5 tackles for loss last year as a sophomore. Amos is as promising a prospect as any on PSU's defense. This offseason he moved from cornerback to safety where he is more comfortable, and it has certainly shown throughout camp.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sam Ficken will build off how the 2012 season ended, not so much how it began. The junior converted only 14-of-21 field goals for the year, with a long of only 38 yards. He also had two kicks blocked. However, Ficken hung in there and connected on each of his final 10 field-goal attempts, including the 37-yard game-winner in overtime against Wisconsin. Punter Alex Butterworth also returns after averaging 37.4 yards on 51 punts.
OUTLOOK: The NCAA sanctions imposed on the program will impact recruiting classes through the next couple of seasons, and that means Penn State will need to rely on some non-scholarship players to fill key roles.
However, O'Brien, known as an offensive guru, did manage to land a big-time recruit this year in Hackenburg, who could wind up being a four-year starter if he wins the job out of camp. With Robinson and Zwinak, the offense boasts a couple of proven weapons at the skill positions. The defense lost a lot, but plenty of talent remains.
The schedule features tough road games at Ohio State and at Wisconsin, while Michigan and Nebraska come to Happy Valley. Ultimately, the Nittany Lions are still forced to try and play the role of spoiler in the Big Ten and BCS picture.
If Hackenburg is as good as advertised and adjusts well to a new playing level, another eight, or even nine-win season is not out of the question.