College Crosse's Impossibly Early, Definitely Perfect (Sort of), Rock-Solid (Maybe) Fall Ball Top 20: Penn State (9)

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Tambroni is entering his fourth season at Penn State. The tide is turning in his favor.

The 2014 season is months away. Let's punch fate in the face and make wild assumptions about what could be the best 20 teams in the country next year.

Team: Penn State

Rank: 9

Important People: Austin Kaut (G); Shane Sturgis (A); T.J. Sanders (A); Tom LaCrosse (M); Steven Bogert (LSM); Cole Yeager (FOGO); Tyler Travis (D)

Formerly Important People: Jack Forster (A); Danny Henneghan (FOGO); Nick Dolik (M); Travis Crane (SSDM)

Final 2013 Poll Positions: Media: 11; Coaches: 13

2013 Record: 12-5 (6-0, THUNDERDOME!)

2013 Snapshot: Kaboom!

* * * * *

Nightmare Fuel
There is little room for error this season for Penn State. With THUNDERDOME! imposing its unique brand of pain -- prohibiting the Nittany Lions from participating in the THUNDERDOME! Tournament due to Penn State's move to the Big Ten in 2015 -- the Nittany Lions have no safety net in 2014. In order to make the NCAA Tournament, Penn State needs to hit the ground running in the spring, bagging big kills in its out-of-conference schedule to generate the power points necessary to earn an at-large invitation to The Big Barbecue. An expanded field in 2014 should help the Lions in the overall, but the competition for those eight at-large bids is going to be tight: The five ACC teams that don't qualify for that conference's auto-bid are likely to have strong resumes; Johns Hopkins is going to be in the discussion for an at-large invite; and insanity in a handful of league tournaments where potential at-large invitees may reside if they fail to win their conferences -- the Patriot League, Ivy League, Big East, and ECAC come to mind if favorites fail to win postseason hardware from their leagues -- could create a crunch for those precious eight spots. The Nittany Lions need to generate excellence from February through April and also see THUNDERDOME! maintain competitiveness from top-to-bottom to assure participation in the NCAA Tournament. This is a dangerous position to work from, even if Penn State looks highly competitive entering the coming spring.

A Thousand White Doves
The factors underlying the Lions' success under Jeff Tambroni are all present for 2014. Unlike prior seasons, though, those factors appear disgustingly powerful, some of the most impressive -- at least on paper -- that Penn State has assembled:

  • The Defense: Virtually every important piece of Penn State's defense -- a unit that ranked sixth in 2013 in adjusted defensive efficiency -- returns to University Park for 2014: Kaut, Travis, Bogert, Jack Donnelly, J.P. Burnside, Kessler Brown, James Burke, and Michael Richards (among others). This depth of face-melting defensive ability is the driving force behind the high expectations surrounding the Nittany Lions, but it's the presence of Kaut, an invitee to the Team USA tryout over Labor Day Weekend, that provides assurance that Penn State will remain a defensive masterpiece this coming spring: The Lions rely on The Blonde Satan to make stops, and there aren't five keepers in the nation that are a better ball-stopper than Kaut. Penn State has the potential to suffocate the opposition again, and that fact -- in and of itself -- is what is going to keep the Nittany Lions as a contender this season .
  • Faceoff Problem Solved: Penn State lived on a fat possession margin in 2013 (plus-4.68), thanks in part to Henneghan's prolific work at the dot. His graduation potentially left a void for the Nittany Lions, but Cole Yeager -- late of crushing faces at Yale -- will step in and carry on Penn State's tradition of eating souls on the whistle. If Penn State clears like animals again in the coming spring, the Lions should -- once again -- play with a heavy possession margin in their favor, insulating their defense from overexposure and providing their offense will a sufficient number of opportunities to make the scoreboard blink.
  • Offensive Talent is Growing: The knock against Penn State in the past was that they didn't have enough offense to become competitively balanced in a way that would push the Lions toward the nation's hyper-elite. That situation is slowly bleeding into history: Assets are in place to fill the void left by Dolik and Forster's departures -- Sanders and Sturgis are going to anchor what could be a competitive, if not strong, attack and LaCrosse is developing into an animal through the midfield. There are tent poles to build around, even if it takes time for depth to develop.
The foundation is set for an important campaign in 2014. If Penn State can sufficiently build from the defensive end of the field, the scoreboard may take care of itself.

The Stars, The Moon, Six Feet Under
The Stars: Penn State chugs along, relying on its defense, and breaks through to Championship Weekend in a fashion that is not unlike what Notre Dame has done in the recent past; runs through THUNDERDOME! play undefeated and sends a handmade "Go to Hell!" card to the CAA; Kaut is named a Tewaaraton finalist and promises to never cut his Samsonian locks; midfield options around LaCrosse develop as the season progresses.

The Moon: After an undefeated run through THUNDERDOME! play, the Lions send a homemade cookie in the shape of an ass with a lipstick-kiss on it to the CAA; offense is mediocre, but it doesn't hold Penn State back as the Lions become the king of one-goal wins; at-large invitee to the NCAA Tournament but is limited in progressing through the postseason based on matchups.

Six Feet Under: Can't build a resume with enough big wins, creating an uneven at-large NCAA Tournament resume and is left out; THUNDERDOME! doesn't increase the team's strength of schedule; Kaut doesn't have a first team All-American season and the Lions yield more goals on defense than they can make up on the offensive end; the CAA sends Penn State an invitation to "The Jerkass Big Ten Party."

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