The Big Ten is lacking in feel-good stories these days, but one of the few bright spots is undoubtedly the job Bill O'Brien is doing at Penn State. Far from falling off the map as many feared coming into the season, Penn State is making a serious push at a winning season. And if that keeps up, O'Brien is on a very short list for Big Ten Coach of the Year candidates.
That's all fine and good, but as the Starks say in Game of Thrones, "winter is coming." And that's a winter where weird zombie things come out of the snow and eat you, so it's not all hot cocoa by the fireplace coming for Winterfell or Penn State football.
The 65-scholarship limit will be in place next season, as will Penn State's 15-scholarship limit per year in recruiting. The postseason ban will continue, of course, and perhaps the worst aspect of the sanctions is that players will have the entire offseason to transfer away from Penn State without the standard one-year penalty.
But what does this actually mean for Penn State? Are the coming days that much darker than what O'Brien's got going on?
The surprising truth is, it doesn't look like Penn State's in for much rougher seas than what it's already dealing with now—and O'Brien's dealing with plenty as it stands.
Obviously, the biggest aspect of Penn State's future is how many players leave early given the open window from essentially this Thanksgiving to next Labor Day. That's a long time for a big-name school to swoop in and charm the shoulder pads off a Penn State player, no questions asked from the NCAA.
There isn't a whole lot of reason to expect that to happen, though.
The biggest selling points opposing teams had for a transfer last offseason were uncertainty as to what the future held for the program (if not outright predictions of Penn State's inability to compete on the football field) and the opportunity to play for a better program. And sure enough, quite a few players bit on those selling points last year.
But a lot more players didn't, and that's when those points carried more weight. We know now that Penn State can compete under the scholarship limit that the NCAA will impose. Yes, the hard cap of 65 doesn't come into play until next season. But Penn State's already operating at 67 or 68 right now, and it's still over .500.
Here's an unofficial breakdown of the Penn State scholarship situation by class. As we understand it, there are some slight inaccuracies herein, but the bottom line is that Penn State is close enough to 65 that once that hard cap hits, there won't be a discernible difference in the amount of players Penn State has available.
Moreover, the vast majority of Penn State players have heard the pitches from programs interested in their services, and they've already turned them down once. What would there be about a likely winning season here in year one of sanctions that would make once-committed Penn State players say, "You know what, I'm out"?
There's also the effect of graduation. There, Penn State can't avoid some major hits.
Matt McGloin has surprisingly matured into one the conference's better quarterbacks after two years of inconsistent-at-best play under center. He'll be missed, as will transfers Rob Bolden and Paul Jones. Hey, if O'Brien can make McGloin into a solid passer in one season, imagine what he could have done with Bolden in two.
Losing linebackers Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges will be extremely tough as well. Those two, along with fellow senior Jordan Hill (a DT), have been the heart and soul of a Penn State defense that has played through thin depth and occasional injury concerns and still ended up in the top five in the Big Ten in all major defensive categories—quite an accomplishment in a conference loaded with defensive talent.
In fact, the effort of the Penn State defense is a major reason why the Nittany Lions are plus-8 in turnover margin. And if that's making you say, "uh oh," it probably should, because it's one of the biggest and least sustainable factors in college football success year to year.
There's a very good chance Penn State will have to work a worse turnover margin next year, particularly since the quarterback race will likely be between unheralded sophomore Steven Bench and the crown jewel of the 2013 recruiting class, 5-star freshman-to-be Christian Hackenberg.
In fact, the only way it's not between those two is if Hackenberg decommits, and the odds of that happening are slim and growing slimmer with each successive Penn State win. Count on him being in Happy Valley next year.
All said, these aren't problems that are unique to Penn State. Replacing defensive leaders and working through a less-than-ideal quarterback situation are things that every program deals with at least once every four years—and usually more.
And hey, if Penn State's still facing "normal team problems" at 65 scholarships, everything's probably going to be more or less okay.
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