Four years without postseason play. A roster reduced to just 65 scholarship players. Oh, and the specter of the greatest scandal in the history of college football hanging overhead.
Such are the obstacles standing between Bill O'Brien and winning football at Penn State.
In the wake of the NCAA's stunning decision to hand Penn State some of the most severe sanctions in college football history, Penn State fans are left to ponder just how challenging the next four (or five, or six) seasons will be.
Can the Nittany Lions remain competitive? Will O'Brien be able to recruit well enough to assemble a Big Ten roster? And just how bad will it get for the once proud Penn State program? We attempt to answer those questions, and more, in Part II of our Penn State Edition of College Football Questions & Answers.
How in the world is O'Brien going to sell the Penn State program?
I started pondering this question the moment those sanctions were announced. And I have to admit, my initial reaction was, "There's simply no way to sell this program. Because there's basically nothing to sell." Then O'Brien went about the work of actually selling it, and I realized all at once why Bill O'Brien is a hugely successful football coach and I'm just a guy who writes about it. In the days (hours, even) after the NCAA ruling came down, the new message from O'Brien was already taking shape: When he sold Penn State to recruits, he would sell the idea of a top-notch education, the opportunity to play in front of 100,000 fans every week and the chance to be coached by a bunch of elite coaches--guys who are more than capable of preparing talented young players for the rigors of the NFL. He's smart, O'Brien. He knows what we can't sell, he knows what he can sell, and he's not going to worry about the former. And already, it seems, his pitch is working pretty well. Just last weekend, a group of Penn State recruits for the class of 2013 visited Happy Valley and reaffirmed their commitments. Now, whether those guys remain committed come February is another question, but the verdict so far on O'Brien's new pitch seems pretty obvious: So far, so good.
Can the Nittany Lions remain competitive?
Depends what you mean by "competitive." I think it's safe to assume that we won't be seeing the Nittany Lions hanging around the Top 10 for most of the next half-decade, but my guess is that their level of play will be directly tied to the season in which they're playing--with the toughest years coming in 2013 and 2014. This season, at least, the Nittany Lions would seem (pending transfers) to field one of the better teams in the relatively weak Big Ten Leaders division; don't be surprised if the Nits manage a 9-win season here. Starting next year, though? Well, that's when things will get tough for O'Brien. While there may be a certain "us against the world" mentality holding the team together right now, one has to wonder how strong that feeling will be once the season is over. More transfers, it would seem, are highly likely, and with those scholarship reductions in place, O'Brien and his staff will be extremely limited in their ability to replace the guys who leave. In other words, the long and short of it is this: Penn State will actually be pretty decent to pretty good this year. Starting next year, well, it could get ugly, as Big Ten rivals Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and others capitalize on the Nittany Lions' troubles.
The easy answer to that question would be to say, "It all depends on recruiting." Which of course is completely true: Coaches win not with X's and O's, but with players. Early indications are that O'Brien has the mental makeup to take on this mammoth challenge, but I simply have my doubts that he will be able to consistently recruit well enough to keep Penn State out of the Big Ten basement starting in 2013. Beyond that, I have even greater doubts that he'll be able to hold that staff together--a staff that, quite frankly, includes several college coaching mercenaries. Some have said that Penn State will very likely soon be joining Indiana in the Big Ten basement, and I have to say, that seems to be not only likely but quite nearly inevitable. If I'm being completely honest, I can see things getting even worse than that: We could see a 1-win Penn State team in there, or a couple 2-win teams. The only guy standing between this once proud program and such on-the-field struggles is O'Brien. We'll see how he does.