Penn State escaped the so-called "death penalty" on Monday, meaning the NCAA isn't shutting the program down for at least one season as it did with Southern Methodist in 1987.
That's basically the full extent of the good news for Penn State, considering how severe the rest of the sanctions are; the combination of scholarship restrictions and the postseason ban alone make the school radioactive to recruits for years to come. But at the very least, the games will go on.
Or so we assume.
It's not necessarily wise to believe that the 65-scholarship cap on Penn State's roster means Penn State's going to have 65 scholarship players. As NCAA compliance blogger John Infante mused yesterday on Twitter, it's hardly a stretch to think that, under these circumstances, Penn State might not be able to put together a viable team.
We’re getting to the neighborhood of asking whether Penn State shuts down this year or next.— John Infante (@John_Infante) July 24, 2012
Subtract all the seniors. Figure quite a few transfers. Add in potential for academic/behavior issues in a bleak situation.— John Infante (@John_Infante) July 24, 2012
Throw in the difficulty of recruiting a new class, remembering that you won’t get virtually any transfers or JC guys.— John Infante (@John_Infante) July 24, 2012
If you get to the point where you can barely fill out a two-deep with scholarship players, is that even safe?— John Infante (@John_Infante) July 24, 2012
There is some precedent for this in NCAA history. Remember how SMU was out of college football for two years after the NCAA's death penalty? The NCAA only hit it with a one-year suspension. The effect that suspension had was bad enough that SMU simply withdrew from competition in 1988 as it worked to rebuild its program.
Will Penn State be able to stay on the field during its sanctions?
So let's say that grand exodus happens.
It hasn't yet—this is speculative—but with a hard cap at 15 scholarship players allowed to come in, what happens if Penn State loses, say, 40 scholarship players to graduation, transfer and academics after the 2012 season? It's completely plausible. At that point, PSU's at 60 scholarships, which is below even FCS levels of scholarship athletes (63 allowed in FCS).
What happens if 45 players leave? What about 50? Where's the line at which Penn State officials say the team simply can't function at a competitive level?
Worse yet, how long would it be before Penn State had the muscle to get back on the field?
It would almost certainly be at least a year after the scholarship sanctions ended, and at that point, we're talking about a minimum four-year suspension of the program. That is a long, long time to not have a football team and an absolute disaster for the school and the community.
The most frightening aspect of that scenario is that it's not a "death penalty," because that would imply that it was a punishment handed down. It'd be a decision on Penn State's part (we'll decline to use the term "suicide" for obvious reasons) in the face of the crippling sanctions, and reacting to those sanctions by shuttering the football program won't make said sanctions go away any time sooner.
So we see the stakes involved here.
Bill O'Brien has to keep the team as close to 65 players as possible over the next few years. Nothing less than Penn State's ability to even have a football team is at stake.