Penn State Football: How Should Bill O'Brien Define Success in 2014?

Tim TolleyContributor INovember 19, 2013

Nov 16, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions players sing the schools alma mater following the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Beaver Stadium.  Penn State defeated Purdue  45-21.  Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

They said it would get tougher. They said the worst was still to come. They said the scholarship limitations would deplete Penn State's depth to the point where it would struggle to be a mediocre team. 

Is 2013 the low point of the sanctions, or is Penn State still on the way down?

Heading into this year, most reasonable fans were predicting Penn State would win seven or eight games in 2013. However, it is easier to see that in August than it is to sit by and watch it happen. After 10 games, the Nittany Lions look on pace to get within a win or two of those very same predictions, yet fans have been left less than happy on multiple occasions.

There are some who think an offensive coordinator is necessary and another faction who believe a new defensive coordinator is the cure.

But what are you curing?

If, in August, you expected Penn State to win eight games and, in December, you are looking back on a seven-win season, isn't that just about what you expected? Factor in the injuries to players like Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Ben Kline and Matt Lehman and it's easy to justify the team performing even slightly below expectations.

Keep in mind that the team you're seeing this year is fielding right around 55 healthy scholarship players per week. Thirteen true freshmen have seen playing time thus far and the kickoff team is made up primarily of walk-on players.

In last week's win over Purdue, guys like Dad Poquie, Von Walker, Gregg Garrity and Albert Hall all saw snaps for the Nittany Lions. In no way is that a shot at their contributions (don't be surprised to see Garrity field another punt this week) but it's worth noting that Penn State is fielding walk-on freshmen on a regular basis. 

2014 will be different, but should fans expect it to be better?

Yes, Penn State has been awarded a reprieve on the scholarship reductions and is allowed to have 75 scholarship players next year, up from the 65 they limited themselves to this year. Yes, key freshman contributors like Christian Hackenberg and Nyeem Wartman will have a year of experience under their belts. And yes, the depth will be stronger with a full year of strength and conditioning for the walk-on freshmen that make up nearly 25 percent of the current roster.

Penn State Scholarship Future
Initial NumberTotal Roster Limit

However, seemingly everything Penn State stands to gain in depth, they could lose in experience. 

Gone in 2014 will be key leaders and players like John Urschel, DaQuan Jones and Glenn Carson. The soon-to-be two-time Big Ten wide receiver of the year, Allen Robinson, will also likely be leaving for the NFL.

Depth issues have created problems for Penn State, and replacing the players on the field won't be an easy task either.

In 2014, it's almost certain that another dozen or so true freshmen will see the field for the Nittany Lions.

Injuries will occur and Penn State will likely be playing with around 70 healthy scholarship athletes, against teams with 80-85 of their own. 

The scout teams ("Dirty Teams") will still primarily be made up of walk-ons and the freshmen not yet ready to see the field, hindering the starters' ability to properly prepare.

Many of the same problems this Penn State team is facing will come up again in 2014, so how do you measure success?

Bill O'Brien and his staff have done an excellent job off the field over the last two years. They're on their way to landing a second straight top-30 recruiting class and O'Brien, in particular, has done a phenomenal job of keeping Penn State relevant as the face of the university.

The current regime has changed the aura around Penn State in less than two years, and the coaching staff is bringing in skill players of a caliber that was once just out of reach in Happy Valley.

That involves a certain level of success in itself.

The 8-4 record in 2012 speaks for itself. This year Penn State has managed to win five of its six home games, including a thrilling 43-40 overtime victory over the hated Michigan Wolverines on homecoming weekend. The four losses in 2013 have come against teams with a combined record of 30-9.

Protecting home turf and beating the teams you're supposed to beat are both crucial elements of success.

But is that enough?

Regardless of what Penn State fans expected in 2013, it appears that they wanted more. Will this season work toward tempering expectations or is Nittany Lions' Nation going to come back expecting the pendulum to begin swinging back upward?

Will O'Brien's recruiting success be enough to keep fans engaged as he works through another year with an inexperienced roster?

These are all questions that we can revisit in a year but keep in mind that while the playing field isn't level, the results will also be slightly tilted. At this point, it's difficult to say when that field will level out, but it isn't going to be next year.