On Saturday, Penn State will open the 2012 season, a year that can best be summed up in one word: Change.
By now, we know about the most basic of changes. Joe Paterno's long storied career ended in controversy, leaving Bill O'Brien to step in for his first head coaching job. For the first time in program history, the football team will be banned from postseason play. Names will be placed on the back of the jerseys.
Yes, after some dark times, change has given Penn State a new look. With so much ripped from Penn State's football program by the NCAA—112 wins, bowl victories, scholarships—what is most notably missing is a sense of optimism. Still sifting through the figurative rubble left behind by the Jerry Sandusky Scandal Demolition Crew, Penn State's community continues to be fractured and in search of answers from their school's leadership. Alums with Penn State degrees want to do what they can to help their once proud university remain prominent in athletics, in addition to academics.
Many battles still lay ahead for Penn State, with trials still looming and details surely still to come on the university's inner workings in response to Sandusky's crimes and beyond. But starting Saturday, anyone who chooses to wear their blue and white proudly will be given four hours to escape the cruel real world once a week for the next three months.
Success for Penn State cannot be measured in wins, with bowl trips ruled out for the next four years. But the 2012 season still remains important for the future success of the program. That is because the success of this season could determine just what the rest of the NCAA sentence, and beyond, will be like for O'Brien.
Whatever the measure of success is for Penn State, be it wins or the ability to come together as a team on and off the field through adversity, it will be critical to use it to convince current players and potential recruits to stick with the program. Remember, every year that goes by is one year closer to the light at the end of the sanction tunnel. While scholarships will be reduced, O'Brien's sales pitch will still gain a selling point every year. But it starts now with keeping players from pursuing any transfers after this season, and thus taking advantage of one more year of the NCAA lifting transfer rules for a free transfer.
It's not going to be easy. This will be the biggest challenge Penn State's football program, and university, has ever faced. But the leadership in O'Brien will steer everybody in the right direction if his words this offseason are any indication.
Winning games may not ultimately matter, but they will help in making things better for everyone tied to the program.
Kevin McGuire is the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast, managing editor of Nittany Lions Den and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.