Most programs can look to next season as their time to get back to the top. Penn State isn't most programs.
Despite strong showings in both years after unprecedented sanctions were handed down on the program, Penn State is still a step behind the nation's elite. To some, glory in today's game is defined by competing for and winning championships. The Nittany Lions can't do that right now because the NCAA said so.
From a win-loss perspective, you can argue that Penn State has defeated the sanctions to date. The team has won 15 of its 24 games since Bill O'Brien took over. Away from the numbers though, things still need to fall into place to ensure the program doesn't hit a roadblock before the penalties expire.
Keeping O'Brien Around for Now
For starters, the road back to glory for Penn State all hinges on what happens at the top.
There's some uneasiness amongst the fan base regarding O'Brien's future in State College. For the second consecutive year, he is the subject of rumors linking him to upcoming NFL head coaching vacancies. According to a tweet from the NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, there might even be mutual interest between O'Brien and the Houston Texans:
Last year, O'Brien squashed the rumors with a press conference. So far this offseason, there's been no similar announcement.
Granted, NFL franchises are in the infancy stages of their searches. But the fact of the matter is that the NFL is the pinnacle of the football world—something that O'Brien acknowledged in that very press conference:
Respect my profession. My profession is coaching, and in my profession, the National Football League is the highest level of coaching. You don't get any higher in coaching than the National Football League.
The threat of O'Brien leaving Penn State for the NFL is real. That quote, straight from O'Brien himself, is basically an indicator that it one day will happen.
For Penn State to one day compete for a Big Ten title, it's essential that O'Brien stays around for at least a few more seasons. Penn State is a more attractive job now than it was two years ago, but it will be even more attractive a short while down the road.
In two years from this very moment, Penn State will have recently played its last game under the postseason ban. With no further punishment and scholarship numbers back to full strength for 2016, the Penn State job would be as attractive as any in college football. Given the rich tradition, available facilities and now level playing field, the school should have no problem finding a high-quality head coach if O'Brien decides to leave.
Keeping O'Brien in State College—at the very least, until the sanctions play out—is the biggest issue that could arise during Penn State's ascent back to glory. Even a flirtation with the NFL could cause a stumble on it's trek back to the top.
Continuing the Solid Recruiting
That flirtation with the NFL could end up scaring a potential recruit. O'Brien and his staff dealt with rumors last year, yet still compiled an impressive group.
In a few months, O'Brien will solidify his second full class (he inherited the 2012 group). According to Scout.com, O'Brien assembled the 46th best recruiting class in 2013. So far in 2014, the site has Penn State ranked as the 26th best.
The sanctions imposed by the NCAA were supposedly going to cripple Penn State to the point where the school would be unattractive to top talent. As Josh Helmholdt pointed out back in July 2012, a lot of top recruits want the opportunity to win:
"Kids want to go to college to play in championship games and the postseason," Rivals.com Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt said. "Now that it's been taken off the table, it's just going to absolutely destroy Penn State's recruiting ability in the short term."
"...when you're talking about how kids view Penn State as a potential place to play football, not having a chance to play in the postseason for pretty much the duration or a large chunk of their career is going to be a huge, huge deterrent."
Those are all valid points. Just don't tell that to Christian Hackenberg, Thomas Holley and the other heralded prospects that have opted to become Nittany Lions in the past two years.
The ability of Penn State's staff to pull the kind of talent they have under the postseason ban is impressive. The solid recruiting the past two years has provided O'Brien with a foundation to build on.
What could really open the flood gates for even more talent would be the reinstatement of postseason play. The NCAA hasn't ruled it out, but for Penn State's next recruiting class it wont make much difference.
Right now, the Nittany Lions can't play in a bowl game until the 2016 season. The members of Penn State's 2015 recruiting class would only be ineligible for the postseason once. For those who get redshirted, they'll be able to play in four bowl games.
An O'Brien departure would hurt recruiting, but as long as he's here the talent needs to continue to be stockpiled. This is more possible now than ever, as a dwindling postseason ban increases the allure of Penn State even more.
A roster chock-full of good players would make Penn State's rise back to glory easier—whether that's with O'Brien or someone else.
While you can nitpick and say that Penn State needs to get better in pass coverage or recruit another offensive lineman, at the end of the day that's just what it is—nitpicking. For Penn State to return to glory, it needs to focus on issues that aren't necessarily X's and O's.
Every team has a different moment when one can say they're on the rise. In Penn State's situation, staying the course and overcoming the sanctions could spurn a more prosperous era of Nittany Lion football.
That new era could mean routinely contending for Big Ten championships. In this case, Penn State will have returned to glory.