Penn State Football: Nittany Lions Face Long Odds on Return to Top Bowl Games

Joseph SchmidtContributor IIIDecember 18, 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

In 2013, the Penn State Nittany Lions will be about two years removed from the Jerry Sandusky scandal that left a town and nation reeling, and though the Lions ended the 2012 season with a record of 8-4, they still have much work ahead before they can return to the level of prominence they found in the "JoePa era."

Penn State’s athletic department, coaching staff, players and recruits have all suffered due to the stigma and the sanctions that have hit the school, leaving the entire football program reeling. Coach Bill O'Brien worked hard to keep his team on track for a successful year.

But the pride of a winning season does not compare to that of winning a bowl game, and it won't for at least three more years.

They won’t have the same pride of playing for a near-impeccable program like they would had the Sandusky situation been handled differently, with all of those wins stricken from the record books. That pride was tainted when it was revealed that university officials knowingly polluted the investigation into Jerry Sandusky’s crimes.

These are intangible pillars that will not recover any time soon, and Penn State’s status as a prestigious football program is essentially irreparable for at least the next decade. It’s what caused the best players to transfer, sending running back Silas Redd to USC, receiver Justin Brown to Oklahoma, tight end Kevin Haplea to Florida State and punter Anthony Fera to Texas.

Some argued that O’Brien could pull it together, that he could inspire his committed players to a winning season, get some good recruits, and build a better Penn State. Though the Lions did have a good season, they found trouble turning that success into recruiting momentum. After difficulty filling vital holes on their roster, junior college transfer Jake Waters chose Kansas State over Penn State, though the Lions finally rebounded when they nabbed Tyler Ferguson from Houston.

But Waters' words were all too clear when he made his choice, telling The Patriot-News, "something just clicked and in my gut I knew where I was supposed to be."

Recruitment classes and the community investment were what made Penn State a viable contender year after year. But the long journey back to prominence will be even longer with sanctions and bans looming over the Lions’ heads.

The Lions won’t have the opportunity to see the postseason until 2016, while 20 scholarships will be cut throughout that time as well. On top of the $60 million fine, these are crippling punishments that fall just shy of a death penalty.

Penn State football might never recover from the damage, mirroring a community that’s been left to pick up the pieces. The road back to a top bowl game will be tough and arduous. But with the same tenacity that made Penn State a fierce contender over the decades, the Nittany Lions might yet find themselves playing meaningful postseason games again in the not-too-distant future.

But they cannot slouch on the road to rebuilding. These four years will be as vital as any, and unless they maintain recruits and continue to inspire the community, they will find their self-imposed sanctions lasting much longer than the NCAA’s.