Penn State Football: Surprising Season Proves Program Can Survive NCAA Sanctions

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA - OCTOBER 27: Head coach Bill O'Brien of the Penn State Nittany Lions leads his team onto the field before playing the Ohio State Buckeyes at Beaver Stadium on October 27, 2012 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Seemingly left for dead by the NCAA sanctions in wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the Penn State Nittany Lions are college football's most surprising team, as they are 6-3 coming into Week 11's contest against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Speaking in strict storyline terms, there is a never-ending stream of them in Happy Valley. You could start with Bill O'Brien, who should be at or near the top of everyone's Coach of the Year ballot. Or Matt McGloin, the oft-derided senior quarterback who has become the Big Ten's leading passer under O'Brien's stewardship.

Or you could even credit the Penn State community, which is still as feverishly crazed as any fanbase in the nation, but now has the ability to put the football in perspective. 

However, the true cherry on top of this all-good sundae in State College is that all of the aforementioned things combine to prove that the program will be able to survive under its debilitating NCAA sanctions.

Coming into the season, not even the most strident Penn State supporters thought that would be the case. 

This was always expected (and is still expected to be) the "worst" of everything. From stars like Justin Brown and Silas Redd leaving to the raw emotion of a university rocked to its core by one of the most heinous scandals in sports history, everything pointed to failure in 2012 for the Lions.

Even the first two games, where the team lost to Ohio and Virginia, spoke to that impending doom. It wasn't just that Penn State lost; it was that it felt inevitable that this team would lose no matter what.

Remember, is not a program on par with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide, where the Lions can just reload with 5-star talent every season. That has almost never been the case in Happy Valley, but was especially true in the final years of the Joe Paterno era.

It was a program that was stuck on the languishing on the fringes of actual competition, where some form of 8-4 and an Outback Bowl appearance was always lingering around the corner.

Again, let's also remember that O'Brien was not the first choice in State College, nor was he an especially popular one when chosen. Though the link to Bill Belichick gave him some clout, you don't have to throw a stone very far to hit a coach who has fallen flat on his face after leaving the warm comfort of the Hoodie. 

However, O'Brien stuck around amid hellacious circumstances and embraced his rebuilding project. He rebuilt McGloin from one of the Big Ten's worst quarterbacks in 2011 and helped him have one of the best seasons at the position in school history.

And with a 4-1 record in the conference, the Lions are back to where they seem to always be—somewhere between the second and fourth-best team in the Big Ten, depending on the day. 

Let's not mince words here, though. The Big Ten is the second-worst AQ conference in the nation, with only the Big East being worse. 

If there was ever a season to ride out a seemingly debilitating storm, it was this one. Just ask the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes, who were also hit by the NCAA's bowl ban hammer this season.

However, it means more than that in State College. Three seasons remain before the Lions can even think about bowl eligibility again. But led by O'Brien and McGloin, the 2012 Penn State football team has given hope that maybe, just maybe, there is light at the end of his embarrassingly dark tunnel.