It all started to so badly for Bill O'Brien at Penn State.
There were the crushing and mostly unexpected sanctions that the NCAA handed out in July. There were the player transfers that saw some of the Nittany Lions' best players jump ship. There was the season opener against Ohio, one in which the Nittany Lions were outplayed by the underrated Bobcats, and there was the absolutely heartbreaking Week 2 loss to Virginia, a game that saw kicker Sam Ficken miss four field goals, including the potential game winner.
It was mid-September, the Nittany Lions were 0-2, and with the sanctions hanging overhead, many began to wonder just how bad it would get for Penn State, and for O'Brien.
Then something incredible happened: Penn State, and O'Brien, battled back.
In one of the most remarkable turnarounds we've ever seen in college football, O'Brien took that battered, bruised, emotionally spent team and did nothing less than work a miracle. The Nittany Lions would go on to win eight of their next 10 games, including a stirring late-season win over Wisconsin, to finish the year with an 8-4 record that few would have considered possible in the wake of the Virginia loss. For his efforts, O'Brien won kudos from coast to coast, picked up a few coach-of-the-year honors and was wooed by a few NFL franchises. In the end, though, he decided to stay in Happy Valley.
The question, of course, is what happens next. We attempt to answer that here, in Part IV of our season preview edition of College Football Questions & Answers.
OK, so, now what?
Yeah, that's the big question, isn't it? Despite all of the challenges thrown his way in 2012, O'Brien managed to put together a pretty remarkable first season in Happy Valley. And he fully deserves all of the kudos he's received; there were dozens of teams that were better than the Nittany Lions last season, but there weren't many who were better coached. Clearly, O'Brien knows what he's doing, and not just with his X's and O's, either. He took a beaten-down bunch of players and convinced them that, yes, they were good enough--and given the situation the Nits found themselves after the Virginia game, that's no small feat. In other words, yeah, we all agree that O'Brien did a fantastic job in 2012. We all agree that his Nittany Lions overachieved. We all agree that the guy has proven himself under the toughest of circumstances. But here's the thing: 2012 is over, and in many ways, the worst is yet to come for both O'Brien and the Nits. With the departure of such key players as quarterback Matt McGloin and linebackers Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, the Nits have a lot of holes to fill and, because of those ridiculous NCAA sanctions, there isn't going to be an easy way to fill them. This will be a problem that O'Brien will be facing for the next several years, and I suspect that we'll start to see those scholarship limits take their toll starting next season.
What's the best-case scenario?
Simple: O'Brien and his staff fill every one of their meager scholarship slots with a player that they actually want. Those players stay healthy and live up to their potential. And every other key player in the program manages to avoid injury and continue to get better and better. The Nittany Lions catch a few breaks on the field, the fans stay behind them, O'Brien uses his X's and O's to overcome his lack of Jimmys and Joes, and Penn State manages, against all odds, to remain competitive in the Big Ten. If all of that happens, Penn State just might get through these probation years without falling off the cliff; they could be a consistent 7-5 to 9-3 team.
But how likely is that?
Honestly, it's impossible to say, but let's go ahead and assume that every element of the "best case scenario" described above will not come to fruition. Let's go ahead and assume that O'Brien ends up taking a couple 'tweeners in recruiting, simply because he can't sell some of these kids on coming to a probation-strapped program. Let's go ahead and assume that not all of O'Brien's supposed "star" recruits will pan out, and let's go ahead and assume, too, that injuries will take their toll. No matter how hard O'Brien and his staff works, the simple reality is that the NCAA has essentially mandated that Penn State will be playing football for the next several seasons with a ridiculously shallow depth chart. In other words, O'Brien and Penn State will simply have no room for error. Every recruiting "mistake" will be amplified, as will every injury, as will every suspension. The task he faces in monumental, and Penn State fans would be wise to remember what O'Brien is up against. I do think O'Brien is the right man for this very tough job, and I do think he's got the skills and personality to help guide the program through these next few challenging years. But it won't always be easy, and Penn State won't always get the breaks. There may be more good times, but there will be bad times, too. A sub-.500 season seems likely, and perhaps more than one. Prepare yourself, Nittany Nation. Because it only gets tougher from here.